39 Step Salute

I knocked off a quick video essay… well, I hesitate to call it an essay. A book report would be more like it.

Closeups of hands, mostly, from THE 39 STEPS, with some possibly familiar music. Hands are important in this film — see how many of them YOU can spot.

The point of the exercise is rhythmic rather than intellectual — about the only point made is that there are lots of shots of hands in the film — to some extent this is a result of two plot points, the handcuffs and the villain identified by his missing digit. But I think Hitch must have noticed this connection and capitalized on it, particularly with the end shot. You can treat this as a companion to my text piece in the forthcoming Criterion Blu-ray.

The 39 Steps (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

But before you buy that, donate here —

We raise enough money, we get a streaming edition of THE WHITE SHADOW, scripted by Hitch, with a new score. And I certainly want to see it.

12 Responses to “39 Step Salute”

  1. Very nice piece. I was re-watching Back to the Future recently and noticed how many shots that film has of hands — you could almost piece together a distilled version of the story just by focusing on shots of hands.

  2. Very interesting, Mr Cairns. I wonder how of Hitchcock’s use of hands was influenced by Fritz Lang. Metropolis and M have an extravagant number of hands in their compositions, as these hastily selected screenshots prove:





    and of course this

    The penultimate scene of M has the entire underworld raising their hands when the police arrive. Later, in his American period of course, Lang would use his own hands in close-up.

  3. Hitchcock’s cinema of montage uses close-ups so much it’s natural hands would feature heavily. Metropolis (where The Hand is a metaphorical character) and The 39 Steps make particular plot points out of hands and fingers, and later Hitchcock enthusiasts Argento and Tarantino have featured their own hands committing murders in their movies.

    I’d like to see a Back to the Future hand movie — although it’d be a shame to lose the rest of Lea Thompson.

  4. I need to do something about my technical challenges: I wanted to put together an imitation of the Len Lye effect in Secret Agent, but I don’t really have the know-how as yet to extract and edit a DVD copy. Must Do Better it would say on my blogathon report card! I’ve had a “Hands in Back to the Future” in draft for ages for the same reason…

  5. But Lang’s cinema is not based on montage, is it? Not the American ones, surely- he might have lost control over the films if he relied on montage as much as Hitchcock.

  6. Well, Hitch kept control by shooting only the fragments he needed. Lang used longer takes, usually, and maintained control that way. But the German films do have some fast-cut scenes, which carries over into Fury…

    Gareth, I’m technically a real sluggard but I might be able to give you some hints re software.

  7. Hitchcock does have a way of isolating body parts in his films. There’s obviously the famous tracking shot to Bergman’s hand holding the cellar key in Notorious. There’s also the tracking shot to the drummer’s twitching eye in Young and Innocent. And Vertigo is a symbolic rending-apart of Judy-Madeleine, from shots of her hands clutching a bouquet, to close-ups of her hair twisted in a bun, to more close-ups of her eyes, mouth, etc, as Judy is remade into Madeleine in the beauty salon. There’s even an instance of an isolated voice, when Doris Day booms out Que Sera Sera so that it’s heard in the upstairs quarters.

  8. Saul Bass’s Vertigo titles formalize the fetishizing of bits of face. The shower in Psycho is bracketed by an ECU of Norman’s eye at the start and of Marion’s at the end. There are many more examples.

    Incidentally, in my little film, I missed a good one: Lucie Mannheim showing Robert Donat which finger the dangerous man is missing, by taking his own hand and holding the finger in question.

  9. This is just wonderful! I may just pop up a wee post to link to you later on today …

  10. Reviewing portfolios of beginning artists, I emphasize the study hands and faces. They are the two most expressive parts of the body, and speak the most in our “body language”. I’ve always found it rather odd that so many young artists are intimidated by hands, given that most come equipped with two very accessible models.

    The reliance on montage can sometimes feel intrusive. Seeing the heavy hands of the director and edit or we’re reminded of their manipulation. But montage is also one way we are drawn in to film, participating in bridging the cuts, in putting those pieces together.

  11. […] has contributed to this site. Recently, at his excellent blog Shadowplay, David treated us to a short film in celebration of Hitch’s use of hands in The 39 […]

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