“Murder!” exclaims the first word in the trailer above. “Mystery!!” the next continues. “Treachery!!! Romance!!!!” Before these claims can rack up a fifth exclamation point, we learn the plight of the protagonist — “hounded by spies,” “hunted by police,” and “double-crossed by the woman he loves.” The film? Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, (watch free online here) his 1935 British thriller starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. The film has taken so many critical laurels since its release that the way this trailer ballyhoos it like a potboiler comes as a shock. “It STARTS with a MURDER,” “and ENDS in a THRILL” — not to mention a certain cinematic craft in between.
If you simply let the video run, it will treat you to 24 more trailers in a row for various Hitchcock features, from 1940’s Foreign Correspondent, “the thrill spectacle of the year,” to 1946’s Notorious, “daringly directed by that master of suspense,” to 1976’s Family Plot, by which point breathless onscreen text had gone out of style, replaced by silly gags. These come courtesy of archive.org, which maintains an Alfred Hitchcock Trailer Collection. Their repetitious promises of thrills, suspense, mystery, and intrigue of all stripes reminds us that, for all his pure filmmaking skill, Hitchcock also acted simultaneously as his own best salesman: or rather, his pictures, presented in these tantalizing condensed forms, sell themselves. Can we assume that, like everything else about a Hitchcock movie, this didn’t happen by chance?
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.