Two Thrills

39 Steps (1935)

Movies and culture exist in a feedback loop, like language and consciousness, each making the other—but no doubt movies make consciousness, too, and they certainly influence language, as does culture, so tracking the manifold inter-relationships quickly becomes impossible. I got to thinking about this because I was in the mood for a well-made thriller so I watched Three Days of the Condor. It was made in 1975, and is certainly a product of its time. Robert Redford works for the CIA as a reader looking for encrypted texts. While he is out to lunch, everyone in his unit is slaughtered. Later we discover why (he had found a plot to overthrow an unnamed Middle Eastern country) and by whom (freelance assassins hired by the renegade operation within the CIA itself which had hatched the plot). Redford quickly realizes there is no one he can trust; the renegade operation has penetrated the CIA to the highest level. They use one of Redford’s friends to lure him to a meeting then try to kill him. He is the Man Alone who must immediately learn difficult skills to survive.

The plot formula has a Darwinian message at its heart, but it also contains the glimmer of transformation, since the Man Alone is always an innocent (Redford is a bookish type who rides a bicycle to work through New York City traffic), and the innocent is treated to an avalanche of experience—in this case, of the action variety. Redford kills a world-class professional assassin and martial arts expert in hand-to-hand combat. Sure he does, although we don’t doubt it because we see him do it (just one example of what movies can get away with that books can’t). Through his reading, he has learned how to tap phones, scramble tracking devices, and find which hotel an unidentifiable room key belongs to by the inscription on its edge. He also abducts Faye Dunaway and treats her in a way that would now make audiences question their identification with him on which the movie depends. This abduction of the woman is lifted straight from The 39 Steps, with the addition of a mid-seventies pre-AIDS attitude toward sex and a hazy Hollywood awareness of feminism that seems to consist entirely of an endorsement of a woman’s right to have sex as casually as men. Dunaway does have a boyfriend (Redford discovers his shirts in the closet), but he has left for a trip to Vermont, where Dunaway is supposed to meet him. Redford handles her roughly, twisting her arms and tying her up, which of course she may secretly enjoy and anyway he has to do it, right? She doesn’t believe his story. She thinks he’s crazy. He has no choice but to use force. His life depends on it (and here the Darwinian message asserts itself: the need to survive trumps good behavior). She finds out he’s telling the truth when the world-class professional assassin, preposterously disguised as a mailman, shows up at her apartment and the fight to the death ensues, during which she cowers in the corner in good girlish fashion.

Her discovery (necessary in the plot to switch the abducted woman’s allegiance to the hero) is both more violent and more passive than in The 39 Steps. In Hitchcock’s movie, Madeleine Carroll slips out of the handcuffs attaching her to Robert Donat, and sneaks out of the room at the same moment the foreign spies chasing them happen to be reporting to the head spy. She had thought they were policemen, and overhearing their report she learns Donat’s crazy stories about foreign spies are true. In Hitchcock’s movie (released in 1935) the enemy is foreign, and in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor the enemy is the CIA, which itself bespeaks a profound cultural shift in the forty years between the two films—if not in the eyes of the respective directors, then in the producers’ ideas of the audience’s attitudes.

Meanwhile, back in Faye Dunaway’s apartment, she and Robert Redford do the deed (also in contrast to Hitchcock’s film—Donat does no more with Madeleine Carroll than take her hand at the end, but The 39 Steps is actually a much sexier movie). Dunaway and Redford do it in a Very Artistic And Tasteful way, intercut with shots of her photographs (she’s an “art photographer”). The sex scene is hokey and would probably provoke laughs today in a movie house full of teenagers. Redford has shown himself to be an ultra-sensitive respondent to Her Work (“They’re lonely. Pictures of places without people, trees without leaves, not winter or fall, but between seasons. November.”). So he’s really a Sensitive Guy, although earlier he bounced her around and said, “I haven’t raped you yet, have I?” And she responded: “The night is still young.” Rape is no longer a matter for even lame wit in movies, and we know now that it has nothing to do with sex.

Dunaway’s character, while bland in itself, is an interesting cultural study because it’s poised on the cusp of feminist consciousness. She has an independent profession but she wants a man who will overpower her. She is sort of smart and spunky (she calls herself “a spyfucker”), but apologizes and almost mews after she asserts herself. Yet the morning after they have sex she seems to be able to detach as quickly as he does. “You are a sweet man to be with,” she says, and when they part she says she would like to show him the photographs she has never shown anyone else (also unintentionally hilarious). Does she return to her boyfriend in Vermont? Does she tell him she screwed a CIA agent? Who cares? That’s the last we see of her.

Part of her blandness probably comes from her status as “love interest,” an accessory to the man’s story. It is his survival and transformation through experience that drives the plot, although Redford’s transformation consists solely in his learning to distrust his employer (the CIA). Donat is transformed more profoundly in The 39 Steps, at least implicitly. The love story begins about a third of the way through the movie and carries through until the end. Donat is a rather devilish bachelor, and gets into his predicament by picking up a woman in a music hall who turns out to be a spy. He also flirts with the wife of a Scotsman, and uses her loneliness and attraction to him to get her help, and he doesn’t mind touching Madeleine Carroll’s legs while the two of them are handcuffed and she takes off her stockings in a scene played for laughs rather than erotic charge. Hitchcock’s movie is too witty to be solemn about anything, but there are vague implications that some change in Donat’s (sexual) character occurs because he finds love.

Like Redford, he has to solve the mystery, but does so in a completely bumbling way, making every mistake possible. First, he takes the spy home with him (and serves her haddock). He’s skeptical of her story and has to be convinced, exactly like Madeleine Carroll later in relation to him: there is sweet irony in this. Faye Dunaway too is skeptical, but Redford was never skeptical and lacks this crucial humanizing element. At the end of Three Days of the Condor, Redford gives the story of corruption within the CIA to The New York Times. The End. It seems like a joke now that we have seen what the American media has done with the heroic reputation it acquired after Watergate and the Pentagon Papers: infotainment.

Both movies are men’s stories, as is the message of individual survival that Pollack delivers and Hitchcock plays with. Madeleine Carroll gives as good as she gets. She is feisty. The relative importance of the female leads is embodied by the sequence of events: Dunaway simply drops out of the story, whereas Madeleine Carroll is essential to the end and presumably beyond the end. Redford is an Ubermensch, brilliant and physically courageous beyond belief. His appeal is visceral and visual, another language than the one used in books. (The beautiful are the good and the ugly the bad, as in fairy tales.) But to identify with Redford is also to identify with his story, including the implicit message: do it yourself, look out for number one, be smart and be tough—what most boys used to learn and most still do, as well as some girls now, too.

The 39 Steps works differently with our sympathy and identification. Donat is not an Ubermensch. He’s kind of a horny schlub. He goes to a music hall and a gorgeous woman asks if she can go home with him so he takes her home and fries her a fish as foreplay. Things happen to him. He makes big mistakes. After the first mistake (picking up a spy who’s packing a gun), he goes right to the leader of the enemy spy ring; then he goes to the police, who arrest him. He gets handcuffed to a woman who constantly tries to get him caught, mocks him, and makes trouble literally every step of the way. He is saved because of his sexual appeal (Scotsman’s wife) and dumb luck (the wife of the innkeeper), mostly through the agency of women. The woman who made his survival (comically) more difficult finally becomes his ally. She becomes instrumental to his survival, and finally his salvation. It is still a man’s story, but the agency of grace is not his intelligence and toughness—individual “virtues” of traditional masculinity—but good fortune.

The 39 Steps not so much argues for but enacts another way of seeing things, another view of life: ironic, light, funny, and uncharacteristically benign for Hitchcock. In both movies, an innocent hero has to get experience fast in order to survive, and, in addition to avoiding the various forces hunting him, he must also singlehandedly solve the mystery that threatens his life. This dreary social Darwinism cries out for comic relief, and we get it throughout The 39 Steps, from the first moments the music hall patrons heckle Mr. Memory (“Who discovered pip in poultry?”) and start a brawl that turns into a riot when someone fires a gun. The gun turns out to have been fired by the beautiful spy, which gets the plot in motion. There are so many comic moments extracted from Robert Donat’s handcuffing to Madeleine Carroll that the plot morphs midstream from thriller to romantic comedy (or thriller and romantic comedy).

The movie ends with an inspired visual gesture very characteristic of Hitchcock: in front of the just expired Mr. Memory, who has revealed the nefarious intentions of the foreign spy ring (The 39 Steps), Donat and Carroll voluntarily take each other’s hands, which have been involuntarily handcuffed together for most of the movie. The binding now becomes a bond. Like all romantic comedies, traditionally ending in marriage, it’s a story of transformation, of two conflicting halves of the psyche joined in harmony, of desire fully fulfilled. It applies to both men and women, gay or straight, and leaves us all feeling happy. At that one moment, at least, we can believe it’s possible. It’s what we wish for ourselves, inside and out.