My first exposure to the property of The Thirty-Nine Steps was when my aunt vigorously campaigned to watch the Hitchcock film during some holiday get-together last year. Unfortunately, the only version Netflix had was the 1959 rendition. We began it, but I don’t think we ever finished. In addition to these two film versions, there is another film version from the ’70s, and a stage play based on a combination of the Hitchcock film and the novel (the two vary quite a bit). Obviously, this is a popular work.
Lucky for me, Hulu Plus has the 1935 Hitchcock version as part of their Criterion Collection collection, if you will. I found the original screen adaptation of John Buchan‘s adventure novel of the same name to be charming, exciting, and a hell of a lot of good fun! I would say, however, that it contains two of the worst on-screen deaths I have ever seen.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 The 39 Steps is a British thriller starring Robert Donat as the innocent Richard Hannay, who is unknowingly caught up in a dangerous espionage mission to stop important British military secrets from leaving the country. His involvement begins when the lovely yet mysterious Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) asks him to take her home with him after a disturbance in a London music hall — a disturbance she later confesses was caused by her. After creeping around his apartment in the dark and refusing to let him turn any lights on, Miss Smith (an obvious alias) goes on to warn Mr. Hannay that there are men following her and mean to kill her. When Richard jokes that this all sounds like a spy story, she looks him dead on and says, “That’s exactly what it is, only I prefer the word agent better.”
She reveals only snippets of her plan to him, enough to secure his sympathy and gain resources she desperately needs, such as food and a map of Scotland. But to Richard’s horror (and probably hers as well), she doesn’t last the night. Annabella wakes him in the middle of the night, having been stabbed in the back! She clutches a the map of Scotland, and utters a warning before she dies (terribly). And now the torch has been passed, and Richard is the new target of her pursuers. Not only that, but the immediate scene itself doesn’t look too good for charming Mr. Hannay. A strange woman left dead in his apartment with a knife in her back? It’s no shock that the authorities pin him for murder.
Mr. Hannay is forced to go on the run, and he decides the only way to clear up this mess is to finish what Annabella started. But what exactly was that? All he knows is that he must get to Scotland, and he must avoid a man with the first knuckle of his pinkie finger blown/chopped/hacked off (aka missing).
Well as you can imagine, Mr. Hannay is led astray and betrayed several times, making his journey to justice a sticky one. With the half-pinkied man on his heels, Mr. Hannay is thrown together with the lovely Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll. She calls him out not once, but twice, proving herself to be a real pain in the ass. What she didn’t expect, however, was that she’d be forced to go on the run with him. Literally forced. They end up handcuffed together, which allows for some slap-stick gems. Eventually, she believes his convoluted tale and decides to help him.
Their banter is absolutely adorable, and if Donat wasn’t charming enough, his on-screen chemistry with Carroll was a thing of beauty. One of my favorite back-and-forth is:
Well whether you believe me or not will you put a telephone call through to the high commissioner for Canada in London and tell him and enormously important secret is being taken out of this country by a foreign agent. I can’t do anything my self because of this fool of a detective. Has that penetrated?
Right to the funny bone, now tell me another one.
Haven’t you any sense at all? Put that call through, I beg of you, and refer them to me. Will you do it?
No. Good night.
Throughout the film I couldn’t help but notice the classic tropes of filmmaking taught to me in school. They were so deliberate it was almost comical, but I reminded myself that they were still relatively new at the time, and hadn’t had the decades of perfection and experimentation that we see now. These cinematographic and editing elements have gone on to define Hitchcock’s style and influenced dozens of future filmmakers, but we take them for granted today.
Another detail that caught my attention was the lack of score throughout the film. I don’t think you hear any non-diegetic music until about 35 minutes in, and then its only real use is to help make the montage more engaging. There was something about that silence, however, that made the suspense of The 39 Steps a bit more exciting.
Overall, this is extremely entertaining but light comparatively speaking. It hints at what’s to come in Hitchcock’s later films, and is one of several films containing the “innocent man on the run” plot device Hitchock seemed to enjoy so much. Other films like The Lodger, Saboteur and North by Northwest have similar stories. I have yet to see The Lodger and Saboteur, so I’ll save the comparisons until I’ve checked them off as well.
The 39 Steps is highly regarded as one of the best films of its era. It’s been awarded with several distinctions, has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was instrumental in boosting the British film industry with international markets.
I really liked this earlier Hitchcock film. It’s not quite as thrilling, quite as suspenseful, or quite as complex as his later projects, but it definitely has the classic signs of his work. I give this a lighthearted A!