I was fairly sure when I sat down with Netflix this evening that I’d already seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and that I could just rewatch it casually while I ate dinner. As it turns out however, presumably after years and years of missing the beginning whenever it’s shown on TV, I’ve actually only ever seen the second half. And oh my God what magnificence I’ve been missing!
It’s so good. Fuck in-depth film criticism: it’s just so good.
And the best thing about it is, of course, Robert Donat. He seduces his way across the Highlands in a big sexy coat; casually jumps out of trains and into box-beds; languidly threatens his
bondage partner reluctant companion with an imaginary gun; then proceeds to nonchalantly eat a sandwich while getting a good feel of her legs; and is just unbearably attractive and suave and covered in tweed.
I have the exact same story about 39 Steps. I was certain I’d seen it before and maybe I had, but I hadn’t really SEEN it through the eyes of a Robert Donat fan. After watching Good-bye Mr. Chips, I sought this movie out again and I was blown away by it. It was just so sexy and really romantic, actually. So much of this down to Donat and how he embodies the ideal male that Hitchcock wanted on screen. He was a bit rebellious, a bit rude, but also completely desirable. One of things I’ve always appreciated about Hitch, is that he really understood female desire as well as he understood male desire. Watch Spellbound. It’s all about a woman looking at a man and liking what she sees. And this movie is about a woman who has made a prejudicial decision against the hero being forced by circumstance into a grudging admission that he is just ducky. The audience though, never has that prejudice. We see him with the mysterious woman, and see that, even though he is clearly pretty chuffed to be bringing this mystery woman home for no-strings attached sex, he still tries to do right by her, by making her a slap-up meal with his haddock. That is what women want really: hot sex and a free dinner. And he isn’t arrogant or pushy, he’s just nice. After he realizes that she’s on the run, he doesn’t press his advantage. He’s a gentleman.
Fast forward to the Margaret episodes which really show us Hannay’s mettle. He is forced by circumstances to use Margaret a bit, but it is clear that he feels bad about it. He’s put her in danger, but she feels it’s worth it. It takes a tremendous amount of charm to pull that off and not come off as a complete arrogant jack ass.
And of course the real set-piece in the film is the crazy handcuff adventure with Madelaine Carroll. Hitchcock knew what he was about with this turning the idea of a “ball and chain” into a wierdly positive thing. Instead of being a burden, the pair have to learn to work together and fall in love in the process. And I love that he wasn’t shy about the kinky overtones of it. Hitchcock used the technique to break the ice between Donat and Carroll. It certainly worked and the results are on screen. There was a definite chemistry there, that might not have been otherwise.
It’s so sad that fate never allowed Hitchcock to work with Donat again. He would have done so wonderfully well in further Hitchcock films, like Sabotage which he was slated to do. But I’m eternally grateful that we at least have this one great example of what Donat could do with this kind of character.
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