Alfred Hitchcock had been working as a director for more than a decade when he made "The 39 Steps" (1935), which he filled with trench coats, street lamps, and foreign agents–along with English wit, a marriage plot, and a MacGuffin: the first proof, long before his later masterworks, that he was a maestro of the unbalancing act.
He'd already produced laudable efforts like "The Lodger" (1927), "Blackmail" (1929), and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), all of which contain a kind of audacious, public danger — especially the latter, whose climax in the Royal Albert Hall was so good he used it again in the 1956 remake. But never before "The 39 Steps" had he achieved such amazing economy, each frame of the central caper barbed with humor, such as the dining car waiter who successfully dodges in an out of the aisle as our hero flees his pursuers. Or this brief exchange, after the music hall gunshots and subsequent murder that set the plot in motion, between protagonist Richard Hannay (a dashing Robert Donat) and a milkman:
Hannay: You married?
Milkman: Yeah, but don't rub it in.
Sharp lines, and in "The 39 Steps" they're plot points, too. Hannay, trying to engineer the first of innumerable escapes by getting the milkman to give him his uniform, starts off by telling the truth — he's out to stop a foreign agent from smuggling military secrets out of the country. Unsurprisingly, the milkman's incredulous. It's his clear disdain for his wife that opens the door to Hannay's second story, about an illicit affair, and the milkman approves.
We're off to the races: "The 39 Steps" is a film so full of hairpin reversals it'd give you whiplash if it weren't so much damn fun. Sometimes this calls for restraint — the way the camera remains on Donat for a searching moment, as he listens in on the attendees at a Scottish country party discuss the murder for which he's been wrongly accused. Sometimes this calls for the absurd, as when Hannay stumbles into a political meeting and gets dragged on stage, only to give a brilliant, funny, rousing speech. He wants a world "where everyone gets a square deal and a sporting chance," he says, and in that moment you can feel him, and by extension Hitchcock, find his voice.
More than anything, "The 39 Steps" is about performance — people who play roles to the hilt, as politicians and cops, married couples and secret agents, barons and baddies. Just because Hitchcock uses a lighter touch than some of his great mysteries doesn't make "The 39 Steps" less smart, and canny, and even a little brave. Of course they'll end up back on stage, where even the denouement can't stop the show from going on, with a chorus line of leggy girls. After all, it's a dangerous business.As Hitchcock himself admitted, we're not meant to care about the titular secret of "The 39 Steps" — the pleasure's not in the details of why, but how. Too few makers of modern capers heed this warning, pausing so often to explain some obscure element of backstory that it's a wonder more of them don't go in for historical epics and literary adaptations. Not so for Tony Gilroy, whose 2009 film "Duplicity" is perhaps the genre's best recent entry: as soon as we learn the whole deal is one big MacGuffin, a contest over the formula for a baldness cure, we're free to enjoy it for what it is, a witty and well-built adult comedy.
Like Hitchock's cameos, Gilroy may be poking a bit of fun at himself here — he wrote each of the three prior "Bourne" films, and he co-wrote and directed the forthcoming franchise reboot. But his eye for pacing, honed on the genre's more serious (and high-quality) end, stands him in good stead in "Duplicity." Aided by funny, sharp-tongued performances from Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as romantic and clandestine antagonists, the film's structure, moving back and forth in time, manages to hide the truth in the side pocket of the story. In its pleasantly off-kilter hybrid of narrative discovery and romantic comedy, "Duplicity" is a worthy descendant of "The 39 Steps," squeezing more out of both by weaving them together so effectively.
The best example comes late in the film, as an executive at one of the two warring conglomerates (Tom McCarthy) rages, blindfolded, against an empty conference room. Roberts' character hits every imaginable roadblock in her attempt to steal the baldness formula, but every time the scene achieves a kind of tension, Gilroy cuts back to McCarthy's (self-) destruction. It displays exactly the understanding of restraint and absurdity that marks "The 39 Steps," and if Gilroy needs an entire sequence to match what Hitchcock does in a single frame, it's still a ringer: a dangerous business, indeed, but if you can pull it off, a lucrative one.
"The 39 Steps" is available today in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection. "Duplicity" is available on DVD from Netflix, and on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.