39 Steps

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in Alfred Hitchcock's 'The 39 Steps,' newly reissued by Criterion. (Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Alfred Hitchcock's very free 1935 adaptation of John Buchan's novel was almost certainly the calling card that got him invited to make films in America. As a work of pure entertainment, it out-Hollywoods Hollywood. The plot is that of a thriller. But the tone is more reminiscent of Frank Capra's “It Happened One Night” (which won the previous year's Best Picture Oscar): a series of mostly comic episodes, about a couple, who are on the run by necessity, bristling with hostility, and absolutely destined to fall in love by the end.

There have been three official remakes; I've seen two, and they hold no interest at all. But the film's basic tone and structure have been so influential that it's fair to say there are scores of unofficial versions. Not least of these is “North by Northwest”; Hitchcock never denied that “The 39 Steps” was the template for that later masterpiece.

That insight is from the best of the extras on Criterion's new video release — 40 minutes of raw interview footage of the director, shot for a 1966 TV show. The show itself has been lost; hence the raw footage. We also get “Hitchcock: The Early Years,” a 2000 British documentary, featuring a few survivors from the original crew. It runs about 25 minutes, as does a new “visual essay” by film historian Leonard Leff. Leff is relatively entertaining; I wish I could say the same about Marian Keane, who provides the wall-to-wall commentary track. Her reading of her obviously written-out lecture is too dry, and I found some of her analytical observations questionable.

There are two other notable audio-only extras: a 1937 radio adaptation, with Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery; and the relevant portions of the conversations Francois Truffaut had with the director, from which Truffaut's famed book-length interview was drawn.

What's most important about the Criterion release is the quality of the transfer. Most of Hitchcock's British films slid into public domain status years ago. As a result, there have been scores of cheap, slapdash VHS and DVD releases, most of them either unwatchable or close to it. The Criterion has been digitally restored and looks as good as it's ever likely to. As in other British films of the period, the sound isn't great; but, thanks to optional English subtitles, I was finally able to understand the Scottish-accented lines that had eluded me in my dozens of earlier viewings.

"The 39 Steps" (Criterion, Blu-ray, $39.95; DVD, $29.95)

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).