WEEK 17: The 39 Steps (1935)


Hello there, and welcome back to the seventeenth week of Weekly Hitch! This is a film-studies blog-type project wherein I watch every single one of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, in chronological order, and then write about them in a way that probably only makes sense to me and maybe other slightly deranged people.

This week we follow up Hitchcock’s breakthrough thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, with the smashiest smash hit The 39 Steps. It’s the film that really put Hitch on the international map, and you do not want to not read why I think you shouldn’t not see it. If you get what I mean.

The Film:

Mixing equal parts romance and thrills, The 39 Steps lays the foundation for so many films and archetypes in cinema that it almost seems cliche – but that’s only because it’s a classic.

The picture begins in a music hall in London. Hitch cleverly introduces us to the world only in close-up shots; the bright lights of a sign, hands buying a ticket (hands are HUGE in this movie), people in a crowd… and only after we’ve studied the details do we get to see the whole thing. Because that is the movie in a nutshell – that’s how good Hitchcock is here. The 39 Steps is a film about small pieces coming together to form a whole picture – and with this one opening sequence, Hitchcock lays it out pictorial. It kills me.

Mr. Memory!

Mr. Memory!

In the music hall, a performer takes the stage by the name of Mr. Memory. Memory’s trick is that he can memorize anything, and he proves it by having the audience shout questions at him, and among the questioners is a Canadian by the name of Richard Hannay (played by future Academy Award winner Robert Donat). Hannay is a suave, handsome type who seems made for adventure.

And soon, much like in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the quaint and familiar setting is rocked by gunshots – the crowd flees the theatre, and outside Hannay finds meets the mysterious Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) who insinuates herself up to Hannay’s apartment. Once there, she quickly shuts all the blinds, and confesses to Hannay that she is a spy – and that she’s being chased by assassins after finding out about a plot to steal secret airforce documents!

Annabella offers Hannay some intriguing clues to the mystery; That the ringleader of the villains is a man with the top joint of his little finger missing (hands!), and that something called the 39 steps is involved, and that it’s all leading her to go to Scotland. Hannay tells her that they’ll sort it out in the morning… unfortunately though, Annabella bursts into Hannay’s room later – stabbed in the back and dying, with only a map in her hand.

Hannay on the run!

Hannay on the run!

Keenly aware that he’s the only one with information that could stop the spies from getting out of the country with the military plans, Hannay sneaks out of the building and catches a train for Scotland. (There are very clever bits in here with him tricking a milkman into helping him get away, and then encountering some lingerie salesmen on the train)

Once on the train, however, Hannay discovers that he’s a suspect in the woman’s death and that a nation-wide manhunt is on the lookout for him, including the police on the train! He tries to evade detection by hiding in a compartment and kissing an unsuspecting lady – but the woman, named Pamela (and played by the luminous Madeleine Carroll), rats Hannay out to the police and he’s forced to make a run for it – escaping out on the famous Forth Bridge.

Now on his own in the Scottish countryside, Hannay first takes refuge at a farm – where an old religious farmer and his much younger wife agree to put him up. But soon the farmer suspects Hannay of dallying with the wife and then sells him to the police who come looking. The wife, however, takes pity on Hannay and give him her husbands coat before sending him out into the highlands. Hannay makes a run for it (awesomely chased by a old-timey helicopter – reminiscent of North By NorthWests famous crop-duster scene) and eventually finds himself at the home of Annabella’s contact.

The suave British man that Hannay meets is called Professor Jordan (played by Godfrey Tearle) and while he seems at first to be a saviour, he soon reveals that he’s missing the top part of his little finger (hands!) and is therefor the mastermind villain of the piece! He holds Hannay at gun point, and eventually shoots him right in the heart!

The suave villain!

The suave villain!

Cut to laughter, as Hannay is in the local police station telling the cops about how a bible, left in the farmer’s coat, stopped the bullet – and how Hannay then escaped. The police seem to believe his story – but then turn out to be friends of the professor, and Hannay is on the run again. He briefly ends up at a political rally where he’s mistaken for a speaker – and then runs into Pamela, the cool-blonde from the train again!

Soon though, a couple police-looking gents catch them and take both Hannay and Pamela in their car. Now handcuffed to Pamela (hands!), Hannay uses a roadblock to escape – dragging Pamela with him! On the run, and Pamela thinking she’s chained to a murderer, the two wind up hiding out at an inn for the night, pretending to be a married couple (so as to share a room, times being olden and all) and Pamela not at all happy about it.

Donat and Carroll on the run!

Donat and Carroll on the run!

Hanay falls asleep later and Pamela has a chance to escape – but then the two men who took them come looking and she learns that they’re actually villains, and that Hannay is innocent. Pamela goes back and together they return to London where Pamela takes Hannay’s story to the police. But to her surprise, the authorities tell her that no secret plans are missing. Pamela goes to meet Hannay back at the music hall where this all began, to tell him that it’s all okay, no papers were taken after all and he needn’t worry.

And it’s there that Hannay realizes the truth – that the best way for the villains to smuggle secret plans out while not actually taking the papers is store them in a human mind… a mind that can remember everything! Mister memory comes back on stage and Hannay asks him “What are the 39 Steps?”. Unable to stop himself, Memory confesses that the 39 Steps is a network of spies – then the Professor turns up and shoots Memory before being captured by the police. Memory, just wounded confesses to memorizes the secret plans, and – now proved innocent, Hannay hold Pamela’s hand. (Hands!)

The Result:

So many twists and turns! Holy heck. It’s a roller-coaster this, and so surprisingly layered and detailed and clever. It’s just wonderful.

Put into context, The 39 Steps was seen as the sort of adventure-thrill ride of the day. Like a more humorous Bourne Identity or maybe more like Romancing The Stone from the 80’s – and audiences loved it. The British papers praised its inventiveness and emotional heart, they loved the emotion of scenes like those with the farmer and his poor trapped young wife, they loved the chemistry between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, and most of all they loved Hitchcock.

Filming The 39 Steps

Filming The 39 Steps

The film played very well in the states too, which was key for Balcon and British-Gaumont. Balcon brought Carroll onto the picture specifically to appeal to American audiences, and while the picture didn’t completely take off – it played very well in the cities and was voted the second best film of the year by the New York film critics.

On the set of The 39 Steps

On the set of The 39 Steps

And why does the film succeed so well? Personally, and I’ve seen it probably a good ten times now, it’s the performances – the playfulness between the leads, the cool suave prototype James Bond of Donat’s Hannay, the perfect and first of the ‘cool blondes’ that Hitchcock would become known for in Carroll, and it’s something in the episodic and primal nature of the story that makes it not only the perfect Hitchcock story, but a great adventure tale.

Hitch does an amazing job in making the film feel not only urgent, but absolutely necessary. Hannay is a cork, not bobbing in the water, but thrown down rapids – racing against time and all possible help to stop something terrible from happening. He is the first true “wrong man” in a Hitchcock film – the stock character that the master would return to time and again; an innocent man, wrongly accused or drawn into some kind of wickedness with no one to turn to but his own resources if he is ever to prove his innocence. North By NorthWest is obviously the most prime example (and practically just a remake of this movie) but the same themes and ideas play out in Saboteur, Young and Innocent, Frenzy, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, and of course – The Wrong Man. 

The music hall.

The music hall.

Hitch loved the innocent man because he could do wicked things, run from the law, kiss strange girls, jump from trains, take hostages, he could do all the bad things while being cheered on by the audience as a hero. Hitch knew we loved to be voyuers – in fact, he would count on that fact for the rest of his career.

So in The 39 Steps, we have once again, a coalescence of so many future traits that Hitch would use time and again – but with the film, more-so even than The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock also adds thematic intent and an even stronger directorial sense. He doesn’t focus on hands because he just likes them – he makes them central, the truth they convey about a person is pivotal to his story. The villain is labeled by his hand, Hannay and Pamela must hide their hands to pretend to be married, the joining of hands in the end becomes a joining of people over the truth – for Hitchcock the images he films have begun to be not just pictures, but messages.

A little comedy with your thrills?

A little comedy with your thrills?

And finally there’s the strength of the script. Charles Bennet helped Hitch adapt the story from a novel by John Buchan, and while the basic plot is there – nearly everything else has changed from the novel – and for the better. Bennet has turned a serious business into something fun and joyous and made an adventure for everyone, and I think that Bennet’s influence on this period of Hitch’s career is perhaps greater than almost any other aside from Alma. Bennet brought levity and comedy to Hitchcock’s films in a way that others could not. Bennet understood Hitch’s humour, and helped find the ideal way to translate it on screen, because while Hitchcock always knew what he wanted and what he liked – the actual transformation of intent into action required the help of others, and in Bennet he had found a very useful ally.

While not the greatest of Hitchcock’s films, I think The 39 Steps must surely rank very high on the list of them all the same. It’s high adventure and high art and high comedy and in the end, high Hitchcock.

The Production:

As a young man, Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of adventure novels – and among those which he would later remember fondly was a slim novel published in 1915 (Hitch would have been 16) by a future Governor General of Canada, John Buchan.

John Buchan and Hitch.

John Buchan and Hitch.

Having remembered the novel fondly and looking for a project to follow up The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock picked the story back up and decided to adapt it with Charles Bennet. Michael Balcon bought the rights to the novel from Buchan for £800 pounds, and set production for January of 1935.

In adapting the story, Bennet and Hitch found that most of Buchan’s novel would be too unrealistic to film practically, and so together they had to concoct nearly an entire new series of adventures for Hannay to undergo on his journey from ordinary man to hero. Inventions created just for the film include the character of Pamela and Mr. Memory and the farm house sequence, and the villains themselves! And yet, having read the novel as well, I can say that even with so many differences between the two – Hitch still perfectly captures the tone and spirit of Buchan’s novel.

In casting the film, Balcon was determined to make a picture that could play to American audiences as well as British – and to that end he encouraged Hitch to cast Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in place of other British actors who were lesser known state-side. Cleverly, or perhaps cruelly, in order to force chemistry between the two lead actors, Hitchcock had Carroll and Donat handcuffed together on the first day and then pretended to lose the key – forcing the couple to stay locked together for several hours before miraculously finding the key in his pocket.

As for production itself, the filming was – in typical Hitchcock fashion – a straightforward and drama-free affair. The movie was filmed mostly on the British-Gaumont studio space in Shepherd’s Bush, with some location filming around London (namely King’s Cross station and Picadilly Circus)

Production wrapped up in the spring and the picture was released in June of 1935 at a huge premier party, with many celebrities (including John Buchan) in attendance. Critics said that Hitch had finally hit his stride, and he would go on to prove them right.

The Legacy:

Among the most important cornerstones in Hitchcock’s film-history, The 39 Steps is one of the best of Hitch’s British works (though not his best – that’s yet to come) and absolutely fundamental to the formation of him as an artist.

Hitch and Alma with Carroll.

Hitch and Alma with Carroll.

The first of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” films (not including The Lodger which was more about the girl), and the third example of Hitch’s famous MacGuffin – every moment of this picture is like a text book on what makes Hitchcock so special. The film is episodic and cohesive – comedic and exciting – romantic and thrilling – thematically strong and also deceptively simple. And within the film we find all of Hitch’s future and past obsessions.

The farmhouse sequence is rife with religious imagery, so far as to have Hannay literally saved by a bible. But in there as well are hints of infidelity and suspicion and violence mixed with sexuality. There’s the obsession with hands, the curious sexuality tied to handcuffs, the ineptitude of the police, the cool blonde, the mysterious woman, the suave villain who seems well bred (look at James Mason in North By Northwest), the rallying political speech that Hannay makes while being mistaken for a politician reminds me of Joel MaCrea in Foreign Correspondent, and the content of the speech strongly hints at Hitchcock’s future war-time films.

Hannay escapes into a parade.

Hannay escapes into a parade.

I think the film must have also become a great influence on other filmmakers as well. Obviously there is something James Bondian about the character of Hannay, and the idea of an ordinary man fighting extraordinary odds would play again in movies like Die Hard or Indiana Jones. There’s also a great bit where Hannay escapes his pursuers by taking refuge in a passing parade – a sequence which is almost reused perfectly in the Harrison Ford film version of The Fugitive in 1993 – so clearly this movie has been seen by some pretty influential people.

And also in The 39 Steps I think we are seeing the solidification of Hitchcock’s future. He found success, twice in a row now, by dealing in death and suspense and adventure and the macabre – and as we’ve seen from Hitch in the past, he may not always find success with every attempt, but he never forgets what works – and seeing a pattern in where his victories would come must have strongly indicated that he was on the right path. And lucky for us he stayed on that path for a good many years.

Next week we’ll look at Hitch’s slightly less-successful 1936 venture, working once again with both Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre, a spy drama called Secret Agent.

Until then.

Poster for The 39 Steps

Poster for The 39 Steps



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