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VINE VOICEon October 15, 2016
This review is based on the version given to Amazon Prime members. Frankly, I enjoyed the sounds and shakiness of the old film; I'm sure the Criterion version is much better from a technical point of view, but the strength of this plot, the acting of the main characters, and the incredible mix of two basic Hitchcock plot lines -- usually one or the other but not both in the same film -- made me love this version.

The two plot lines are well described by Robert Towne, the screen writer of "Chinatown":" most ‘pure’ movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock, are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged." In this marvelous movie, Hitchcock combines both. (Compare this movie and Hitchcock's remake "North by Northwest" with "Psycho", a straight anxiety purged plot line.)

In any event, I'll probably rent the Criterion version just to compare the two; in the meantime, I'll take a star off for the technical issues that have survived in this version.

Robert C. Ross
October 2016
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on May 8, 2017
Criterion does it again with this crystal clear black and white Hitchcock film. Many of the themes explored here has become a trademark of later Hitchcock pictures. Robert Donat plays an innocent bystander trapped in a game of cat and mouse with international spies
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on July 20, 2008
This tremendously entertaining spy film from director Alfred Hitchcock's British period set the standard for all man-on-the-run films. Based on John Buchan's novel of an innocent Canadian tourist in Britain thrust unexpectedly into the world of spies, it's hard to find a better one than this.

Robert Donat is the Canadian, Richard Hanney, who gets more than he's bargained for when a woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) in fear for her life is killed in his flat after revealing to Hanney that she is a Secret Agent protecting the secrets of her country from a dangerous network of spies known only as the 39 Steps.

With a murder charge hanging over his head he must heed her words and make his way to Scotland and get to the bottom of the 39 Steps in order to clear his name. But when a misguided guess leads him right into the hands of the dangerous head of the network, Professor Gordon (Godfrey Tearle), the hunter now becomes the hunted.

He is helped along the way by a few kind souls who believe in his innocence. Peggy Ashcroft is memorable as a lonely farmer's wife who risks everything to help him escape. A kiss given by Hanney for her kindness is a poignant moment in a film both enjoyable and exciting. When he and a much more reluctant young woman named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) are hancuffed together there is a shift in the film's tone as romance enters into the story.

The classy Carroll was a perfect match for Donat and the back and forth between the two is still enjoyable today. Sneaking off into the night while he is sleeping she overhears the men after him and comes back to help him, finally believing his colorful story of murder and spies. A tune stuck in Hanney's head will finally lead him to the "Memory Man" and a grand finale.

This is most definitely a film classic. Another good screenplay from Charles Bennet and good work from photographer Bernard Knowles, who always made the most of the sometimes meager budgets given he and Hitchcock in Britain, enhance a story with both tension and a dash of romance. Other than the Criterion Collection DVD, prints are less than grandiose but still watchable. The MGM video version is quite excellent. A must see film.
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on September 28, 2017
Interesting
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VINE VOICEon February 2, 2002
I have seen the Laserlight version. While I found it to be fairly acceptable considering the low cost, if you are a Hitchcock fan Criterion is the only way to go. The Criterion presentation is hard to fault; considering the age of the film, the image is clear and the sound is always intelligible. Plus I believe the Laserlight version is missing a few minutes, running about 83 minutes as opposed to the 86 minute Criterion.
The movie, after all these decades, remains very entertaining. The humor, particularly, holds up surprisingly well. This is in large part to a fantastic performance by Robert Donat. Much has been said about the movie, so rather than reiterate a similar appraisal I'll move on to discuss more reasons why the Criterion version is superior (besides the great picture and audio).
There are four main supplements included. The two best are actually vintage pieces, which is somewhat surprising for a 1935 film. The 1937 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast is presented in its entirety, including a commercial break and interview with a retired U.S. spy. This radio adaptation is very entertaining, and also interesting in the ways it compromises for the lack of picture. It runs for just shy of a full hour. Criterion was thoughtful enough to include a handful of still photos of the cast members that occasionally show up on-screen as the radio show plays.
The second most interesting piece is a text-based feature, and one of the best of its kind that I've seen. The original pressbook is presented page-by-page. This in itself is useful if you're at all interested in the evolution of movie promotion, as this pressbook is sort of like a newspaper- very different from the pressbooks of today. What makes this a great feature is the ability to highlight and enlarge much of the content on each page; you can get a better look at the vintage photos, as well as read the full text of many articles about the film's stars, about Hitchcock, and many anecdotes about the making of the film.
Marian Keene, a Hitchcock scholar, provides audio commentary for the length of the feature. It's not the greatest commentary of all time, but it's very worthwhile. She talks in detail about the compositions of the shots, explaining why the film was visually groundbreaking for its time. She also seems to find phallic symbols in most of the scenes. The downside of her commentary is a tendancy to merely tell us what we're already looking at, or what we're about to look at. But regardless, I felt my appreciation of the movie was increased after listening.
The least useful of the main supplements is an approximately 30 minute documentary that originally aired on TV in the '70s. Basically it consists of film clips from a variety of late 20s and early 30s Hitchcock film, mixed with a few still photos, and narrated by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. If you keep in mind that there was no home video in the 1970s, it is easy to see why this program would be valuable for its time. Most of the public had no way of seeing these old films. But now that they are widely available, it makes more sense to just watch the films themselves. In fact, this documentary will spoil the films if you haven't already seen them- many important plot points and twists are revealed. Still, its a passable overview of Hitchcock's early career.
Lastly, there are a handful of stills featuring original production art. These is actually more valuable than the documentary, since they pertain directly to "The 39 Steps."
Criterion really did a great job with this release. If you're serious about collecting Hitchcock on DVD, spring for this version. If you just want to see the movie without dropping thirty bucks, the Laserlight disc isn't the worst thing out there (plus its got one of those great Tony Curtis intros! I'm not kidding, those intros are the best thing about the bargain-basement Laserlight series.)
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on March 7, 2016
Hickcock! What else needs to be said. One of his better early films. I love the Scottish highlands. His use of them as a background was stunning. I especially love his use of the Forth Bridge (beautiful masterpiece of early engineering that is and a history lesson in and of itself). What is the 39 steps? You'll have to watch and see. Nice that it is free watching with prime also!
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on January 19, 2015
Truly a cherished film. This without doubt presents the clearest, best restored version of the 1935 film. There is an excellent running commentary by a film/Hitchcock scholar that adds a real value to the purchase. The performances are inimitable, and this is one of a handful of films I still want to watch for its combination of story, atmosphere, charm and suspense.
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on April 28, 2017
Fantastic!
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In the medium of motion pictures there was no peer to Hitchcock. There are and were greater artists of greater depth but there are and have been no challengers to the Master's touch at telling a suspenseful story. This early 'every man in peril' tale seals the deal and demonstrates most graphically Hitchcock's command of the art of entertaining. Say what you will about his hidden meanings or depth of psychological intent (and I don't really think there was any) what Hitchcock did in directing John Wayne did in acting. They both knew their audience and never let them down (Okay...maybe...just maybe...but it's debatable). That's why his career stretched to fifty years and he found favor til the end. I like this one in particular because it works on several levels at once and the audience knows it and yet can't wait to ride it out. Just a great great movie and every bit as entertaining as it was when released. I have no doubt whatsoever that Hitch is redoing his films in heaven for an equally appreciative audience! (and saving a seat for Miss Hedren...as only a gentleman would)
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on February 12, 2014
The content is 5+ stars. This movie is Hitchcock's breakthrough film where he proved to the world who he was. It's an action/adventure/mystery with plenty of chasing, fighting and special effects but it's all about the story, characters and plot unlike today's movies. Eighty years later it still ranks among the best 86 minutes of cinema ever made.

It's fast paced and has surprisingly good character interaction and relationship development. At about 30 minutes in (depending on which version you're watching) there is a love triangle side-story with a Scottish farmer's wife that ends with a parting kiss and display of emotion on her face that would get an Academy award today. Right after that there's a super high tech special effect (for its day) where a prototype Sikorsky-type helicopter is shown. The first successful helicopter flight had not yet taken place in 1935. And even though you can see an airplane propeller on the front, it's cutting edge stuff. Hitchcock was not only master of suspense but was the Lucas/Spielberg of his day.

The Criterion version is the best. But the HD and SD streaming purchase prices are crazy overpriced and unjustified. I paid for and watched the HD streaming rental just to see if it is any different than the $1 DVD version I own. It's not. It's better than the version available on my Prime account but I won't be purchasing the streaming version in any format -- unless by some miracle someone puts subtitles on this ancient British classic movie that is partly set in Scotland. Darn if I can understand 1935 Scottish accents!
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