Friday, March 20, 2009

Top Films: More Hitch: The 39 Steps

"It was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes.” --Francois Truffaut, regarding Hitchcock’s films.

Hitchcock’s genius is often described in part in his ability to torture the audience with suspense. He used the cinematic language with perfection to create tension in the audience. He did this both in what he showed and revealed and also in what he did not show or reveal. He would frequently let the audience in on information that was unknown to the characters, thereby creating the tension where the audience would anticipate what was coming, but delay that resolution until it was almost unbearable. Most famously, he would leave key elements such as violence off-screen, knowing that the audience’s imagination was far better at creating scares.

What is a less discussed fact is that he did the same thing with sex. Hitchcock made many sexually charged movies, but most of them use implication rather than actual sex to create the mood. The 39 Steps, made in 1935, is one such example. Consider how sexual this movie is:

Hannay meets a woman at a theater who asks if she can come home with him, because, “I would like too,” and then proceeds to spend the night at his flat.

Hannay tries to elicit the milkman’s help with the truth (murder) but ends up only able to convince him with a lie about a sexual encounter.

The conversation between the businessmen on the train is about women’s underwear and then the (presumed sexually motivated) murder of a woman.

The farmer’s wife, much younger than her jealous husband, helps Hannay out of an obvious physical/emotional attraction.

Finally, Hannay’s first encounter with Pamela results in him forcing himself upon her to avoid police detection (unsuccessfully); their second encounter ends up with them hand-cuffed together and spending the night together as implied lovers.

All that adds up to an ultimately rather innocent movie that is more sexual and tense than most movies about sex today where nothing is left to the imagination and no tension exists at all.

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