Paul Merton on Hitchcock and The 39 Steps

By Joe Walsh

Last week the Barbican hosted a special screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, on 35mm courtesy of the BFI for you fellow cine-philes out there, followed by a screening of Paul Merton’s brilliant 2009 documentary on Hitchcock. Merton also put in an appearance at the event for a lively Q&A and, of course, a few jokes.

The event was a great success for many reasons. Firstly I, like many others present, had never seen The 39 Steps (1935) on the big screen and that was a real treat. But it was also a success on account of Merton’s energy for Hitchcock. Merton’s introduction and Q&A allowed for a down-to-earth discussion about the great man and his work. The primary objective was to show that Hitchcock was not some sinister, shadowy figure but actually a humorous and comical character that has become the victim of his own self-promotion as a moody suspense director.

For those of you unfamiliar with The 39 Steps (shame on you – go hence to HMV or Amazon) follows the story of Richard Hannay who becomes embroiled in an espionage plot when a female spy is murdered in his London flat. A cat and mouse chase across the country ensues as Hannay seeks out a man in Scotland who can help him prevent secret information being stolen from Ol’Blighty.

I had forgotten about the high level of humour in The 39 Steps and readily joined in with the laughter at Robert Donat’s pitch perfect delivery as Richard Hannay and Madeleine Carroll’s wonderfully petulant and sultry Pamela (the infamous stocking scene I am informed is one of the most erotic of the era). The film is a classic and deservedly so. It is remarkable that a film that suffers from so many continuity and plot issues can be so good (there are multiple examples but most notably when Hannay is being chased on the train and the police decide to wait in the carriage whilst he makes his escape. We can blame Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, for this as she was responsible for continuity).

Its enduring appeal is mainly down to the quality and effort that Hitchcock put into his direction. However, as Paul Merton argued, films are not just made by their directors. Hitchcock had a wonderful starting point with John Buchan’s novel that was adapted for film by Charles Bennett. He also benefited from a stellar cast who play the roles masterfully. Credit should still go to the director though for carefully choreographing a film that is, in fact, little more than a series of chases with Hannay being pursued by multiple enemies on both sides of the law.

Merton’s documentary had previously been screened on the BBC but felt as fresh as ever. It is full of warm humour; delivered with a lightness of touch that all the while remains informative. It traces Hitchcock’s career and how he became the figure we know today and suggests why we should perhaps consider him in a different light. Particularly enjoyable were the mock-interviews between Merton and Hitchcock that had been edited together. The amount of archive footage was well balanced along with interviews from Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia. Again what shone through was Merton’s passion – he loves Hitchcock and it shows. There is nothing more refreshing than a subject that has been talked to near-death being given a new life by an honest and loving approach.

Before the screenings I cornered Merton for a few words on why he loves Hitchcock…

J: What was the initial impetus for you wanting to make the documentary?  

P.M.: Alfred Hitchcock has always been my favourite film director and the BBC approached me around three years ago and asked me if I wanted to present a documentary about it.  I had harboured ambitions to be a director for a long time (I’ve done a little bit but not much) so I said I would do it if I could direct it. I have always admired Hitchcock not just for his technical skill but also for his wit with his visual sense and the fact there is a very English sense of humour, even a very London sense of humour. It’s quite dark, it’s quite wicked but it’s quite funny as well. What I was able to do in my documentary, I hope, is bring along that side of him – that whimsical, funny side of him, rather than this idiotic idea that he was a dark sinister character simply because he made dark sinister films.

J: So you want to dispel the myth of Hitchcock?

P.M: Exactly. There were many good actors in Hollywood, James Stuart and Cary Grant, who were much in demand who worked with him. I think each of them worked with him three or four times – they don’t need to do that if they are working with a director who is a monster. It’s like catnip sometimes. The idea that a director of suspense films should also be creepy is too good to resist as a story for journalists and there are a couple of people who have written along those lines. I believe we show in our documentary the technician, the brilliant storyteller, but also the very humorous man.

J: Is this a passion that comes from your youth?

P.M. Yes, tonight we are kicking off with The 39 Steps. I have just been told it is a brand new 35mm print, which is fantastic news. We are going to kick of with that, and I first saw it when I was about eight or nine, on BBC2, and was just knocked out by it, by the storytelling. I have to be careful what I say to the audience before the screening – I can’t show the documentary first because it gives away a very important story line.  So there is a real air of expectation and I am really looking forward to it.

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