#89. The 39 Steps (1935)

It was actually on the night I started this Project that I watched, along with A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery, a new-ish documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s marathon interview with Francois Truffaut. The doc is called Hitchcock/Truffaut. Truffaut, the interlocutor, is always sounding reverential in his questioning, and succeeds in getting Hitchcock to talk about his work in such a way that the artistry, craftsmanship, and general intelligence of his movies are made clear. Critics had always been skeptical of this, saying that Hitchcock’s movies were entertaining and well-made but far from genius. I was surprised to learn from the documentary that, despite his myriad achievements and renown, Hitchcock felt some serious anxiety, especially toward the end of his career, that the more dismissive critics had been right all along, that his work didn’t amount to very much, and the documentary paints a picture of a melancholic decline in his final years. (Hearing even a vague account of the extent to which he tortured Tipi Hedren on the set of Marnie might kill your sympathy for his dying despair, but there it is.)

39 steps poster 2

I watched Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps early Friday evening, after a morning shift at the restaurant, and was planning to watch another movie afterward but some friends called and invited me for drinks. We went to a bar at the corner of my house and there, around midnight, the TVs overhead were interrupted by reports of Fidel Castro’s death.

It isn’t my story to tell (and frankly I don’t know enough to give you a solid narrative) so I won’t say much beyond the fact that my grandfather fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion and was captured, held as a POW for two years, and released to my dad’s and grandma’s New Jersey home on Christmas Eve. He was a medical technologist and so, with his bit of medical experience, he functioned as an all-purpose doctor in the Cuban prisons. My dad met a guy recently who was int hat prison too. He said that my grandfather pulled a festering tooth for him.

But that’s not mine to get into.

Down here in Miami a legion broke for 8th street as soon as the news of Castro’s death came out. They flocked toward a restaurant called Versailles, where they banged pots and danced and waved flags. The Death of the Dictator. People interviewed by the news were all in a celebratory mood, all getting along, but there was a notable divide between those who think that Castro’s death will be a gateway for change and those who do not. What all agreed upon was the good riddance. They hugged each other and cried. Fireworks have been popping overhead for two nights now. The Cuban government has designated nine days of mourning and the fireworks will probably match it.castro young            Turn on BBC Radio for a roundup of statements form world leaders, though, and almost nobody seems to feel like celebrating. Or at least they don’t voice it. Canada, China – Aafrican countries appear to be the most distraught. Castro backed a lot of revolutions there, apparently.

Driving to the café this morning I heard a DJ on Power 96 break down while telling the story of his father’s effort to escape Cuba. The turbulent ride, the danger, self-sacrifice. The loss of home.

The local news has been unprecedentedly direct, with black-and-white footage of bullet-pocked corpses on Cuban streets. Rorschach pools of blood. Castro in his regalia. Monstrous.

castro oldI’ve been sleeping with somebody who came from Cuba when she was ten and she says that the celebrations are tacky. “Castro won.” A mass murderer who died peacefully at 90. Limbs all intact, both eyes still in his head, the comforts of wealth and power all around him.

An article online observed that Castro was irrelevant at the time of his death. Obama pointed out that Fidel had caused a lot of pain, and that history will judge him.

But whose history will it be?

My grandfather, 89, is glad to see Castro die. There’s some closure in this.


I first saw The 39 Steps in college as part of the curriculum for a Hitchcock class and I hated it. Thought it was boring. This Friday, however, I liked it. A well-crafted story, not just a thriller, with lots of set-ups and payoffs (a knife that assumes a strange gleam in the kitchen later ends up hilted in somebody’s back; the curiosity of a man’s prodigious memory gives the show some symmetry). It’s a strong and artful film, something to be proud of. Maybe Hitchcock was proud of it, sometimes. But in the end he seems to have felt that it was all sort of for naught. He felt irrelevant. Lived long enough to see his work discussed in universities, and to hear his name grouped among those of geniuses and those who shaped culture. He died on top, resting on his laurels. So much evidence of the powerhouse he’d always been.

Withering away in bed, fat and lonesome, weak. Who cares if he wasn’t actually forgotten. It’s how he felt.

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