THE 39 STEPS (1935): “Don’t bother about me, I’m nobody.”

THE 39 STEPS (1935) – Gaumont British – ★★★★★

B&W – 86 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Margaret Crofter), John Laurie (John Crofter), Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).

Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles

Edited by Derek N. Twist

Music by Jack Beaver and Louis Levy

The picaresque steps:  As Alfred Hitchcock himself described The 39 Steps it is a “film of episodes.”  He and Charles Bennett constructed a picaresque narrative, with a reluctant hero moving from one scene and one locale to the next, getting into (and out of) scrape after scrape, until the climax.  The influence of this film on Hitchcock’s later works cannot be overstated.  Without this film, there is no Foreign Correspondent, no Saboteur, and certainly no North by Northwest.  So let’s look at this film in the same manner in which it was constructed:  one episode at a time.

Step one, The Music Hall:  Hitchcock opens with a close up pan of a neon sign that says “MUSIC HALL.”   (Neon signs feature in several early Hitchcock movies.)  We are introduced to our hero through a series of shots that show him only from the back.  His light brown coat serves as a marker as he purchases a ticket, enters and finds a seat.   The house band begins to play, and on stage comes Mr. Memory, a man who memorizes 50 facts a day, and never forgets one.  Various patrons begin to ask questions.  The overall tone of this opening is light and humorous.  Finally, our hero asks a question.  Look at the framing of this shot:

Whose pov is this?  We are standing behind Mr. Memory, looking over his shoulder as it were.  But look at the perfect framing of Robert Donat (in the role of Richard Hannay).  He sits up a bit taller than those around him, the light reflects on his face;  Hitchcock made sure our eye would automatically be drawn to him.  Hannay’s question (How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?) establishes that he is from Canada.   Shortly the humorous tone takes a turn as shots are fired, and the packed music hall empties into the street.  Hannay is pressed together with a woman with a vaguely Germanic accent, who asks if she can come home with Hannay.   Certainly we are meant to suspect that she is a prostitute?  Rather bold, for a mid 1930’s film.

Step Two, Hannay’s Apartment:  Once inside Hannay’s flat, we discover that this foreign woman’s motives are very different than those we at first suspected.   She tells Hannay that her name is Annabella Smith, clearly a false name.  Annabella (played by Lucie Mannheim) asks Hannay if he’s ever heard of the 39 Steps, then tells Hannay a fantastic story:  she fired the shots in the theater, she is an agent trying to protect a British military secret from falling into the hands of spies, two of those spies were in the music hall, and are outside Hannay’s apartment right this minute.  The leader of these spies is a man missing the first joint of his little finger.  At first Hannay is incredulous, but upon seeing two men standing under a streetlight, he begins to wonder.  He agrees to let Annabella spend the night, giving her his bed while he takes the couch.   We then get this fantastic shot:

This shot is unlike any other in the film.  It shows the German expressionist influence on Hitchcock.  The play of light and shadow is wonderful, as well as the way the statue appears to be pointing at the open window and billowing curtains,  announcing to the audience that someone else has entered the apartment, there is trouble brewing.  Annabella wakes up Hannay, warning him to get out, then falls over him with a knife plunged in her back.  Clutched in her hand is a map of Scotland with the village of Alt-Na-Shellac circled.  So the spies broke into the house, stabbed her in the back, and yet left Hannay alive?  We don’t have time to question this in the moment, the narrative moves far too swiftly.

Step three, the milkman:  Hannay is unable to leave his building, because the two spies are waiting outside.  When the milkman comes in, he convinces him to switch clothing, and leaves in the milkman’s coat and hat.  Interestingly, Hannay tries to tell the milkman the truth, but he doesn’t buy this story of spies and a murdered woman.  Only when Hannay tells a lie, about seeing a married woman, does the milkman take him at his word.  This will not be the last time that Hannay has to lie to be believed.

Step four, the train:  The next sequence has one of the most clever (and most copied) editorial cuts in Hitchcock’s career.  We see Hannay’s cleaning lady opening his flat, seeing the murdered woman, and turning to scream.  She opens her mouth, and out comes the screech of a train whistle.  Then we cut to the visual of the train.  Hannay is on board the train, heading up to Scotland to the village that Annabella had circled on the map.  He is a wanted man, believed to be guilty of killing the woman found in his flat.  There is a humorous section here involving the men that he shares a carriage with, who are reading a newspaper that details the murder of Annabella, and the hunt for Hannay.  The police eventually find him on the train, and he flees, into the carriage of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).  He tells her his story and begs for help.

When Hitchcock had Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet on a train in North by Northwest 25 years later, under similar circumstances, it was a meet cute.  There is nothing cute about the way Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll meet.  She believes him guilty, and immediately turns him over to the police.  Once again he makes an escape, hiding on the Forth Bridge as seen in this shot.

Step five, the Crofter’s cottage:  The next sequence is so well structured and acted, it is almost like a mini-movie right in the middle of the longer movie.   Richard Hannay comes to a crofter’s cottage, and learns that there is a new Englishman, “a kind of professor” living in Alt-Na-Shellac.  It’s too late in the day to walk the 14 miles, so the crofter agrees to put him up for the night, for a fee.  Hannay meets the crofter’s wife, at first mistaking her for a daughter.   The young wife is taken with Hannay.  He is attractive, charming, and he’s been to London, which might as well be another planet to this girl.   As she prepares the supper, he glances at the paper, and sees yet another article about the manhunt for himself, the supposed killer of Annabella.  Seeing him glance at it, the young woman realizes who this dashing man really is.  This leads to some very urgent glances between the two at supper, which do not go unnoticed by her husband.  He, of course, thinks these glances mean something else entirely.  Later, when the wife sneaks out of bed to help Hannay escape, the husband confronts them, believing it is the beginning of an amorous tryst.  As Hannay declares his innocence, Hitchcock has this interesting shot composition.

The characters are seen through a chair, much like the bars of a prison.  As the police arrive at the front door, the wife helps Hannay escape out the back door, giving him Crofter’s dark coat to wear.  So rich this little tale, so honest the characters, Hitchcock could have made an entire movie out of this episode.

Step six, the “Professor’s” house:  Hannay next goes to the house of the “Professor”, the man he believes Annabelle was going to visit in Scotland.  The Professor lives on a lovely estate, and is hosting a small gathering.  Hannay is welcomed into the group.  A very nice, and subtle touch here, is to watch how many hands featured in the scene.  Keeping in mind that the leader of the evil spies is missing half a finger.  Hands enter and exit the frame rapidly, shaking Hannay’s hand, handing him a cigarette, a drink, offering a light.  A subtle way prepare us for the significance of hands.  Finally the Professor and Hannay are alone, and Hannay discovers that the Professor is not an ally, but the enemy.  Annabella wasn’t coming here to get the Professor’s help, she was coming to thwart him.

The Professor explains that he can’t let Hannay live, and proceeds to shoot him.  He falls down, dead.  Or is he?

Step seven, the lecture hall:  This section is comprised of two short sequences leading into a longer one.  Hannay is in a policeman’s office, showing how the crofter’s book of prayer in the coat pocket stopped the bullet aimed for his heart.  Unfortunately for Hannay, the policeman is another ally of the Professor, leading to another escape, by jumping through a window.  He falls in step with a Salvation Army parade passing by, then slips into an alley and an inviting doorway.  This doorway turns out to be the back of a lecture hall, and Hannay is rushed to the stage.  He quickly realizes that he has been mistaken for the guest speaker!  He begins to speak off the cuff, when who should walk in but Pamela, the woman from the train.  The police also gather in the wings.  His speech becomes more impassioned, and he inspires the crowd to leap to their feet in an excited state, but is pushed into the hands of the waiting police.  Hitchcock would re-use this sequence, the idea of being trapped in a crowded room, in both Saboteur and North by Northwest.

Step eight, the car and the countryside:  The police arrest Hannay for the murder of Annabella, and ask Pamela to come along too, as she saw him on the train.  Only it turns out these policemen are actually more of the Professor’s men.  Hannay and Pamela, handcuffed together, escape with the help of a flock of sheep blocking a bridge.  He forces her to hide under a waterfall, and later they make their escape.  Pamela still believes Hannay is guilty of murder.  This is yet another person that won’t believe Hannay when he tells the truth, but will accept what he says when he lies.

Step nine, the hotel:  Hannay and Pamela end up in a hotel room, and this is where their relationship takes a turn.  We have a humorous (and risque for the 30’s) scene in which Pamela, still handcuffed, removes her stockings, and then they discuss the sleeping arrangements on the bed.

Hannay falls asleep,  and Pamela is able to work her hand out of the cuffs.  She is going to sneak away, but when she opens the door, she sees the two men who had taken them earlier, and realizes through their overheard conversation that Hannay has been speaking the truth.  She goes back to the room, staying with him, sleeping at the foot of the bed. When he wakes up, we see Pamela look at him in a very important close-up shot, which shows us that not only does she believe in him, she also loves him.  Many years later, Hitch will use a similar close-up of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, when he is admiring Grace Kelly for her pluck.  Pamela overheard the two men mentioning the London Palladium, and so off our new couple goes.

Step ten, the Music Hall again:  And so Hitchcock ends where he began, this time in the London Palladium.   Hannay has been whistling a tune for much of the latter half of the movie.  He can’t remember where he heard it, until the band strikes up the same tune at the Palladium.  Of course!  It is the theme of Mr. Memory!  And now it all comes together.  The secret that the spies are after is not on a piece of paper or microfilm.  It is in the mind of Mr. Memory.  The police (real ones, this time) recognize Hannay and try to arrest him, when he shouts out “What are the 39 Steps?” to Mr. Memory on stage.  Being Mr. Memory, he begins to answer and ends up shot.  Hannay convinces Mr. Memory to recite the secret plans that he had remembered, which vindicates Hannay in the eyes of the authorities.

And poor Mr. Memory, after unburdening his mind of the plans he had memorized, slumps down dead.  A sad ending for him, indeed, and a touching, almost Shakespearean moment for a minor character in a thriller.   Some movies might cut to a coda at this point, with Hannay and Pamela locked in each other’s arms.  Such a scene was shot, but Hitchcock was against it.  Although he would use just such a scene at the end of North by Northwest.  This film has a much more tentative, and somehow more poignant, ending. Hannay and Pamela reach their hands out, and clasp each other, ever so gently, Hannay’s still attached handcuff dangling between them.  This is symbolic of the way Hitchcock usually portrayed relationships.  The future is uncertain, and things may get in the way.  Yet they will maintain that clasp, as long as they can.

Performance:  One could make the argument that this is the most perfectly cast movie of Hitchcock’s entire British period.  The only films that come close in this regard are The Lady Vanishes, and possibly The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Robert Donat is the quintessential Hitchcock male lead.  He is seemingly insouciant, and yet doggedly determined when pressed, and he absolutely oozes charm.  Without Donat’s exquisite performance in this movie, we would not have the later performances that we do from Michael Redgrave, Joel McCrea, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and John Forsythe.  Donat created the template for the perfect Hitchcock hero.  Equally good as the leading lady is Madeleine Carroll, who does a wonderful job playing a strong-willed woman who intensely dislikes Donat’s character, then gradually softens as she comes to believe in him.  Godfrey Tearle makes the most of his brief screen time as the antagonist, an early prototype of the kind of sophisticated and debonair bad guy that Hitchcock preferred.  Watch out for a young Peggy Ashcroft in the role of the farmer’s wife.  Ashcroft would go on to have a long and celebrated career on the stage, and would win an Oscar for David Lean’s A Passage to India almost 50 years after she appeared in The 39 Steps.  

Source material:  The original novel, written by John Buchan and published in 1915, is set just before the outset of World War 1.  The movie advances the setting to the time it was made, the mid 30’s.  In the book there is no music hall opening.  Hannay is accosted by a man who says he is a spy, and claims to be following a ring of German spies who are out to steal Britain’s plans for war.  Hitchcock made the wise decision to change this character to a woman.  The episode of Hannay escaping his building in the milkman’s uniform is present in the book, as is his journey to Scotland, and a night spent in a shepherd’s cottage, minus the young lovelorn wife.  Also absent from the book is any love interest for Hannay.  In the book, the 39 steps are actual steps, down which the German spies will go to rendezvous with a ship off the coast.  The overall picaresque structure, and the concept of the double chase are intact in both book and film.  While the book is engaging, the movie actually has a better structured plot.  The book also suffers from its lack of female characters.  Even author John Buchan told Hitchcock that giving Hannay a love interest in the film was an improvement over the novel.

This novel was very popular in Britain, and ultimately around the world, resulting in four more books being penned by Buchan which featured Richard Hannay as protagonist.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes early in this one, at around the 6:50 mark.  As Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim are preparing to board the bus that is pulling up, Hitch crosses from left to right, in the foreground, casually littering as he passes!

Recurring players:  Starring actress Madeleine Carroll would appear in Secret Agent a year after this film.  John Laurie had earlier appeared in Juno and the Paycock.  Helen Haye (not to be mistaken with Helen Hayes) and Ivor Barnard had been in The Skin Game.   Wylie Watson, the memorable Mr. Memory, would later have a small part in Jamaica Inn.  Gus McNaughton had an earlier uncredited role in Murder!  Jerry Verno and Peggy Simpson would later appear in Young and Innocent.  James Knight had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Miles Malleson would appear 15 years later in Stage Fright.  Frederick Piper, who played the milkman, also had bit parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  And S.J. Warmington had bit parts in Murder! The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Sabotage.

What Hitch said:  In his conversations with Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock was clearly proud of his work on this film.  He said “Buchan was a strong influence a long time before I undertook The Thirty-nine Steps…What I find appealing in Buchan’s work is his understatement of highly dramatic ideas…Understatement is important to meI worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue.  I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes…I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself…What I like in The Thirty-nine Steps are the swift transitions…The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement.  It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort.  You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 Criterion Collection blu-ray has the nicest print of the film currently available.   Included along with the film are a commentary track by scholar Marian Keane, a British documentary titled Hitchcock:  The Early Years which covers Hitch’s British period, footage from a 1966 Mike Scott television interview of Alfred Hitchcock, a visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, the complete 1937 Lux Radio Theater broadcast version, excerpts from the Truffaut/Hitchcock interviews, and original production design drawings.

Published by


Avid movie lover, reader, and writer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.