Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The 39 Steps (1935), Part 3

Home video and soundtrack releases

  • Running down and reviewing every official release of the Master’s most popular British film
  • Too often known by many muddy fakes, when there are beautiful restored versions to be enjoyed
  • Even amongst Hitchcock’s heavily bootlegged British films, this one is easily ripped off most of all

Note: this is one of 60-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Part 1: Steps to inspiration | Part 2: Margaret’s Story | Part 4: Remakes

The 39 Steps (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US lobby card

US lobby card


Contents


Home video releases

The 39 Steps built squarely on the domestic success of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the first of Hitch’s golden run of six British thrillers. Steps was also the first Hitch film to make a significant impact stateside, thus commercially paving the way for his later career. It’s the early apotheosis of all Hitch’s wrong-man-on-the-run-films, especially the likes of North by Northwest (1959). This is also where more of his fave filmic preoccupations come together than ever before. You can tick them all off: spies, murder, marriage and relationships, incidental but funny screwball-type characters, a MacGuffin (clue: it’s in the title), an icy blonde, sexual tension, religion (the Lord saves!), light and dark humour, mixed-up identities – both mistaken and deliberately concealed, an evil villain, bumbling law enforcement and many more. Like most of his British outings, it’s no mere dry run for Hitch’s Hollywood streak: its über-tight running time, typical for this stage of his career, means not a single second is wasted and excitement is effectively sustained for the entire ride. In all, this is a truly great film with an outstanding cast and Robert Donat in particular, pitch perfect in the lead role.

Unfortunately, The 39 Steps is never going to wow anyone with the outstanding clarity of its visuals, as all pre-print materials are long gone. That said, though several steps down from the original negative, what we’re left with has been restored to the greatest degree humanly (and digitally) possible. Nowadays, the film has a somewhat dupey, grainy appearance, but I prefer to think of it as being warm and organic. Whatever your viewpoint, its driving urgency and Hitch’s artistry come shining through via all these official releases:

The original analogue transfer is very good overall, with a huge head start on the copious number of bootlegs, but the film was remastered in 2009 to prepare it for HD distribution via DCP, HDTV, Blu-ray and streaming. This involved scanning the best surviving materials, digitally stabilizing the image and giving it a meticulous clean-up, alongside the audio. Now it’s almost spotless, with only a few fleeting instances of overt damage remaining. Other than straight reissues of older discs, all releases after this date feature the new improved transfer.

Among the DVDs, Criterion’s two regular discs fare best with plentiful but mostly differing extras, though the nicely designed and remastered reissue nudges ahead. The UK DVDs aren’t far behind, also getting a few decent extras, then after that it’s a wash, with all other countries being vanilla bar the oft-occurring “Hitchcock: The Early Years” featurette (24min), the odd photo gallery or some text bios. The sole exception is the remastered Oz DVD, which is bested only by the Criterions; its decent, unique extras include another audio commentary but it’s deleted and quite rare.

A couple of caveats: beware the French TF1 Vidéo DVD, as despite it having a couple of unique, non-subtitled French featurettes (26 and 21 min), it has forced French subs on its “Early Years” doc and the feature itself. Also ensure you give the problematic German DVD a swerve: though it’s fully licensed, they’ve opted to use their own transfer of a localised theatrical release print. Thankfully, this is rare; Foreign Correspondent has another, but most other home editions use the best available masters of the original English-language versions. This disc has German opening/closing credits, translated insert shots replacing onscreen text and forced German subtitles on the optional English track. What’s more, it’s missing a shot of Hannay crossing a bridge just before arriving at the farm. All characteristics more befitting a bootleg rather than a licensed release.

The US, UK and French BDs are the only official ones so far and despite some woefully muddled reviewers claiming otherwise (confirmation bias, anyone?), they’re all from the same restored master. Note the UK and French discs are differentiated by their slight but appealing sepia tint, which suits the film beautifully, while the US is pure B&W. The US BD wins overall with its abundant extras and 20-page booklet, but the UK is hard on its heels on the extras front, while the French is completely vanilla. Incidentally, the UK also has the distinction of being the first Hitchcock BD anywhere, with its 19 Oct. 2009 release date edging out that of North by Northwest by a few weeks.

One extra that’s exclusive to the first Criterion DVD is The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock (29min), an episode of a six-part documentary series produced by Janus Films in 1976. Here’s a three-minute clip and a fascinating excerpt of Rod Serling’s voiceover sessions – hear him swear! Incidentally, Criterion’s first releases of The 39 Steps were their 1985 VHS and LaserDisc (spine #3, details; 1989 reissue). Though famed for their many LaserDiscs, the label only released three titles on VHS; the other two were The Lady Vanishes (#4) and The Third Man (#5, big box variant). Criterion’s transfers were more widely re-released on VHS by Homevision via Janus Films a decade later, but all three original tapes are now extremely rare and collectible.

Among Hitch’s relentlessly bootlegged British films, The 39 Steps, being the most popular, naturally turns up more often than any other. In addition to countless extremely muddy DVDs are some pirated BD-Rs from Italy, Germany and Spain, courtesy of Enjoy, Great Movies and Layons respectively.

Strangely, the original trailer doesn’t appear on any licensed home video releases, though it is on some German pirate discs. They copied it directly from this, the best quality copy in circulation:


Soundtrack releases

The 39 Steps (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) poster by Adam Simpson, 2013

Poster by Adam Simpson, 2013

There are many official re-recordings of part and full scores from Hitch’s American films but sadly not so for his British works. So far, there are only four re-recorded excerpts from The Man Who Knew Too Much, this film and The Lady Vanishes. Three of them, a four-part suite from Steps and “Prelude” from Man and Lady performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Bateman, can be found on:

Various other Hitchcock film music compilations feature selections from the above three and other British talkies, but they’re almost all bootlegs too, mostly lifted directly from the film soundtracks themselves. The sole fully-licensed exceptions include two cues from The 39 Steps, composed by the film’s musical director Louis Levy: “The Chase on the Moor” and “Love Theme”, along with passages from BlackmailSabotage, and Young and Innocent.

An interesting related curio is an LP of the “Complete Original Sound Track!”, apparently the only release from obscure US label Spybusters Records. An unusual entry to the Hitch collecting canon, it likely dates from the 1970s, during the period when the film was in the US public domain (1964-1995). Presumably, it judiciously edits out non-dialogue sequences to bring the 86-minute film down to less than an LP’s maximum one-hour playing time. Such LPs were very popular in those far-off pre-home video days, as the best way to ‘enjoy’ your fave films over and over again. They were certainly preferable to the alternative: catching a rare TV screening and recording the audio direct from its speaker to cassette tape or reel-to-reel. Many similar examples were produced at the time for films rightly or wrongly thought to be PD, like some of Basil Rathbone‘s Sherlock Holmes series.

Fun fact: The 39 Steps is the only Hitchcock film to feature all 15 of his favourite motifs, according to the infographic at the bottom of this page.

I’ve seen this brilliant film numerous times; there could never be a day when I’m not in the mood for it. But I can’t stop wishing one of these days Hannay will take Margaret away with him. Mind you, I’m also still hoping for King Kong to get down safely from atop his climactic lofty perch, be returned to Skull Island and live out the rest of his long days in peace…

Part 1: Steps to inspiration | Part 2: Margaret’s Story | Part 4: Remakes


For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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