Monday, 28 October 2013

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS: THE 39 STEPS

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS

5. THE 39 STEPS (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

(No-one, even me, realised I skipped number 5 into writing a part 6 and 7, so here it is!)

28/10/2013

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Yesterday, I realised that, before BBC One showed live coverage of the Indian Grand Prix, BBC Two was showing one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest British films, made during a period which raised his profile from that of a great British director into one of international standing, leading to his departure to the United States in 1939.

In my previous research of Hitchcock over the years, one defining characteristics of his American films is very simple - they are longer than his British films. This could be because he has been given a more lavish set-up in Hollywood than in Shepherd's Bush - most of the story in "The 39 Steps" takes place indoors, with outside scenes featuring Richard Hannay running from one part of the plot to the other. In the United States, higher budgets mean it is more viable to feature more exotic locales and, if you  are using your settings well, making them tell the story for you, it makes sense to spend more time there.

It is extremely noticeable in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), where Hitchcock makes use of the foreign locations of Marrakech and, ironically, London, almost as a travelogue, using picturesque locations to jar against the child kidnap storyline. At the same time, you have the stars of the film, James Stewart and Doris Day - this film won an Academy Award for the song written specially for the song Day's mother sings to her son, "Que Sera Sera". You want to see these actors playing a role, you want to spend time with them, understand why they feel and react the way they do, and that takes time.

However, we can compare with Hitchcock's original 1934 version of this film, made in London - at 67 minutes, versus 120 minutes for the 1956 version, we are rarely able to stand still, moving from one plot twist to the next, knowing as much about the characters as is needed for the story to work, and most of the film is set at home, with the holiday location of St Moritz filmed mostly in mid-shots and closeups, as it was all shot at home as well.

Both films are very good, with different approaches - the frenzy of the older film, or the character of the new, it is your choice.

These days, longer films, a larger experience, may be one way of justifying the cost of the film, or the price of your ticket - certainly, in the 1960s, the extravaganzas of "The Sound of Music," "Mary Poppins," "Doctor Doolittle," and "Cleopatra" were a way of distinguishing film from television, where the smaller, faster style of storytelling had found a new place, but these films died away in the 1970s. Perhaps, someone will see "The Hobbit" films as being one step, one hour, too far, and make a good, short blockbuster that can juggle character and action and send you out of the cinema smiling before you start itching to get out of your seat and walk about to get the feeling back in your legs... Anyone care to write me a check for $50 million?

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