Early Hitchcock Movie: “The 39 Steps” (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll

An unassuming Canadian bachelor, Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), living in London tries to help a mysterious woman w/ a German accent, Miss Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who turns out to be a double agent. She is killed in Hannay’s hotel room, he is accused of the murder, and goes on the run to save himself. With a map and some details (provided by Miss Smith), he also hopes to stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information. He travels by train to Scotland, hoping not to be noticed by his fellow passengers and the police. The papers are all covering the incident, of course, and some people are bound to be intrigued by the details. When Hannay pops into a car w/ a pretty blonde woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), he begs her to help him. As the police approach, he grabs her and kisses her (pretending like their newlyweds). She is not having it, so tells the police that she has never seen this man before.

In Scotland, Hannay travels on foot for some miles, looking for a certain town. He comes across a farmer in a very rural area, Mr. Crofter, who says he can stay overnight at this little house. The wife, who is much younger and mismatched w/ her gruff husband, is played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft (one of the most respected actresses of her time). When Mr. Crofter is out, Hannay and Mrs. Crofter chat about life in London, and she develops a crush on him. Later, when he tells her about his plight, she is very empathetic. After her husband gets jealous, she helps Hannay escape. The local cops are close on his trail. Hannay finds the house of a wealthy/powerful British man, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), just in time for a Sunday lunch. He runs across Pamela (again), and more improbable adventures ensue!

Some critics and viewers consider this to be Hitchcock’s most economical and best film. The 39 Steps is a romantic adventure (Hannay and Pamela share moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a rom com) with the usual Hitchcock humor; there is also a lot of metaphor and symbolism. Many of Hitchcock’s typical themes are here: marriage (of different types), human relationships, and types and levels of deception. It’s well-written and each character has a distinct look, attitude, and personality. The plot provides suspense, comedy, and drama in a rather short period of time.

You can watch the full movie (for free) here:

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Pushover (1954) starring Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Philip Carey, & E.G. Marshall

This film noir is considered a kind of sequel- in spirit- to Double Indemnity. Both movies feature blonde femme fatales, temptation, and (of course) the lure of easy money. It opens w/ a bank heist where over $200,000 is stolen by a pair of armed men in plain clothes. After a late movie, Lona McLane (Kim Novak- just 20 y.o. in her first role), can’t start her car. She gets help from Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray), who was also alone at the movies. After her car is taken to a local garage, Lona decides to go home w/ Paul, and have an affair. A few days later, Paul reports to his boss’ office- we learn that he’s an undercover police detective! In order to catch the man who planned the robbery, Paul has been keeping track of his girlfriend- Lona.

The boss, Lt. Eckstrom, is played by E.G. Marshall- a face recognizable to movie fans of several generations. He had a long/successful career as a character actor, incl. as a juror in 12 Angry Men (w/ Henry Fonda) and the billionaire philanthropist in Absolute Power (w/ Clint Eastwood). Paul’s younger partner in the stakeout is Rick McAllister, played by a tall/deep-voiced actor named Philip Carey. He later became known as Asa Buchanan- patriarch of one of the families on the soap opera One Life to Live. Wow, I never knew he was so handsome as a young man! After a few moments, I recognized his name and that voice.

Rick (re: Lona): New car, mink coat, no clocks in the joint… probably the story of her life.

Paul: You just don’t like women, Rick.

Rick: What keeps you single?

Paul: Maybe I like ’em too much.

Rick: I’ve seen all kinds since we joined the force… B-girls, hustlers, blackmailers, shoplifters, drunks. You know, I think I’d still be married if I could find a half-honest woman. Must be a few of ’em around.

Paul: Watch yourself! Those few might just be smarter!

It doesn’t take Lona too long to discover that Paul is a cop; she’s mad and says they are through. Paul, Rick, and another cop stakeout Lona’s apt, waiting for her man to call or (maybe) visit. During the lull times, Rick watches Lona’s neighbor through his binoculars. This is Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone), a nurse who is always busy and in a cheerful mood.

MacMurray does a fine job as a good, but weary, middle-aged guy who is emotionally vulnerable once he meets Novak. The femme fatale is not a master manipulator; she resents being the trophy of a criminal. Is their hope to their relationship? Rick and Ann seem to almost live in a separate world; their relationship starts off shady, but grows hopeful once you see their chemistry. The atmosphere created in this movie also keeps you interested. The filmmakers are good at setting the mood; we see L.A. mostly at night when there are shadows, streets lit by large lamps, and a few rooftop scenes. This isn’t any fresh territory for Hollywood, but I stayed interested, wondering how far Paul would go.

Rewatch: Notorious (1946) starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, & Claude Rains

Following the conviction of her (German) father for treason, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, in her early 30s) takes to heavy drinking and partying. One night, she meets a stranger at her bungalow in Miami (a party crasher). They drink long into the night (after her pals leave or fall asleep drunk), and she insists on going on a drive. When Alicia’s car is stopped for speeding and swerving on the highway, the stranger shows the cop his ID. The cop salutes him and quickly drives off, issuing her no ticket. Alicia gets very angry and combative when she realizes that her passenger is a government agent, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant).

The next morning, he reveals that the feds have been bugging her house for 3 mos; she shared the place with her father. We also discover that Alicia is patriotic (she had an American mother and adopted the US as her homeland) and detests the doings of her father. The feds want Alicia to spy on some of her father’s old (Nazi) friends operating in Brazil. They land in Rio, Alicia quits drinking, and over a week, she and Devlin develop feelings for each other. She says “I love you” to him, but he doesn’t say those exact words back. They plan to have a romantic chicken dinner together (in her apartment), but Devlin is called away.

When Devlin goes to see his boss, Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), he learns details about the mission which has been chosen for Alicia. His heart sinks- she will have to seduce a wealthy and powerful man, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who used to have feelings for her. The feds seem to think this will be an easy task for a woman (“not a lady”) like Alicia, who is “notorious” not only for her father’s crimes, but her wild lifestyle.

Wow, who knew Alfred Hitchcock could do romance this well!? It helps that he has megastar (and gorgeous) co-leads in Grant and Bergman who help to anchor this story. When these two actors are close- it’s like sparks are flying onscreen! Bergman is playing against type here (as some critics have noted). She looks tired, hungover, and disheveled the morning after she meets Devlin. Grant is quite reined in (as his character demands), so you need to focus on his eyes and the (small) expressions of his face. If you’ve only seen younger (he’s 42 here) and comedic Grant movies, you’re esp. in for a treat.

Hitch does a lot of things which reveal him to be “the master of suspense”- building tension w/ music, unique takes on close-ups, playing w/ shadows, and the trope of the controlling mother (played here by a formidable-looking Austrian theater actress- Leopoldine Konstantin). Even mundane domestic moments in the Sebastian mansion are made suspenseful, thanks to the director’s choices. The screenplay (which is lean, yet still gripping) by Ben Hecht scored an Academy Award nomination. Character is revealed not only through what is said, but w/ tone and action. Some embraces, kisses, and laughs conceal the truth, others reveal the truth. After all, Alicia and Devlin hide their love for each other, b/c of the mission and- like ordinary people- b/c they’re afraid of getting hurt.

Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, & Valentina Cortese

Thieves’ Highway opens with a view of sunny Fresno, California… not the setting you’d expect for a film noir. But as this movie shows, the business of transporting and selling fruit and vegetables is as cut-throat and corrosive as any criminal enterprise.

Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream.

Richard Conte brings a stunning physicality to his role as a hot-headed yet intelligent man who is easily the world’s most elegant truck driver. Valentina Cortese is a mercurial blend of playfulness, hurt and defiance.

The love story is very sincere, and very simple, and dare I say it- very touching.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

In his introduction to this must-see classic on TCM’s “Noir Alley”, Eddie Muller stated this was the picture that got him hooked on film noir as a teen while playing hooky from school. Film critic Thom Andersen identified this as an example of “film gris,” a suggested sub-category of film noir incorporating a left-wing narrative. Most of the movie is shot on location, in produce warehouses, back alleys, and country roads. The story takes about 15 minutes to get going, but from there it delivers in big ways! Soon after WWII, with people desperate to believe in the American dream, this film suggests that that dream isn’t for everyone. A.I. “Buzz” Buzzerides (who was of Greek Armenian heritage) based this movie on his working-class roots, before he became a novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood. Director Jules Dassin (who came from Ukrainian Jewish parentage) does a terrific job; he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and moved to France to pursue his career.

Nico “Nick” Garcos (Richard Conte, then in his late 30s) is a first gen Greek-American who returns home from the Navy to his loving parents and blonde/”girl-next-door” fiance, Polly (Barbara Lawrence). After a few moments of domestic happiness, he discovers that his father has lost his legs. He was involved in a truck accident after dealing w/ a San Fran fruit dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), who refused to pay a fair price for a truckload of tomatoes. Figlia also had his thuggish employees get Mr. Garcos drunk. Nick, who is both ambitious, clever, and hot-headed, is bent on getting revenge.

Nick goes to see Ed Kinney (the local man who bought his father’s old truck) and says that he will buy it back, but Ed proposes a deal with Golden Delicious apples, where they may both make a lot of money. Nick invests most of his savings in another truck and buys apples from a Polish farming family. They plan to drive directly to the market (w/o sleeping) to keep the fruit fresh. The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the filmmakers; there are scenes that are exciting and dangerous (before the time of special effects). Ed’s truck has a problem with its axle, and Nick arrives first in San Fran.

Nick parks his truck directly in Figlia’s loading dock and goes to compare prices for his cargo. After talking to a few smaller sellers, he meets Figlia (who has a reputation for being crooked). Figlia is surprised, and maybe also a bit impressed, by the younger man’s confidence. Nick says that his partner is still on the road, so he’ll return later. As always, Cobb does a great job as a fast-talking villain.

At a small diner nearby, Nick is approached by an alluring Italian refugee- Rica (Valentina Cortese)- who he is almost too sleepy/tired to notice. She asks him for a light, though there are several other men ready w/ matches. Then, she leans across him to get a container of sugar for her coffee. He’s bemused by her actions and walks away. She boldly asks him if he wants to come rest in her room (from where he can observe the market).

Film noir romances usually lead to the hero’s downfall, but it’s the opposite case here. Sparks fly between Conte and Cortese in their scenes, incl. one where she plays tic-tac-toe (on his bare chest)! Censors had rules about women revealing too much skin, so the director went the other way. As for Cortese, her hair is dark, short, and curly and (unlike her Italian peers who moved to Hollywood in this era), her face and body are angular. Most amazing- she hadn’t yet learned English, so spoke her lines phonetically!

Conte grew up in Jersey City and worked as a trucker; he was discovered (at age 25) by director Elia Kazan and actor John Garfield while waiting tables. Like Garfield, Conte is short (for a leading man), w/ deep-set dark eyes and thick brown hair. Kazan helped Conte get a scholarship to study acting in NYC; the young man quickly revealed his potential. All the actors, incl. the colorful sidekicks, do a great job in their roles.