DVDizzy.com | DVD and Blu-ray Reviews | New and Upcoming DVD & Blu-ray Schedule | Upcoming Cover Art | Search This Site

The 39 Steps: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The 39 Steps (1935) movie poster The 39 Steps

US Theatrical Release: August 1, 1935 / Running Time: 87 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Alfred Hitchcock / Writers: John Buchan (novel), Charles Bennett (adaptation), Alma Reville (continuity), Ian Hay (dialogue)

Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Margaret the Crofter's Wife), John Laurie (John the Crofter), Helen Haye (Mrs. Louisa Jordan), Frank Cellier (The Sheriff), Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory), Gus MacNaughton (Commercial Traveller), Jerry Verno (Commercial Traveller), Peggy Simpson (Maid)

Buy The 39 Steps from Amazon.com: Criterion Collection Blu-rayCriterion Collection DVD

Twenty-eight of Alfred Hitchcock's 58 directing credits came in his native England. For a number of reasons, his British films form clearly the more obscure half of his output. Hitchcock made his name in American cinema, beginning with the 1940 Best Picture Oscar winner Rebecca and continuing to raise the bar on a near-annual basis for the next thirty years to come. After relocating to Hollywood, only twice would Hitch again direct in the UK. Not only is his British output older, but much of it is old enough to elude the reach of even classic movie buffs. His first dozen films were silents, the eldest of which are either partially or entirely lost.

With little question, the best-known of Hitchcock's British movies appears to be The 39 Steps. This 1935 thriller came near the end of director's English period, although he made another five films in the UK before his move to the States.
39 Steps doesn't boast a recognizable amount of star power, nor is its source text, Scottish author John Buchan's 1915 novel, especially well-known. What accounts then for this film's unparalleled exposure within Hitch's British canon? I would guess the public domain and the countless cheap releases that have come from its residence there. The number of bargain bin DVDs holding The 39 Steps is far too great to estimate with any accuracy. Any low-priced Hitchcock DVD you've ever spotted is likely to include it.

The 39 Steps is also represented at the opposite end of the retail pool, as a selection in The Criterion Collection, that beloved line of important films released with high price tags and the utmost care. 39 Steps claimed spine number three among the studio's laserdiscs all the way back in 1985. It resurfaced as a Criterion DVD, spine number 56, in 1999. And last week, still carrying #56, it made its Blu-ray debut and received a new DVD as well.

At a chaotic London music hall where shots have just been fired, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) convinces Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) to let her go home with him. Hannay (Robert Donat) learns that he is wanted for murder from a fellow train passenger's newspaper.

The film opens in a London music hall, where a man with a gift is brought onstage and celebrated. This man (Wylie Watson), called Mr. Memory, supposedly memorizes fifty new facts every day and can now answer virtually any objective question asked of him. That skill, put to the test largely by the audience with sports record trivia, is soon overshadowed by the firing of gunshots. A bit of chaos rises and from it emerges our protagonist, mustachioed Canadian vacationer Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) along with a frightened woman (Lucie Mannheim), who accompanies him back to his apartment. Giving her name as Annabella Smith, the woman claims she is a spy and that she is the one who fired the shots to avoid death by a couple of other spies. Annabella is the last line of defense against foreign agents intercepting invaluable British military air secrets.

Hannay is skeptical of Annabella's story, but his doubt vanishes when she hands him a map of Scotland as her dying act, a knife stabbed in her back. Hannay narrowly escapes the spy's followers and boards a train for Scotland. On it, he learns from a newspaper that he is wanted for the woman's murder. With both police and assassins on his trail, Hannay tries to escape notice, boarding temporarily in a couple's country home. But the chase continues, with no authority he turns to offering relief. Hannay winds up handcuffed to a woman (Madeline Carroll) who doesn't believe a word of his improbable story.

Hannay is surprised to learn that the man he was searching for (Godfrey Tearle) is the same partially pinkied professor he was warned to avoid. Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and Hanny (Robert Donat) pose as a newlywed couple as they try to hide the fact that they are handcuffed to one another from an innkeeper.

The 39 Steps finds Hitchcock at the top of his craft, telling a gripping and twisty mystery as only he can, with irony, humor, and simmering suspense. These days, just about everyone agrees, myself included, that Hitchcock is one of cinema's greatest directors. Part of that excellence stems from the fact that the ingredients of a Hitchcock thriller are very much in line with modern films.
Old comedies' jokes have grown stale or lost meaning. Many other classic films suffer from lack of realism or distance from our lives and tastes. But Hitchcock's sharp and exciting storytelling, always keeping you guessing and cutting tension with relatable human comedy, remains fresh and fun.

Driven by a typical MacGuffin, 39 Steps employs the "wrong man" premise that Hitchcock often made great use of, taking an innocent bystander and thrusting him into a world of danger and intrigue. Back in the 1930s, lines of good and bad were usually drawn clearly. Hitch plays with that notion, casting people in the wrong place at the wrong time as wanted criminals and the police as disbelieving pursuers to be outwitted. Ambiguity abounds and while we know our hero is a good guy trying to stay alive, no one else does, not even the leading lady.

The film's conclusion is a bit abrupt and anticlimactic. The alternately light and dark plot doesn't shake you at the core the way Hitchcock's very best do. But, 39 Steps is still a masterfully crafted and highly enjoyable piece of entertainment. Running just 87 minutes with credits, the film is brisk and nimble, always moving forward and never belaboring points or slowing down for us to catch up or notice sleights of hand. By 1935, Hitchcock's skills were fully sharpened. He would improve to full-on genius when his ambitions became elevated along with viewer expectations.

The 39 Steps: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
LPCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.95 SRP)
Previously released as Criterion Collection DVD (November 2, 1999)


The 39 Steps doesn't look perfect on Blu-ray, but the film's considerable age and Criterion's reputation for dramatic restorations lead me to believe this is as good as modern technology allows. And that is pretty good for a movie pushing 80. The 1.33:1 black and white visuals are marred by the occasional light scratch and minor artifact. The presentation maintains a look presumably faithful to original exhibitions, with an appropriate amount of grain. Sharpness and detail are limited but strong for the period. The 1.0 monaural LPCM uncompressed audio also shows its age with dated recordings, but they are intelligible and, as usual, Criterion supplies English subtitles on the film. I can only imagine how much better this presentation is than the ones offered on cheap DVDs put out by no-name companies.

A scene from "The Lodger", the silent film considered the first Hitchcock thriller  features in "Hitchcock: The Early Years." Alfred Hitchcock reflects on his British films in this candid, extended 1966 interview for a series called "Cinema."


Extras begin with a 1999 audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. Keane offers a well-rehearsed, screen-specific, and academic track. She regularly compares the movie to Hitchcock's kindred later thriller North by Northwest and reads a bit much into the film's sexual implications.

Kicking off the all-HD video supplements is "Hitchcock: The Early Years" (24:07), a documentary dedicated to his British films. With excerpts and interviews with crew members and experts, it sheds plenty of light on the director's lesser-known works, devoting several minutes to 39 Steps.

"Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock" (40:14) is a solid black & white television interview from 1966. Hitch opens up about his British career, beginning with his work as title designer and then moving into his macabre canon in a semi-chronological fashion. This is a great candid discussion that gathers the director's thoughts on his films and film at large.

A photo of Alfred Hitchcock huddled among tissues, soup, and a telephone features in the Leonard Leff visual essay "The Borders of the Possible." This production design sketch visualizes Hannay on the run.

"The Borders of the Possible" (23:59) is a new visual essay on The 39 Steps from film historian Leonard Leff. Featuring behind-the-scenes photographs, pertinent Hitchcock sound bites, and clips from the film, this piece goes into good detail on the movie, comparing it to the source text and dissecting specific scenes.

"Production Designs" serves up 25 stills, comparing black and white conceptual sketches by art director O. Werndorff to photos of the film's actual settings. The images are preceded by a brief Werndorff biography.

"Hitchcock-Truffaut" (22:16) shares with us audio of François Truffaut's historic 1962 interview of the director pertaining to The 39 Steps. The revealing remarks on the adaptation and an "idiotic" remake play over a still photo from the 50-hour conversation.

This still of Cecil B. DeMille at a CBS microphone is one of a few that feature onscreen while Lux Radio Theatre's performance of "The 39 Steps" plays. Hannay (Robert Donat) silences a woman (Madeleine Carroll) on Criterion's "The 39 Steps" Blu-ray menu.

Last but not least comes Lux Radio Theatre's December 13, 1937 presentation of The 39 Steps (59:52). Hosted by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino, this program plays over a few publicity stills of the host, stars, and a microphone.
It stays very close to the film and is presented with commercial announcements and a special military guest intermission interview on espionage intact.

Everything but the production designs, radio broadcast, and commentary are newly added for this release. At the same time, a couple of items from the film's Criterion DVD are unfortunately dropped: a browseable presentation of the film's original press book and a piece called "The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock", which probably is rendered superfluous by "The Early Years" here. There is no question that this edition gains much more than it loses.

The simple menu offers a silent static image with listings overlaid. As always, the disc is equipped with thorough supplement descriptions, bookmarks, and resuming capabilities.

It wouldn't be a Criterion release without a dapper booklet inside the clear keepcase. The bulk of this 20-page companion is comprised by "Thirty-Nine Steps to Happiness", a new essay by Scottish professor, filmmaker, and blogger David Cairns. A highly informative and enjoyable read, the article (evidently replacing more thoughts from Keane) analyzes the film, discusses its loose adaptation of Buchan's book, acknowledges some plot holes, waxes upon Scotland's depiction, and places the production into the context of Hitch's career.

On the run, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) delivers an impassioned impromptu crowd-rallying speech about nothing and everything. The end of "The 39 Steps" brings Hannay (Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) close to solving the mystery at another Mr. Memory show.


The 39 Steps might be Hitchcock's first brush with greatness. At the very least, this sterling and funny British film finds the director mastering the thriller, the genre no other filmmaker has done nearly as much for. Criterion's Blu-ray edition can't eliminate all the wear and tear of the film's considerable age, but the presentation satisfies as do the over four hours of quality bonus features. This release is a no brainer for fans of Hitchcock, Criterion, and classic cinema. Sure you can own the movie for a lot less, but an adventure as excellent as this one deserves the satisfying treatment that only a Criterion Blu-ray can give it.

Support this site and great cinema when you buy The 39 Steps from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock: The Lady VanishesRebeccaTo Catch a ThiefNorth by Northwest
Sherlock HolmesSherlock Holmes: A Game of ShadowsGreyfriars BobbyDead Man
Recent Criterion Collection Blu-rays: Shallow GraveBeing John Malkovich¡Alambrista!A Night to Remember
Early Film: Island of Lost SoulsWingsVintage Mickey

DVDizzy.com | DVD and Blu-ray Reviews | New and Upcoming DVD & Blu-ray Schedule | Upcoming Cover Art | Search This Site

Search This Site:

DVDizzy.com Top Stories:

Reviewed July 3, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1935 Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, Janus Films, ITV Studios, Carlton Film Distributors, and 2012 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.