Theatre or Reality (a critique on The 39 Steps)

Without any long dissertation on his films, it is definitely safe to say that if anyone mentions the name “Hitchcock” to a person on the street they will get a quick label of “film genius”, “pioneer”, or “the guy that did Psycho…and The Birds”. Hitchcock is just one of those figures that almost every American, and otherwise, filmgoer knows, even without seeing any of his films. For his time, which spanned through many eras when film was still getting established as a relevant medium, Hitchcock was definitely one of the pioneers that got film up on its own feet. In one of his early films, The 39 Steps, Hitchcock used his narrative to implicitly explain the infinite possibilities of the film medium.

In 1935, when The 39 Steps was released, little was known to the public about the mechanics and technicalities of film. Despite coming a long way from patrons running out of theatres thinking that a bullet was going to fly out if the screen and hit them in the face (The Great Train Robbery), film was seen by many as an equivalent to the older mass entertainment, theatre. Theatre hopefully was, and is, seen as a reflection of a reality shown through acting, which is obviously ends up with fake reality. This superficial relationship between the actor and audience member adds permeable layer of separation between the two. At the end of the day, both the actor and patron will leave unharmed and unaffected. At the end of a film, audience members left, and unfortunately sometimes still do leave, unaffected. It’s entertainment.

Hitchock took that reality in The 39 Steps and redefined it for film, showing that film has the potential to be a more intimate medium than any other previous art forms. One of the first shots from The 39 Steps has a curtain opening onstage and a magician/memory man starts performing his act. Even before we meet the main character, we are given acting within the diegesis. This instance of double acting probably has little to no effect on the audience since stages have been used in film before, dating back to the Jazz Singer and arguably Melies’ Trip to the Moon. The film takes this double acting image further by having many of the key characters acting in one way or another.

Some of the notable instances of when double acting can be seen include: Hannay’s numerous aliases that require him to act in many different ways other than himself, the farmer’s wife who loves her husband to face but really values affairs younger men that are closer to her age, and the spy’s wife who nonchalantly asks how long her husband will take before coming downstairs for dinner (?) all while the spy is holding a gun to Hannay. There is even an instance of triple acting when Hannay ends up onstage during a political convention while trying to evade the police. The film is full of these instances, making seemingly every character an actor in some fashion, but as Hannay’s first encounter puts it after guessing that she was an actress, “Not in the way you mean.”

So what all does this mean? Who cares if there are actors who are acting while acting? The entire film seems to be a big play in a film. Audience members are left wondering what the real story is. If what’s happening diegetically is an act, then what is the truth of the film? Does it matter what is real, this delineation between the reality and theatre of the film?

Hitchcock definitely achieved a level apathy for reality in his film The 39 Steps. Through this whole process of double and triple acting, audience members lower their “fake” guard. It is almost impossible to follow the “real stories” of the characters within The 39 Steps. Hitchcock’s characters are constantly acting in a different manner than is their own. All of this creates a well-deserved apathy for the real reality of what is happening during The 39 Steps, and its surface reality is suddenly more tangible because of the apathy for delineation within the film. One of the final shots of the film is of a curtain closing onstage, bringing us back to the real reality of the diegesis during the very last seconds.

At the end of The 39 Steps, the audience members leave with a new-found appreciation for the, now, infinite possibilities of film. It was all Hitchcock. Try making every actor in a play act like they are acting, and make a reality out of it.

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