For the 20th post, I wanted to try something a little different. I’ve compared a lot of films already, and I’ve had the same director in different posts before, but I’ve never compared a director to themselves. So with that in mind, today’s films are:
Alfred Hitchcock – The 39 Steps (1935)
Alfred Hitchcock – Vertigo (1958)
Both films are considered Hitchcock classics. The 39 Steps is from his career in England. Eventually, he’d move to making films in the Hollywood system, and Vertigo is from that later era.
The 39 Steps is well-remembered as one of Hitchcock’s early classics, but of course, Vertigo currently holds the title of Greatest Film of All-Time. This title is bestowed by Sight and Sound magazine, which polls hundreds of filmmakers, critics, and scholars in order to select their list. The list is only published once every 10 years. Because of the exclusivity, careful curation, and rarity, it is generally accepted as the final word on the Greatest Film of All-Time. For decades, the number 1 film was Citizen Kane. However, when the list was last published, Vertigo claimed the top position.
So let’s get into it.
The 39 Steps (1935)
The 39 Steps is a classic wrong man mystery in the Hitchcock tradition. A man named Hannay is approached by a mysterious woman who asks for shelter. He agrees, and is suddenly caught up in a spy drama, trying to protect British air force secrets from a rival spy attempting to take them out of the country. Complicating matters, the woman who he met is murdered in his apartment, and the police believe he is the culprit. He must go on the run to try and save the secrets and clear his name.
Hitchcock very famously had a fear of the police, and it pours out in this film. Hannay can’t trust anyone. If he tries to tell anyone the truth of his situation, he’s at best laughed at, and at worst arrested. Of course, he starts out laughing himself.
After meeting the woman at a performance of a memory expert, a minor brawl starts with the rowdy crowd, and shots ring out. The crowd runs for the exits. As Hannay leaves, a woman approaches him asking for shelter until the crowd dies down. He agrees and invites her to his apartment nearby.
At the apartment, she is careful to not be seen from the windows, asking him to keep the lights off and standing directly against the wall, bemoaning the lack of curtains. Hannay brings her to the kitchen which has curtains and she begins to talk. She tells him that she’s a spy for hire, currently working for the British government. She’s tracking some stolen Air Force intelligence about a new type of plane that is about to leave the country. She tells him the boss of the group is missing most of his pinky finger on his right hand, and that her next step is to visit a professor in Scotland. She tells him to look out the window, and he sees two men waiting patiently on the street. It’s clear they’re up to no good.
With this information, he goes to sleep, until she enters his room, holding out a piece of paper, telling him to clear out or he’ll be next. She falls over dead. He takes the paper, and it’s a map of Scotland with a small village circled. The phone rings. He looks out the window and sees the two men from before at the phone booth. Why they’re calling, he can’t be sure, but it’s clear he needs to get out.
He manages to get out with the help of a milkman, and we see the first instance of what will be a running theme: no one believing him. He asks the milkman for his coat and hat as a disguise, explaining the real situation. The milkman doesn’t believe him, but when he lies and says the two men are the husband and brother of the woman he’s been upstairs seeing, the milkman is happy to help.
Hannay makes it to a train to Scotland, where he discovers that the news is traveling faster than he can. Seeing his picture in the paper, naming him a murderer, he is spotted and chased by police, barely managing to escape. He continues to run, finding a small farm house with a suspicious farmer and his kind wife. The farmer attempts to betray him, but the wife warns him, and he gets away again, finally making it to the professors home, the law on his heels.
He eagerly tells the professor everything he knows, assuming he is an ally. But as he is trying to remember which finger the enemy was missing, the professor holds up his hand, revealing his missing pinky. It’s a perfectly done moment and quite surprising. Hitchcock manages it through the initial conversation Hannay has with the spy. We get all the information that sets up our expectations there. The professor the spy needs to see and the man with the missing finger aren’t connected in anyway in that discussion. And by the time Hannay arrives at the professor’s home, he’s been through so many trials, we must imagine that he’s reached a safe haven. The professor even invites him in, and shields him from the police. A setup and payoff like that are a perfect case for Hitchcock as a master of the thriller genre.
Hannay is shot, but saved by a small hymn book in the breast pocket of a coat he had stolen from the farmers home, and gets away off screen. This is a bit of a plot hole in the film, and maybe even a missed opportunity. But it generally works for pacing. We’ve been on the edge constantly for the last 20-30 minutes of screentime, and any good filmmaker knows that you have to break that tension.
Hitchcock does it here after Hannay is shot by cutting to the farmer who is looking for his hymn book, then cutting to another police officer who is holding the book and laughing. Hannay is there, and relaying his story. In a strange turn, the police officer seems to be on his side. But suddenly, the room is filled with officers, and we learn that the officer has just been playing along to keep Hannay from running.
This film is a textbook case on Hitchcock’s fear of police. There isn’t a single authority figure in the entire film that can be trusted. Even when they appear to be trustworthy and on your side, they are secretly waiting to betray you.
This trend continues as Hannay manages to get away and blend into a crowd before ducking into a theater. A very funny scene appears here where Hannay is mistaken for the special guest, who is expected to give a speech. He plays along, getting the crowd riled up before submitting to the police who have surrounded him.
Here he meets Pamela, a woman who will be his companion for the rest of the film. The police ask her to come with them to formally identify Hannay and she feels she must comply. However, they soon realize that they’re not safe as the officers first say they must take them to a distant police station, and then begin taking wrong turns again.
During a quick stop, Hannay manages to get away, but not before the officers handcuff him to Pamela. He drags her along with him as he escapes, while she objects. She believes him to be a dangerous murderer until she accidentally overhears the two men chasing them on the phone at the inn they are hiding at. She hears them confirm Hannay’s entire story, and now she’s willing to help.
Throughout the film, Hannay has faced several problems, but for the final section of the film, we deal with the fact that he doesn’t know exactly how or where the information will be leaving the country. In this final section, all of that is solved, in a pretty fair reveal of the mystery. It’s very possible that the audience could have figured it out before Hitchcock revealed it, but not certain, which is a good sign for a mystery. I won’t spoil the reveal, though.
This film is remembered as one of the best of Hitchcock’s early career in England. Perhaps only The Lady Vanishes is held up as better. It certainly is a great example of the Hitchcock style, and wraps up many of the things he was known for into a single film. We have a man that everyone is looking for, but who isn’t the person they’re actually looking for, police officers that can’t be trusted, suspenseful reveals, and a platinum blond woman as his companion.
There are some things that aren’t so good though. There’s a big cheat in the middle of the film, where we’re told Hannay got away from a seemingly impossible situation, but not shown how. In addition, there’s a moment just after the spy is killed when Hannay is trying to decide what to do. Here Hitchcock essentially does a ‘last time on The 39 Steps’, and has a voiceover of the actress reminding the audience of all the information they heard not 10 minutes before. It shows a lack of faith in the audience, which is pretty common in today’s films, but not as common in the 1930s.
However, it’s an enjoyable film, if not as full of memorable moments as his later films. I believe what most people would remember from this one is the two characters handcuffed together. There are some funny bits with the two of them chained to each other, but it takes up a small amount of screentime.
Let’s talk about our second film.
Vertigo is about a police detective who has to quit the force due to an accident which gave him a debilitating fear of heights. Soon after his retirement, he is asked to tail the wife of a friend, to check on her mental state. As he follows the woman, he tries to understand her obsession with one of her ancestors, and begins to fall in love.
As I mentioned in the intro, this film currently tops the list of the Sight and Sound Best films of all time, making it a popular choice for Greatest Movie of All Time. But I have to admit, I don’t particularly like this movie. That’s right, you found him, the guy that doesn’t like Vertigo. I don’t hate it, but I have one major beef with this movie. I’m going to use this post as a bit of a reflection on the film, and try to dig into why I dislike this one aspect. It will require me to spoil the hell out of it though, so if you want to go into the film fresh, maybe skip this post until you’ve seen it.
The film is set in San Francisco and stars Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. The film opens with a beautiful sequence, a chase across a series of rooftops in San Francisco. A police officer and Jimmy Stewarts character Johnny (or ‘Scottie’ as he is nicknamed, for the sake of consistency, I’ll call him Johnny, although characters often call him Scottie in the film), chase a criminal, jumping from roof to roof. Johnny slips and is hanging on to a gutter. The other officer returns to help, but slips and falls to his death. Johnny looks down and the world spins. Here Hitchcock uses an effect popularly called ‘The Stretch’. I found a GIF from later in the film here to illustrate:
The effect is acheived by moving the camera back while zooming in with the lens, or vice versa. It’s become a popular technique to show a character seeing something that shocks them in modern film, but Hitchcock was the one that popularized it. It’s incredibly effective here to show how Johnny is seeing the world. In the modern day, it’s generally used to show the environment changing around the character. Here Hitchcock uses it with a deep background, showing it shifting by itself, from the perspective of Johnny. It’s a subtle difference, but it really works.
Johnny gives some background to his friend Midge, who is an artist, explaining how he’s retiring, and his general troubles. It’s essentially exposition, but it comes at a welcome time, so it doesn’t drag the movie down. After talking to Midge, Johnny goes to see his friend Gavin, who wants Johnny to follow his wife, Madeline. Gavin is concerned that she’s mentally ill, and he needs to know how to help her. Johnny initially objects, but decides to do a favor for his old friend.
He begins tailing Madeline the next day. He watches her drive to a flower store, entering through the back, and getting a very specific bouquet. She then drives to a church. She goes into the back where she looks at a grave, paying her respects. Johnny stands behind and waits for her to leave, then goes finds the name on the tombstone: Carlotta Valdes.
She then goes to an art museum and sits looking at a very specific painting. Johnny notices that the woman in the painting has the very same bouquet, and has the same hairstyle that Madeline now has. Johnny asks a nearby attendant about the painting, and learns that it’s of a woman named Carlotta Valdes.
He then follows Madeline to a small boarding house called the McKittrick Hotel. He watches her enter, then sees her open blinds in a room on the second floor. He enters the hotel and starts asking questions, flashing his badge to get them. He discovers that the woman is named Valdes, and comes by a couple of times a week for a few hours. Then the woman tells him that she hasn’t been by that day. Johnny has her check the room, then checks it himself, finding no one.
He later goes to see Midge, asking if she knows an expert on obscure San Francisco history. She delivers, and the expert tells him that Carlotta Valdes met a married man who brought her to San Francisco, and built her a house, which is now the McKittrick hotel. They had a child, and the man took the child away from her to raise as his own, but discarded her. She eventually went mad and took her own life.
Johnny reports to Gavin, and Gavin explains that he was aware of Carlotta, and this his wife is actually a descendant of her. She even has some of her jewelry. He’s worried that she’s becoming obsessed with Carlotta, and might try to take her own life like she did.
So the film has set up the mystery. Madeline appears to have an obsession with her ancestor Carlotta Valdes. Does she want to be her? Is Carlotta haunting her? Is she trying to re-enact her life? Will she try to take her own life to complete the cycle? The film doesn’t give us many clues about the possibility of supernatural effects, but it also hasn’t really allowed Madeline to speak up until this point. She’s just hanging out in the background, being watched.
The next day Johnny follows her again. After visiting her usual haunts, she drives to a point under the Golden Gate Bridge. Johnny watches her carefully from a distance as she drops flower petals into the water, then jumps in herself. Johnny immediately jumps into action, diving in after her, rescuing her.
He takes her back to his apartment to dry her clothes and care for her. Here we begin to see more of Madeline herself, and we see Johnny begin to fall in love with her. It’s been clear from the first moment he saw her that he found her attractive. When she first appears, the film slows down, centering on Madeline’s profile. After chatting for a bit, he answers a phone call from Gavin. While he’s talking, she leaves unexpectedly, adding to the mystery.
The next day he follows her again…to his house, where she’s dropping off a thank you note for saving her. They spend the day together, Johnny learning more about the troubles Madeline is having, exploring dreams she has about a white church with a tower. As she describes it, he realizes he knows the place, it is small town that has been kept the same as a museum piece. He insists they go there the next day.
They do, and Madeline tells him she must go into the church alone. He objects, and kisses her, but she breaks away from him and runs into the church. He follows her, seeing her climb the tower. He tries to follow, but his fear of heights takes over, and as he looks down he has to stop. He sees her reach the top and close the trap door behind her. Then he sees her fall past the window, screaming. He looks out the window and sees her on the next roof down, apparently dead.
Quite a tragic film, and it could have possibly ended here, but it’s just barely getting started. Johnny must go through a trial to see who was at fault for the accident, and it is ruled a suicide. Gavin tells him that he will leave the country, maybe go to Europe, noting that they both know who killed her, hinting that it was Carlotta Valdes.
Johnny however, can’t just walk away. After being haunted by dreams, he ends up in an institution, nearly catatonic. He’s now lost two people because of a fear of heights, one of whom he was in love with. Midge is there, helping to care for him. The doctor tells her it might be a year before he’s well enough to leave the facility.
The film fast forwards here and we see Johnny back out in the world. He’s sitting once again outside of Madeline’s apartment building. He sees the green car she always drove, then a blond woman walk out of the building towards the car. His mind immediately goes to Madeline and he goes to the woman, discovering it’s just someone with a similar hairstyle.
We see him retracting his steps, visiting all the places where he saw her. The restaurant where he first saw her, the art gallery, etc. But as he’s walking down the street, he sees a familiar woman. She has dark hair instead of the platinum blond of Madeline, but he’s sure he knows her. He follows her back to her apartment, and knocks on her door. After her initial suspicion, she tells him her name is Judy. She realizes that she reminds him of someone, even speculating that the person she reminds him of died. He eventually convinces her that he’s not dangerous and offers to buy her dinner because he owes her something for scaring her. She asks for an hour to get ready. He agrees, and leaves.
But when he leaves, she doesn’t begin getting ready. She starts packing her bags. She pulls dresses from the closet until she gets to a particular gray dress that looks suspiciously like the dress that Madeline died in. In fact, it’s the same dress. She sits down to write a letter to Johnny and explains the solution to the entire mystery.
She was hired by Gavin to impersonate his wife, so that Johnny could testify belivably that she had lost her mind. When she ran to the roof, Gavin was there with his wife, ready to throw her from the tower. They waited until it was clear, and then left together. So Johnny isn’t imagining things, this woman is the Madeline he knows.
Here’s where the movie causes a problem for me, but we’ll get to that in the thoughts section.
The movie doesn’t end here though, as Judy decides to stay, and allows Johnny to take her on dates. It’s clear that as Madeline, while Johnny was falling in love with her, she was falling in love with him as well, but now she has a chance to have a real relationship with this man. Unfortunately, Johnny only wants Madeline. The rest of the film he continually pushes boundaries, trying to get Judy to act and dress more like Madeline. It’s a really creepy and effective sequence.
Finally, something tips off Johnny. I’ll leave off the plot there, but I might have to go a bit further as I’m analyzing my own issues with the film.
A couple of things really stand out about this film, right away. First, the cinematography is excellent. It’s probably the most beautifully shot Hitchcock film period. There’s definitely some shots from other Hitchcock films that could stand up to shots from Vertigo. But from start to finish, Vertigo is full of essentially perfect shots. It also takes a trip into experimental territory with a dream sequence experienced by Johnny after Madeline dies.
The second thing is the music. Bernard Herrmann was the premiere composer of his day, doing the music for tons of classic films, like Citizen Kane, and other Hitchcock films like Psycho, North By Northwest, and others. He also did the music for a lot of Twilight Zone episodes. For a career like Bernard Herrmann’s, it says a lot that Vertigo might be the best score he ever composed. The music is haunting and powerful, and it’s even been used in other films, like The Artist.
And before I start complaining, let’s also appreciate the run that Hitchcock went on starting with this film. In 1958, he released Vertigo, in 1959, he released North By Northwest, and in 1960, he released Psycho. Three films, all very different, but all instant classics. Most directors would do a blood sacrifice to have a single film at the level of any of those. Hitchcock did 3 in a row.
So, my problem with the film boils down to the reveal of the mystery surrounding Madeline, discussed above. I’m going to use the rest of this section to understand my own feelings on this, and try to see the wisdom in the direction Hitchcock chose. Or perhaps I’ll strengthen my own opinion.
At the moment Madeline dies by falling off the tower, we must assume that she had simply lost her mind, or perhaps she really was being haunted. Since Hitchcock didn’t really make supernatural films though, it would be easy for the audience to assume that the mystery was still unresolved.
But, by revealing the solution to the mystery with 30 minutes of film left to go, Hitchcock gave away all the suspense he had built up without a good build-up. The biggest surprise in the film is that he explains the mystery at a moment where we aren’t really expecting it. When I first saw the film, this scene came up, and my first reaction was deep confusion. Why did we suddenly get an explanation out of nowhere? Is this the real solution to the mystery, or is this a case of an unreliable narrator? Is this another part of Johnny’s mental illness? It took me out of the film completely.
I really didn’t like this choice. I felt like Hitchcock could have kept the mystery going until the end of the film, playing out the suspense. It was such an odd choice to me to reveal the solution and then let the movie continue to play out.
So the question I have to ask is what do you gain by revealing the mystery here vs revealing it later?
By revealing the mystery at this point, the movie definitely changes the dynamics for the audience. When we know that Judy is literally the woman that Johnny fell in love with, we can pay attention to how they’re interacting without wondering if Judy is really Madeline, or just a woman Johnny is obsessed with. When she pleads with Johnny to love her for her, we understand that she fell in love with Johnny as Madeline, and is looking for another chance at a relationship with him, but is hurt that he only seems to want her alter ego. At the same time, she can’t tell him about the ruse, for fear of being arrested.
Also, when we see the scenes where Johnny slowly tries to get Judy to become Madeline, it changes our perception when we know for sure that he isn’t completely insane, and some part of him is latching onto the truth. It’s almost as if his detective brain is working through the problem, masquerading as mental illness.
It also changes the final scenes, when Johnny figures out for himself that she’s actually the Madeline he knew, and drives her to the tower. If we, the audience didn’t know that she really was Madeline at this point, it definitely changes our perception of those scenes.
So while it still bothers me that Hitchcock gave up the suspense so early, I think it probably works for this film. This is a very different Hitchcock film. Most of his films are mysteries with some adventure thrown in. A character is wrongfully accused, and must clear their name by solving the mystery of who is actually to blame. But Vertigo is a deep character study. Hitchcock throws these two characters into a completely strange situation and explores how it affects their lives. I think the last half hour is so unexpected for me because it’s not the kind of thing you do in a mystery film. You might have a short epilogue showing the result of the hero solving the mystery, but nothing like what we have here, with Johnny using Judy as a prop for his building madness.
So that’s an interesting direction. A surprising one to be sure, but interesting. And because this is such an atypical Hitchcock film, I can see why it rose to the top of the Sight and Sound list. With the music, the cinematography, a great performance from Jimmy Stewart and so many wild choices in the film, it doesn’t surprise me that it captured the imagination for so many.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.
The Double Feature
The thing that struck me most about watching these two movies together is even with how good The 39 Steps was, Vertigo is heads and shoulders above it. I think the difference is the talent that Hitchcock had access to once he started making films in America. The UK has always been capable of making great films, don’t get me wrong, but the engine of Hollywood in that era could produce a film like no other.
In addition to Hitchcock’s own growth as a filmmaker, the film industry had grown a lot. In 1935, when The 39 Steps was made, sound film was still in it’s infancy. Filmmakers were still learning the rules of what would and wouldn’t work. Color wasn’t even an option then. But in 1958, when Vertigo was made, film had come into it’s own as an artform. Filmmakers had learned so much about the artform by that point, and Hitchcock grew up with it. He was telling more complex stories, and making bolder choices. Soon after, he’d make Psycho, that showed filmmakers how to do serious horror films.
It’s definitely interesting comparing a filmmaker against themselves, and I think it’s a great exercise that I’ll definitely try again.
So I’ve come to terms with Vertigo. I still find it jarring in some ways, but I understand the choice and I realize that my problem is more my personal attachment to the structure of a mystery film than anything that Hitchcock did in the film.
Things have been going pretty well for me lately, and I just adopted a new kitten. We’ll see how my older cat feels about him, but they seem like they’ll get along just fine.
So what will we do next? I think I want to go back to some more obscure films that I haven’t seen before. So I’m going to go back to Filmstruck for the next set. The films for next week are:
Jean Renoir – The Lower Depths (1936)
Wim Wenders – Wings of Desire (1987)
Both of these films come from great directors who I haven’t covered yet. I considered doing one of Renoir’s more famous films, like Grand Illusion, or Rules of the Game, but I wanted to cover two films I hadn’t seen before for the next post.
Other than that, I don’t have any particular theme in mind for these two. But it should be good.
See you then.