12 April 2009

How Many Steps Was That Again?


Last night was Hitchock double feature night for the missus and I. The world's greatest television station (Turner Classic Movies, if I must tell you) aired two of his films during the day, The 39 Steps (1935) and Saboteur (1942). Through the magic of the DVR I recorded both and our evening was set.

Somehow Saboteur was selected by TCM as their weekly “essential.” Of the more than 60 films Hitch directed Saboteur ranks in the bottom third. Which is to say its a good enough film but hardly an "essential." Essentials co hosts Robert Osborne (aka Mr. TCM) and Alec Baldwin discussed the film's biggest problem in their introduction. Hitch wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles and had to settle for Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. That's one hell of a drop off. (According to IMDb's trivia section Hitch also sought Joel McCrea and Margaret Sullavan.) Further, he wanted Harry Carey as the chief villain thinking that it would be striking to have Mr. Ordinary Salt of the Earth American playing an evil spy. Instead he got Otto Kruger who looks, talks and acts every bit the charming evil mastermind. Ho hum.

Baldwin pointed out that in Saboteur, Cummings tries too hard. In a Hitchock film the main thing for a leading man to do is "get out of the way," said Baldwin. To then watch Cummings chew the scenery is to see exactly what Baldwin was talking about. Cummings was fine in a later Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder, (1954) where he had a last demanding role; but if you were going to give him a big part it better be on TV. The adorable Ms. Lane (as cute as a bug's ear) was perfect for comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), in which she starred opposite Cary Grant. She had no business in this picture.

Saboteur's weaknesses become especially apparent when you watch The 39 Steps, one of Hitch's masterpieces and definitely a film worthy of being an "essential." Indeed in both the intro and wrap up to Saboteur, Osborne and Baldwin made glowing reference to it. Having, as it does, Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll as the hero and heroine are gigantic plusses. Donat in particular is the very embodiment of suave, sophistication in the face of horrid spies and police who think him a murderer.

Comparisons between The 39 Steps and Saboteur are particularly apt because of how similar the stories are. In both cases an ordinary and quite innocent joe is suspected of a heinous crime and gets his name and picture plastered over the newspapers. To clear himself he must make a cross country dash to expose the real evil doers, who, along with the authorities, want to see him reigned in. And in each film our hero winds up with a lovely blonde in tow who at first is convinced our man guilty as sin but then not only believes him innocent, but falls in love with him in the bargain. And oh by the way the bad guys are foreign agents bent on destroying democracy.

If that sounds really, really familiar its because Hitchock used virtually the same scenario in North by Northwest (1959).

The amazing thing is that even with remarkably similar story lines, each story is fresh, original and entertaining. Hitchcock could have made an interesting movie out of page 186 of the phone book and 20 years later made a similar film about page 212 and you’d have loved 'em both.

Similarities between Saboteur and The 39 Steps also include bumbling coppers, amazing escapes and a denouement in a public setting. Hitch loved to end his films with scenes in full view of the general public and or at historic sights. Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the stage of a crowded theater, the British Museum.... Let it all hang out right front of God and everybody.

The action in The 39 Steps is fluid. In Saboteur its in fits and starts. In the former film you say "wow!" in the latter "yeah right." Saboteur has an ordinary action movie look, The 39 Steps looks truly Hitchockian and has a sense of humor to boot.

Mainly, Saboteur suffers from having to be compared with Hitchcock's other films and when you watch something like The 39 Steps right after, it really pales.

So what a great night I had hanging out with Alfred Hitchcock, Priscilla Lane, Robert Donat, Alec Baldwin and of course the wife. Maybe some day the missus and I will end up on the lam and before out adventure is done will bring down Al Qaeda and...aw, skip it.

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