The 39 Steps and The Lodger – Hitchcock at the BFI

In case you’ve somehow failed to notice the BFI is currently running The Genius of Hitchcock season at its home on the Southbank. Every single Hitchcock film is being shown on the big screen over the next few months. The BFI were kind enough to invite us down to watch Hitchcock’s early silent film The Lodger, newly restored by the BFI, and I even paid (a whopping £5 on a Tuesday) to watch a previously unseen by me classic The 39 Steps. Now read on for a little gushing and a few attempts at sounding intelligent.

The 39 Steps
Having only ever seen the comedy stage play before (a fantastic show in its own right) I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to appreciate the film properly and take it as seriously as I might had I not seen it as a farce first. I have to confess that as the film began I was giggling at some scenes that may have been intended to be serious as my mind flickered back to their theatrical comedy counterparts but as the film rolled on I realised that it was OK, Hitchcock had intended the film to be funny.

When you are watching two people on the run from the police struggling to make it over a fence hampered by the fact that they are handcuffed together there is nothing to do but laugh. Hitchcock is a man with a sense of humour and any reverence for his body of work shouldn’t get in the way of that.

The 39 Steps is Hitchcock through and through. A man find himself on the run for a crime he doesn’t commit. There are train rides and sexual tension alongside what turned out to be moments of genuine comedy. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, all the better on the big screen, and only fell asleep briefly.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
One of the joys of The Genius of Hitchcock is seeing some of his earliest silent films restored and with a newly written score. The Lodger is Hitchcock’s third finished film, made way back in 1926, and is the story of a young man suspected of being The Avenger a Jack the Ripper style serial killer.

What is remarkable is how happy Hitchcock is to turn the serial killer into a MacGuffin. Rather than this being a story about the killings themselves it is about suspicion, persecution, and a woman choosing between the man her parents want her to be with and the new man in her life with whom she shares a genuine connection.

The film was a delight. Hitchcock was surprisingly playful in his direction experimenting with editing, camera angles and title cards. So often when I think of early cinema I expect it to be an unsophisticated mess, forgetting that these were the films that discovered the techniques defining cinema to this day.

The film is rightly said to set up many of Hitchcock’s themes and styles. Again we have a man accused of a crime and forced to prove his innocence whilst falling in love, we have Hitchcock’s first on-screen cameo, and there is the subtle frisson of sexuality Hitchcock is such a fan of. Hitchcock him self called The Lodger the first real Hitchcock film.

The original score is for the most part perfect. It fits the tone and era of the film, managing to switch between sinister and playful several times within a single scene. There are only two weak points when the scores segues into slightly folksy modern ballads. The sudden presence of contemporary music was completely jarring and really took me out of the film. Other than these two flaws the film has been expertly restored and I didn’t fall asleep once.

The 39 Steps runs at the BFI until 25th August, The Lodger until 23rd August, and The Genius of Hitchcock continues at the BFI until October.