The articles reprinted here courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse


Spies, MacGuffins and Men Who Knew Too Much: A Primer on Alfred Hitchcock's Espionage Films

By Gabriel Greene

In a career spanning six decades, Alfred Hitchcock amassed a body of work that justly earned him the title "Master of Suspense." Some of Hitchcock's most popular films utilize similar themes and story devices, including the "MacGuffin," a concept or object (perhaps never even seen in the movie) whose existence drives the entire plot of the film.

Many films use MacGuffins — think Pulp Fiction's mysterious briefcase containing a glowing, unknown object; the letters of transit in Casablanca; the titular statue in The Maltese Falcon — and yet the key to the MacGuffin is that it only has meaning insofar as it serves the engine of the plot. If, for example, Sam Spade and the villains were fighting to find a painting of a California condor instead of a statue of a Maltese falcon, nothing else in the movie would be affected.

Espionage thrillers are tailor-made for MacGuffins, and few filmmakers are as well known for both as Alfred Hitchcock. Here's a look at some of his more notable ones:

Year: 1934 (remade in 1956)
Stars: Leslie Banks, Edna Best (1934); Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day (1956)
Synopsis: While vacationing in Switzerland (Morocco in the 1956 remake), an innocent couple — having accidentally learned about a planned political assassination — is forced to go on the run to stop the attempt and save their kidnapped child.
MacGuffin: The assassination attempt

Year: 1935
Stars: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Synopsis: When a spy is murdered in his home, an innocent man — mistaken for the murderer — is forced to go on the run and thwart an evil plot.
MacGuffin: British military secrets

Year: 1942
Stars: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane
Synopsis: When the military aircraft plant at which he works is set on fire, an innocent man — mistaken for the arsonist — is forced to go on the run and thwart an evil plot.
MacGuffin: The plot to destroy a Navy ship

Year: 1959
Stars: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint
Synopsis: When he attempts to send a telegram, an innocent man — mistaken for a CIA agent - is forced to go on the run and thwart an evil plot.
MacGuffin: Microfilm hidden inside a statue

Year: 1966
Stars: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews
Synopsis: Fooling everyone into thinking he has defected to East Germany, an American physicist works undercover to unearth military secrets and thwart an evil plot.
MacGuffin: Mathematical equations

Year: 1969
Stars: Frederick Stafford, Dany Robin
Synopsis: Following the Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA asks a French diplomat to infiltrate a spy ring and thwart an evil plot.
MacGuffin: NATO documents

Thrill Ride: The Ups and Downs of Alfred Hitchcock's Career

By Maxwell C. Goldberg

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) always thrived on eccentricity. He is said to have feared the police since early childhood, after his father sent him to the police station with a note requesting a five-minute incarceration. To this he attributed his phobia of driving, as motorists were more likely to come in contact with the law.

True or false, these idiosyncrasies created a vast personal mythology that assisted his career and encouraged scholarship after his death. His habits transcended mere personal quirks. Vast ritual affected his work, from morbid practical jokes to the cycle of procrastination and flurried activity with which he revised scripts.

One overarching habit took several stages. First, he would direct a popular and critical hit, establishing fame and greater artistic control over subsequent pictures. Using this power, he would create artistic films using experimental techniques or plots that audiences and critics deplored. Sufficiently cowed by criticism, he would again make a crowd-and-critics pleaser and begin the cycle anew.

Hitchcock's first hit occurred with his third film, the Jack-the-Ripper thriller The Lodger (1926). His first two films had been shelved after poor reception at trade screenings and the personal dislike of his production company's distributor, C. M. Woolf, who could not prevent the critical and commercial success of The Lodger. After several more failures, Hitchcock directed Blackmail (1929), a smash-hit thriller advertised as Britain's first talkie (although this was not true).

Hitchcock lived up to pattern, almost ending his career with four year's worth of unpopular films. Once again, though, he came through just in time. He believed that John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps would be the ideal starting point for "the perfect thriller." Critics and audiences agreed, with one reviewer from The Sunday Times writing, "There is no doubt Hitchcock is a genius. He is the real star of the film." As a result of the 1935 film, Hitchcock not only gained the moniker "Master" in his home country, but caught the attention of American producer David Selznick, who offered him an eight-year contract in Hollywood.

In the U.S., Hitchcock often fought with Selznick over artistic control, even though he produced a string of nine popular successes from 1939 to 1947, including Saboteur (1942) and Notorious (1946). He was less productive (and more true to form) directing for his own production company, Transatlantic Pictures. He experimented with ten-minute takes in his two films for this company, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), in order to cut costs. In fact, this technique required a good deal of precision and drove both films far over budget. They were both well-received but could not recoup production losses. Transatlantic Pictures folded soon after.

Even in the troubled periods of his career, Hitchcock managed to maintain his popular image. In the 1930s in Britain, he did this through his publicity company, Hitchcock Baker Productions, and his periodic contributions to film trade publications. In the U.S., his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, which ran from 1955 to 1965, helped to make him a household name, along with assorted eponymous merchandise ranging from thriller novels to a board game.

The 1950s and '60s proved to be some of Hitchcock's most productive years. All of the films he made in this time did well at the box office, even if some were reviewed harshly. During this time, his pattern recurred several more times. He retreated from the poorly-received I Confess (1953) to direct the successful Dial M for Murder (1954). The failure of The Trouble with Harry (1955) led to a hit remake of his The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Finally, Vertigo (1958), which confused audiences and angered critics, gave rise to North by Northwest (1959).

Hitchcock created two more major psychological thrillers, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), before he began to slow down. His 50th film, Torn Curtain (1966), intended to be his masterwork, received poor reviews and was noteworthy primarily for its lengthy strangulation scene, intended to demonstrate the physical difficulty of killing.

Hitchcock made three more films after Torn Curtain, but would never attain his prior fame. In 1972, he devoted himself exclusively to script revision and closed his production office entirely in 1979.

Hitchcock never received an Oscar for directing even though he had been nominated five times. He bitterly accepted an honorary Oscar for the "consistent high level" of his productions in 1967 ("Thank you," was his entire acceptance speech). In the '70s, he won many more awards, including the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. Finally, in 1980, he was awarded knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of England. By this time, his health was failing rapidly, and he passed away in spring of that year.

After his death, the experimental films that threatened to wreck his career were reexamined and viewed in a new cinematic light. The increase in scholarship in the past thirty years has caused some films, such as Vertigo, to be labeled masterpieces. Only after his death could he achieve what he had sought through his mysterious habits in life: to preserve his reputation for posterity.


John Buchan

By Maxwell C. Goldberg

When John Buchan (1875-1940) wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), he called it a "shocker," a novel "where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible." With secret cyphers, German conspiracies, ruthless foreign agents, and chance encounters, it fit this description, but the circumstances of its writing did not; this book was penned out of complete boredom.

Confined to bed in winter of 1914 with an ulcer, Buchan ran out of shockers to read and decided to make his own. This was not, however, the first he had written. His two earlier attempts, Prester John (1910) and The Power-House (1913), were popular hits, and he had already established his reputation in literary circles as a biographer, historian, and writer of historical fiction.

The Thirty-Nine Steps pits protagonist Richard Hannay, a self-proclaimed ordinary guy, against a network of German spies preparing to storm Great Britain. It was the first in a series of five novels featuring Hannay, who would later outsmart Turks during World War I in Greenmantle (1916) and gangsters in three other books.

After finishing The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan served as an intelligence officer and war correspondent and was promoted in 1917 to direct the propaganda wing of the Foreign Office, due to his knowledge of German, his experience with secret codes from his time as a South African bureaucrat at the turn of the century, and his political appeal as a moderate Tory.

After the war, he gained more accolades, becoming a member of Parliament in 1927, Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland in 1933, and Governor-General of Canada in 1935. In the same year, Alfred Hitchcock directed a film adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps, adding a love interest to the story and stripping it of any mention of Germany or impending attack. Germany, however, remained of great importance to Buchan; the last major political act of his life was to pledge Canada's support to the allies in World War II.

Patrick Barlow & the National Theatre of Brent

By Maxwell C. Goldberg

Patrick Barlow's adaptation of The 39 Steps consistently astonishes audiences with its inspired use of four actors playing over 100 roles. But for those who know his wildly successful, two-man National Theatre of Brent, Barlow's talent for creating a lot from a little comes as no surprise.

Founded in 1980 by the English comic actor and writer, NTB has created 21 eclectic small-cast shows for the stage, radio, and television. Some are adaptations, drawing inspiration from sources as varied as the Christmas story and Wagner's Ring cycle. Others, such as All the World's a Globe (1990) and The Complete Life and Works of Shakespeare (1993), are based on books written by Barlow. Still others explore contemporary issues, such as 1997's The Mysteries of Sex and 2007's The Arts and How They Was Done.

The 62 year-old Barlow – who assumes the role of NTB's domineering Artistic Director, Desmond Olivier Dingle — is the common denominator in all of this, writing and acting in all NTB productions. His long-suffering assistant, who portrays numerous character roles during the show, has been played by several actors over the years, including TV actor Robert Austin, Academy Award-winner Jim Broadbent and, most recently, comedian John Ramm. The NTB's acclaimed Love Upon the Throne (1998), a piece focusing on the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award.

NTB's official website is www.nationaltheatreofbrent.com.

The 39 Steps: A Production History

By Maxwell C. Goldberg

The Thirty-Nine Steps (novel, 1915)
The source material for all later versions, John Buchan's novel was the first of five books featuring protagonist Richard Hannay, a former mining engineer in South Africa. In this installment, Hannay learns of an international conspiracy to assassinate a Greek political leader and draw all of Europe into war. One of the earliest novels in the thriller genre, The Thirty-Nine Steps has been continuously in print since its original publication.

The 39 Steps (film, 1935)
Alfred Hitchcock, an admirer of Buchan's fiction since his teenage years, nevertheless altered the plot of his adaptation so significantly that it barely resembled the original text. This version, coauthored with screenwriter Charles Bennett, sends Richard Hannay, a recent Canadian émigré, on a quest to stop foreign agents from stealing British air defense secrets. Rather than focusing on espionage and impending threats to England, Hitchcock instead uses the spy thriller plot to examine Hannay's relationships with women and marriage in general. This movie launched Hitchcock into renown in the UK and the US, and continues to be popular to this day (in 1999, it was named the 4th greatest British film ever in a poll by the British Film Institute).

The 39 Steps (film, 1959)
This color remake was directed by Ralph Thomas, a British director known for a series of comedies based on Richard Gordon's Doctor series of novels. Closely following the storyline of the 1935 film, Thomas uses many of Hitchcock's plot devices (e.g. Mr. Memory, the theft of British military secrets). Released only in the UK, it did not see the success of the Hitchcock original.

The Thirty Nine Steps (film, 1978)
Compared to the other two film versions, director Don Sharp's is quite faithful to Buchan's novel. Set in 1914 (as in the original), this film deals with the conspiracy to draw all of Europe into war. It differs most markedly from Buchan's plot in its ending, which takes place on the clock hands of Big Ben rather than on the British coastline.

Hannay (tv series, 1988-89)
Robert Powell — who portrayed Richard Hannay in the 1978 film — stepped into the role again for this UK television program, which aired on Thames TV. Airing for two seasons (six episodes in 1988, and seven in 1989), the show followed Hannay's pre-World War I exploits.

The 39 Steps (live theatre, 2006)
This live theatrical adaptation draws heavily from Hitchcock's movie, but relies on four actors to play all roles. It was adapted by Patrick Barlow, a comic performer and writer known for reworking many-character pieces into two-actor shows. First presented at West Yorkshire Playhouse, it went on to successful runs in London's West End and on Broadway, as well as Australia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico, Spain and South Korea.

The 21 Steps (interactive online novella, 2008)
Part of Penguin Books' online series of six interactive stories, spy fiction author Charles Cumming's version is only tenuously based on Buchan's novel. Using a Google Maps interface, The 21 Steps tells the story of Rick Blackwell, a man forced to smuggle an unidentified package across the UK after a complete stranger dies from gunshot wounds in front of him. Visit http://wetellstories.co.uk/stories/week1/ to learn more — but be sure not to click on the map while it's in motion, or you'll have to start the entire chapter over.

The 39 Steps (TV movie, 2008)
This most recent version is a BBC-commissioned work for television that follows Buchan's original plot, but incorporates some changes, including adding a love interest for Hannay and cutting parts of the lengthy journey through Scotland. Although the movie was the most-viewed program on the day it aired (December 28th, 2008), it received poor reviews and was criticized for anachronisms (such as a biplane that chases Hannay and the appearance of a submarine).