Monday, December 6, 2010

'The 39 Steps' -- fear, repeated as farce

Some thoughts on The 39 Steps, opening this Friday at Florida Studio Theatre. It's a comedy, based on Hitchcock's recipe of fear. This got me to thinking on the connection between "Ha-ha" and "Ahhhhhhh!" So here goes...

As Karl Marx once said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, the second time as farce.” His words apply equally to movies and plays. If you put something weepy, serious or scary on the stage or screen, somebody's going to turn it into a joke. If you create a formula for tears and fears, you can count on it. When you're not supposed to laugh, it's hard not to laugh. Satire depends on taking a serious formula and making a joke out of it.

When it came to creating serious formulas, director Alfred Hitchcock was the master. More precisely: Hitchcock was the master at scaring the daylights out of you. He attained that mastery early in his career.

The 39 Steps
was Hitchcock’s archetypal spy thriller, a 1935 film freely adapted from a 1915 novel by John Buchan. Charles Bennett wrote the screenplay, but it was clearly Hitchcock’s twisted vision. He made it a contemporary tale, set in the days of Britain’s prewar paranoia when Hitler’s agents were hatching their schemes across Europe. (This is one of those cases when the suspicions of paranoiacs were actually true.) In a nutshell, some of those agents frame an innocent British man (Richard Hannay) for murder. He runs, simultaneously chased by the police and a conspiracy of spies (who sometimes dress like police) who want to kill him. Throughout his flight, Hannay is stuck with (and occasionally handcuffed to) Pamela, an icy blonde who thinks he probably is guilty. If you’ve seen any Hitchcock movie, you probably know what he’s in for: a desperate warning from a dying woman, bits of business with maps, cross-country flight by train, public embarrassment at a political rally and a conspiracy unmasked in a music hall. In true Hitchcockian form, the big secret at the heart of it all is a MacGuffin — an excuse to keep the suspense going.

Even as a young director, Hitchcock knew nobody really cared about silent aircraft engines. He knew what audiences really cared about: fear. He’d found the perfect formula for creating it in The 39 Steps.

An innocent man hunted down by both the bad guys and the good guys? An innocent man trying to clear his name while running for his life? The formula worked in The 39 Steps. It worked again in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) To Catch a Thief (1955), and Frenzy (1972).

But calling Hitchcock’s magic a “formula” doesn’t do it justice. Hitchcock tapped into primal paranoia, hard-wired in the human mind. Being wrongfully accused of a crime that you didn’t commit. Running for your life. Not knowing who your friends and enemies are. Fumbling with maps, frantically trying to catch a train. Being exposed in public and explaining it away with a desperate gambit. This is what our nightmares look like. Hitchcock’s brilliance was to put them on celluloid.

Playwright Patrick Barlow’s brilliance was to adapt Hitchcock’s archetypal fear-fest as a comedy. Barlow’s script is somewhere between homage, satire and magic trick. Surprisingly, it doesn’t read like a comedy. Most of the lines from the original 1935 movie survive intact. Barlow doesn’t take the comic strategy of, say, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety — another Hitchcock spoof that mocked the master with broad references and exaggerated situations. Barlow plays the material relatively straight. Aside from having four actors play the roles of scores of characters in a quick-change frenzy, not much has changed. But it’s still laugh-out-loud funny. How does he do it?

Barlow’s comedy is more than Velcro costumes and good timing. His hilarity depends on a simple, brilliant insight: The formula for fear and the formula for laughs are basically the same. (Ahhh! and Haa-haa! aren't that different, after all) As any good comic knows, anxiety is the wellspring of comedy. Public exposure? A conspiracy out to get you? Now that’s comedy. Why reinvent the formula? Why not steal from the master?

In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock created the perfect formula for fear. Repeated as farce, Hitchcock’s formula works just as well.

What exactly is the formula for fear?

Ah. The formula for fear is —

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry. Our writer has been shot. No need for panic. Stay calm. We will bring on the dancing girls, momentarily.

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