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Tying Hitchcock to the stage
January 15, 2008
|Promotional poster for the new play based on Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps."|
It couldn’t be, I thought last year when I read that there was a British stage version of Alfred Hitchcock’s "The 39 Steps" (1935).
Although I’m always impressed by subsequent viewings of Hitchcock’s later, more psychologically-inspired films, my very favorite of all his works remains "The 39 Steps," a loose (very loose) adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 mystery-spy novel of the same title. The gist of Buchan’s story was that of a man in flight from the law and enemy agents after he is falsely accused of murder. Hitchcock’s screenwriter, Charles Bennett, retained the essence of Buchan’s plot, the unjustified crime and the flight from London to Scotland and back, and he kept the protagonist’s name, Richard Hannay. But the rest of the screenplay was an exercise in narrative invention, with Bennett and Hitchcock adding all sorts of plotting mayhem, a host of new characters, and changing the meaning of "the 39 steps" for the film’s dramatic conclusion.
"The 39 Steps" turned out to be a delightful cross-genre exercise that combined comedy, mystery, political intrigue and the element that Hitchcock claimed was the "cinematic theme par excellence," the chase. Indeed, the film is a sustained, witty exploitation of a plotting idea Hitchcock would often revisit—an accused but innocent man running for his life.
The comic tone of the film is set in the first scene when the Canadian Hannay (Robert Donat) enters a London music hall and comes upon a performance by Mr. Memory, a man whose remarkable knowledge of trivia is put to test by questions called from the audience. To wit: "Who was the last British Heavyweight Champion of the World?" Before Mr. Memory can reply, someone shouts out "Henry the VIII!" Hannay’s nationality is implied when he asks Mr. Memory the distance from Winnipeg to Montreal.
During the colorful repartee with the audience a gunshot suddenly rings out allowing a mysterious vamp of a woman, Annabella Smith, to escape the theater. She attaches herself to Hannay who provides cover for her in his West End apartment. Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, a term he coined for a plotting device that sets a mystery in motion, occurs through Annabella Smith who announces that she is in danger because of her knowledge of an organization of enemy agents. The following morning Hannay wakes to find Smith dying of a knife stabbing to the back and clutching a map of Scotland—a map (the MacGuffin) apparently holding clues to the dead woman’s spy story. Hannay’s flight begins, a double-chase pursuit by the agents who have been observing his flat and by policemen who want him for the murder of Annabella Smith.
Escaping the flat by cleverly talking a milkman into giving him his uniform, Hannay flees London aboard The Flying Scotsman, where in one of the train’s compartments he meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), the "love interest" character whose cantankerous personality allows a subplot that turns into classic screwball comedy. Legendary chase scenes follow: Hannay’s leap from the train on the Forth Bridge, treks through the Scottish Highlands, bi-planes hovering above, assistance from a sympathetic, lonely crofter’s wife, a near-death encounter with Professor Jordan, the enemy-agent organization leader. And then the return chase back to London for a climactic scene in the London Palladium.
How could this "double-chase" exercise set on trains, bridge trestles, in Scotland’s craggy hills, populated with scores of primary and secondary characters possibly happen within the confines of a theater’s proscenium arch?
In spite of excellent reviews I couldn’t bring myself to turn over expensive pounds to see the stage version, at least not at first. But back in London again this fall, I discovered that matinee tickets could be had for 10 pounds. I went, and what a surprise the experience was! Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation dares not drop a single plotting incident seen in Hitchcock’s film. But, taking his cues from Charles Bennett’s free-wheeling screenplay, Barlow does his own playful meddling and renders the narrative with such pure theatrical styling that one is left marveling and chuckling from start to finish.
Against a bare wall of painted black brick, four actors – three men and one woman – play more than 130 roles. "Quick change" takes on a new meaning here and the clever staging is inventive and charming. Hat racks, step-ladders, window frames, wooden boxes serve as set pieces that represent background characters (hat racks), bridge trestles (step-ladders), hand-held window frames (escape avenues for Hannay), wooden boxes (trains, automobiles, what you will). Hannay’s trek through the Scottish Highlands and a bi-plane crash are realized through shadow-puppet imagery. And Hitchcock’s legendary sound-advance transition, where a maid’s scream on the discovery of Annabella’s Smith’s body morphs into the shrill whistle of the Royal Scotsman taking Hannay out of London, that too remains intact. The actress possesses the uncanny ability to sound exactly like the film’s steam train whistle. Such are the surprise pleasures of the stage account of "The 39 Steps," a charged, thoroughly entertaining play that is all the more delightful if you know and love the film as I do. The play can now be seen in New York as well as in London.
Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.