CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: The 39 Steps (1935)

Image Source: MovieGoods

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?

This is an official entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Hitchcock Blogathon – one day, twenty blogs paying tribute to the Master of Suspense, director Alfred Hitchcock! Whether you’re new to Hitchcock or a lifelong fan, today is the day to get a variety of bloggers’ perspectives on his greatest films, whether they be well-known classics or obscure gems. Check out the CMBA blog for a complete list of participating sites.

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. (more…)