I was about a third of the way through The 39 Steps when my wife, Kate, walked into the basement where two friends had joined me to take in Hitchcock’s world. She asked us the natural question—how’s the movie?
My friend’s response speaks of the importance of The 39 Steps as a film and Alfred Hitchcock’s place in cinematic story telling. Carson looked at Kate and said, “I’m waiting for it to happen.”
“It,” of course, is the twist.
In 1869, Phonney Martin was described as an “extremely hard pitcher to hit for the ball never comes in a straight line‚ but in a tantalizing curve.” While it is still debated who the first pitcher was to throw a curveball, no one who watches baseball can imagine the game without it. The curve, at one point in time, had never been seen. When it slashed across the plate for the first time with a bat hopelessly chasing it, the game was changed forever.
Martin’s curveball was not the fastest, craziest, most unpredictable pitch ever thrown. Others have come along since and done more with the curve. But there was a time where Martin was almost unhittable. He took people’s breath away.
In 1935, when The 39 Steps flashed across screens worldwide, cinema changed forever. No longer would the viewer step into the theater and expect a straight narrative line. Hitchcock had changed the game.
The 39 Steps isn’t the fastest, craziest, most unpredictable film you will ever see. But almost every filmmaker who uses a narrative twist, not to mention high camera angles, point-of-view shots and intentional framing to tell their story, is copying something that started with Hitchcock.
So step into the box and enjoy the beauty of a first of its kind as it flies by you.