Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1939) and Notorious (1946)

by Fiona Underhill

If there is one name you associate with the word thriller, it has to be Hitchcock. Of course, his psychological technicolor masterpieces from the 50s and 60s are his best-known works, but his earlier black-and-white films have at least as much to offer the genre. The provincial and parochial Great Britain of Jamaica Inn (1939) and the train journeys of The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Strangers on a Train (1951) all had themes foreshadowed by The 39 Steps (1935), with its long train journey to rural Scotland. Made in the pre-war period when the rise of fascism and communism was threatening Europe, The 39 Steps deals with a non-specific foreign power trying to obtain military secrets from the UK. The spy genre was popular in the 30s because of the rapid rise in arrests and trials of Soviet spies in Europe. The 39 Steps fulfills many tropes of the genre; such as an ordinary man being under suspicion, falsely accused, on the run and desperate to clear his name (later used by Hitch in North by Northwest, of course).

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