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"Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" at Syracuse Stage

In the gathering storm of intrigue that preceded World War I, a lonely, bored Canadian businessman named Richard Hannay who's been working in England decides to leave his dreary flat for an evening of diversion at the popular theatre. There, he encounters rowdy goings-on, a vaudeville act by so-called savant dubbed Mr. Memory who "goes into a trance" and recites esoteric facts, and a terrified woman who pleads with him to take her home for the night. Once there, she insists they've been followed - there are shadowy silhouettes skulking by the lamp post below - and she must get to Scotland before political secrets are spirited out of the country to enemies led by a pitiless and powerful man missing part of one finger. When she's suddenly killed mysteriously, Hannay takes her map, slips out and boards a train himself for Scotland. On board, he meets a woman named Pamela headed, he later discovers, to the same place he is, though first he must escape pursuit by leaping from train onto a trestle and fleeing afoot over the moors, there chased by a plane and lines of police until he seeks refuge in a cottage with a jealous husband and his young wife....

From John Buchan's 1915 novel, suspense-meister Alfred Hitchcock took his 1935 film, an early brew of spies, murder and derring-do by a fleeing innocent man that found echoes in many of Hitchcock's later films. Syracusans got to see "The 39 Steps" on the big screen on October 1st at the Eastwood Palace, courtesy of the Syracuse International Film Festival. SYRFILM's double feature that night - they also screened "North by Northwest" (1959) - was the opening salvo in their collaboration with Syracuse Stage, "Hitchcock in Syracuse." Then, during the recent film fest, Hitchcock's early silent thriller and first major success, "The Lodger," screened at the Palace, accompanied by a live jazz performance of a newly commissioned score by saxophonist Javon Jackson. This annual signature event - vintage silent film paired with live jazz - was packed, as usual. Jackson astutely commented that night that he'd come to notice a good deal more wry humor in the Hitchcock film than we usually give the dour Englishman credit for. How funny could "The 39 Steps" - actually one of four film adaptations of Buchan's novel - really be? Certainly there is comic potential in the scenes where Hannay and his future lady-love are hand-cuffed together and take refuge in a remote country inn for the night?

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