Synopsis: Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian man on a visit to England, decides one night to attend a show at the local music hall around the corner from his rented apartment. Unexpectedly, shots ring out in the theater and all the patrons scurry to evacuate. Upon exiting, Hannay is approached by a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim) who asks if she can come home with him. The woman identifies herself as Annabella Smith, a foreign agent trying to prevent enemy spies from smuggling British military secrets out of the country. She alludes only vaguely to something called the 39 Steps, said to be somehow involved in the nefarious plot. Hannay doesn’t believe her at first, but is convinced later that night when she turns up in his bedroom with a knife plunged into her back. Knowing he’ll be implicated in Annabella’s murder or killed by the enemy agents if he stays, Hannay decides to flee to Scotland, where Annabella’s next contact (Godfrey Tearle) is waiting to give further instructions. When the police catch up to Hannay on the train, he barges into the compartment of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a young woman traveling alone. Hannay begs Pamela to keep his cover, but when the police arrive she identifies him as the fugitive they’re hunting for. Hannay manages to evade their grasp this time – but with both the law and foreign spies on his trail, can he keep running forever? And what – or who – are the 39 Steps?
I want to start off this review by thanking the Classic Movie Blog Association for hosting this Alfred Hitchcock blogathon. When I first got word of this event, I knew I wanted to participate, but I was unsure of which film I should focus on. I could have chosen one of my old favorites – like Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), or Rear Window (1954) – but I didn’t feel like I had anything new or original to say about these much-lauded classics. So I started to peruse the Netflix Instant options to see if there were any other Hitch flicks available that I hadn’t yet seen. That’s how I came across The 39 Steps, which I had heard of but had never actually taken the time to sit down and watch. So I’m grateful to the CMBA for giving me a reason to check this film out – because I think it may be a new favorite.
Here in the United States we don’t talk much about Hitchcock’s pre-WWII British films, as he is generally considered not to have reached his zenith until after he signed with David O. Selznick in 1940 and started making films in America. Of Hitchcock’s British films, The 39 Steps is arguably the most well-known and critically acclaimed; I say “arguably” because 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much with Peter Lorre is also a recognizable title to many casual film fans, although they may just be confusing it with the 1956 American remake starring Jimmy Stewart. The 39 Steps is considered “early” Hitchcock in the sense that it is pre-1940, but in reality the director had already made nearly twenty feature films in the fifteen years prior to 1935. This situates The 39 Steps nicely in the middle – a sort of “transitional” film, if you will – in that it predicts many of Hitchcock’s later masterpieces but also shows the auteur at a technical and narrative level defined and honed enough to make it a work of art in its own right. In other words, this isn’t a film that only cinephiles interested in Hitchcock’s development as a director will take an interest in; it’s simply a good movie that anybody can enjoy.
In many ways The 39 Steps is almost a perfectly-prototypical Hitchcock classic, using many of the same defining themes and motifs that were to be repeated in his later American successes. For starters, The 39 Steps is all about an innocent man on the run from the law, a theme most famously repeated in 1959’s North by Northwest with Cary Grant. This was also the theme of 1942’s Saboteur, and appeared even before The 39 Steps in the 1927 silent film The Lodger (which even Hitchcock referred to as the first true “Hitchcock Film,” despite having directed two full-length silents previous to 1927). It also features an early usage of the plot device which Hitchcock would later term the MacGuffin, any type of thing which drives the plot by being so important and valuable to the characters that they would do anything to obtain/protect it, yet may in fact be left ambiguous or entirely undefined to the audience. As Hitch himself explained when asked to define the term, “in crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers;” in The 39 Steps, it’s the military secrets that the villains are trying to smuggle out of the country. Madeleine Carroll as Pamela may even be the original “Hitchcock Blonde,” the icy, aloof woman whose more sensuous, animalistic side is brought out by the threat of danger. The 39 Steps even features a classic Hitchcock cameo, occurring early in the film when the director throws a bit of trash into the street in front of the bus Hannay and Annabella are about to board.
There are even more classically Hitchcockian elements at play here – Donat plays an ordinary person forced into extraordinary circumstances as in Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Wrong Man (1956); the camera angle often mimics the direct gaze of a specific character in the distinctive Hitchcock style most extensively employed in Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960) – but, although it is valuable to technically dissect the film for the bits and pieces that mark it as the work of a budding auteur, the mastery of the movie as a whole entity, independent of later works, should not be lost or understated. The 39 Steps is a gorgeous work of art and a thrilling tale of espionage and mistaken identity. On the technical side, Hitchcock shows a particularly brilliant understanding of the huge effect lighting and sound – as well as darkness and silence – can have on an audience’s emotions. The liberal use of extreme shadow reveals the influence of German Expressionism, while at the same time predicting (and perhaps shaping) later film noir techniques and methods of visual narrative. The faceless men waiting under the street light to cause bodily harm to the occupants of Hannay’s apartment, their hulking forms casting huge, menacing shadows across the sidewalk, are almost textbook noir. Furthermore, while I usually get a bit squirmy about the dearth of background music in some ’30s films, Hitchcock knows how and when to use silence and other sounds to ratchet up the tension in a scene. I can think of no better example than when Hannay is awakened by Annabella lurching into his room with a knife in her back; as she falls forward onto the bed and reveals the murder weapon, the commonplace ring of an unanswered telephone suddenly turns into Hannay’s threatening invitation to become the next victim. Hitchcock also shows an early proclivity for montage and railway metaphors, as the expected scream of the landlady discovering Annabella’s body is replaced suddenly by the screeching whistle of a train pulling out of a tunnel. There’s genius at work here, and it’s hard to believe when watching a film this beautifully crafted that the best was still yet to come.
Of course, technique isn’t the only thing that makes a successful film; one also needs a compelling story, intriguing characters, and well-written dialog, as well as capable performers who can deftly weave all of these aspects together. I’m happy to report that The 39 Steps meets all of these requirements as well. The entire film centers primarily around only one character, Richard Hannay, a Canadian visitor to Britain. We’re not given much background on Hannay, but that only serves to make him even more relatable: he could truly be anybody. However, as the film progresses Hannay is revealed to be more and more extraordinary, especially when it comes to his solid determination and quick wit. This gradual development of character allows us to accept Hannay as the Everyman early on, and then just makes us like him more and more as we see the various creative ways he invents to attempt to overcome his unfortunate situation. I especially loved the scene where Hannay tries to evade the police by ducking into an assembly hall, only to be mistaken for one of the guest speakers at the political rally being held inside. In order to delay his capture, Hannay takes the stage and smoothly delivers a lengthy and passionate speech about how his candidate (whom he can’t even name correctly, reading the podium banner upside down and mistakenly calling him “McCrocodile”) will create “a world from which suspicion and cruelty and fear have been forever banished.” As Hannay’s speech becomes more and more rousing, the shouts of approval from the audience grow more raucous, until Hannay finally finishes his (completely improvised) address and attempts to make his quick escape – only to be trapped by the overjoyed voters who rush to shake his hand. Robert Donat deftly portrays Hannay as a charming and self-assured man with just enough panic in his eyes to make us worry that he may not get out of this ordeal alive. He uses his gut instincts and street smarts to keep himself afloat; even though he is running from the law we know he’s innocent of the crime of which he’s been accused, and the fact that he is meanwhile trying to prevent enemy agents from delivering British military secrets into the hands of a foreign adversary (which is never explicitly named) makes us root for him all the more.
Like many of Hitchcock’s films, The 39 Steps perfectly balances its suspenseful moments with comedic ones to relieve the stress. I don’t know how much comedy Robert Donat was involved in (this was my first Donat film but I fully intend to seek out more); here he seems very skilled in his timing and delivery, and comes off a bit like a drier Cary Grant. In fact, towards the end of the film when Hannay becomes handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll’s character Pamela, suddenly the whole thing takes on more of the air of a sex comedy à la 1934’s It Happened One Night than a suspense thriller. Donat and Carroll have marvelous chemistry together, and trapping these two characters in one room creates a wonderfully cheeky tension, as previously in the film Pamela had refused Hannay’s request not to rat him out to the police when he burst into her train compartment and tried to pretend he was her lover. Early on in their imprisonment Hannay gives up on trying to convince Pamela of his innocence, and it’s hilarious to listen to him nonchalantly rattle through a list of his made-up “crimes” as he lays in bed next to her and pokes fun at her paranoia about him.
Pamela: I’ve always been told murderers have terrible dreams.
Hannay: Oh, but only at first. Got over that a long time ago. When I first took to crime I was quite squeamish about it; I was a most sensitive child.
Pamela: You surprise me.
Hannay: I used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, thinking the police were after me. But one gets hardened.
Pamela: How did you start?
Hannay: Oh, quite a small way, like most of us: pilfering pennies from other children’s lockers at school. Then a little pocket-picking, then a spot of car-pinching, and smash-and-grab and so on to plain burglary. Killed my first man when I was nineteen. [huge yawn] And in years to come, you’ll be able to take your grandchildren to Madame Tussauds and point me out.
Pamela: Which section?
Hannay: Oh, it’s early to say, I’m still young.
I liked the part of the film with Hannay and Pamela trapped in the hotel most of all; in fact I found it a bit disappointing that the film waited so long to bring back Carroll’s character. If you twisted my arm and asked for further negative critique, I also felt like the three acts of the film – the first with Annabella’s death and Hannay’s escape onto the train; the second where he’s running all over the Scottish moors; and the third when he is handcuffed to Pamela – are very clearly defined, which bugged me a little as I felt the transitions between acts could have been a bit more seamless. But those are really the only faults I could find, and they’re nit-picky ones at that.
It’s not hard to see why Alfred Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense – and that’s what I like best about him: he’s accessible. While there have been many master craftsmen and craftswomen of film, most of the time you have to come in with some prior understanding of the film-making process to truly appreciate their genius; in other words, you have to be a bit of a film geek to really appreciate what you’re being told to appreciate. Yes, Hitchcock is a film geek favorite, but he’s also a universal favorite, a director we can all agree on. You can take almost anybody off the street and show them a Hitchcock film, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that they’re going to have a good time. That, to me, is what makes his films so brilliant: a good film should be able to manipulate any audience into believing the story it is trying to tell, and should do so in a way that will entertain just about everybody, no matter their academic or socioeconomic background. As a result of Hitchcock’s understanding of these criteria, his films not only remain popular, they remain the gold standard of quality film-making to this day. Watching Hitchcock is like a guilty pleasure, without the guilt. While The 39 Steps may spring to the forefront of fewer people’s minds than Psycho or The Birds when they think of Hitchcock, it’s a film that I believe can easily hold its own against his later classics, and one that is surely to make for a rewarding experience for anyone who seeks it out.
The 39 Steps (1935) – 4.5/5 stars