Should I Watch..? 'The 39 Steps' (1935)
What's the big deal?
The 39 Steps is a spy thriller film released in 1935 and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the twentieth film in his distinguished career. Loosely based on the 1915 novel of the same name by John Buchan, the film follows a man who is unwittingly drawn into a conspiracy to stop a spy ring from stealing state secrets as well as trying to clear his name of murder. The film was conceived as a platform to establish its studio, Gaumont-British, on an international level although it also helped bring attention to Hitchcock himself who would be moving to Hollywood just five years later. The film stars Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle and a young John Laurie who would go on to play Frazer in the beloved TV sit-com Dad's Army. Of the filmed versions of the story produced so far, Hitchcock's original is still considered the best - in 2004, it was voted the 21st greatest film ever made in Britain and was a favourite of Orson Welles.
What's it about?
In a music hall in London, the well-travelled Richard Hannay is watching a performance of Mr Memory whose photographic recollection of facts and figures is tested by various members of the audience. Suddenly, a gun shot rings out and in the confusion and panic, he bumps into the beguiling form of Annabella Smith who asks him to take her away to his place. Delighted and intrigued by this woman, Hannay learns that she is a spy being pursued by foreign agents intent on stealing secrets and assassinating her. She mentions the 39 Steps but declines to share any more information. During the night, she is killed and Hannay's only lead is a map of Scotland with a small house outside the village of Killin circled.
Disguised as a milkman, Hannay flees the scene and takes the first train to Scotland with the intention of meeting Annabella's contact and hopefully stopping the spies. But as the news of the murder at Hannay's flat spreads, the police are ever-watchful and Hannay is forced to go it alone in his quest to clear his name and stop the spies from getting away with their information. To make matters worse, he finds himself handcuffed to the beautiful Pamela - a woman who gave him up on the train to the authorities and who isn't entirely sure of Hannay's true intentions.
Re-cut modern trailer
Charles Bennett & Ian Hay*
Release Date (UK)
18th November, 1935
U (2008 re-rating)
What's to like?
Hitchcock would revisit the theme of innocent men being caught up in extraordinary situations a number of times but rarely does he illicit such a response here. Not only does Hanny find himself on the run against a framed murder charge but also battling against shadowy forces dealing in matters which he knows little of. Donat's sense of brazen desperation feels real but crucially, we feel involved somehow like an unseen collaborator. You feel like a genuine part of the puzzle and you give thanks for Donat's unflappable nature, a cross between David Niven and James Bond.
That other Hitchcock trope, that of the blonde femme fatale, is also present and The 39 Steps has two. Mannheim's enigmatic heroine in distress is used too briefly but she makes quite an impact in her scenes. But Carroll is terrific, going from resolute resistance to possibly attracted ally while still retaining a steely core despite being hand-cuffed to a man who could possibly be a murderer. The film isn't afraid to throw in a few twists and turns and is confident enough to not reveal any of its secrets until the very last moments of the film. But in truth, the mystery of the 39 Steps is second to the tension of Hannay's escape from justice and every time you think he's done for, he somehow manages to escape one more time.
- The film features an appearance of an autogyro, a helicopter-type flying machine used by industrialist and aircraft pioneer James G. Weir. Hitchcock heard that Weir commuted to work in one and worked it into the movie. Perhaps a more well-known autogyro was 'Little Nellie' which appeared in You Only Live Twice.
- The scene where the police car is held up by sheep involved 62 of the animals being brought onto the set. They immediately started eating all the bushes that had been brought in, forcing the crew to replace them with plants bought from a local nursery.
- Another Hitchcock trademark - a cameo from the director - is also present in the film. He can be seen about seven minutes in on the street outside the music hall when Annabella and Richard catch the bus. He can be seen throwing some litter onto the street.
What's not to like?
Far be it from me to criticise a director of the stature and mythology of Hitchcock but there were moments when I found the film a touch stagey. Much like Hitch's later film Rope, the film has moments when it feels like a play rather than a movie. There are also a couple of moments that don't make a great deal of sense - take the scene where Hannay finds himself in a political rally and mistaken for the local politician. It was the only time in the film where I felt plausibility was being stretched too far.
Aside from some occasional moments which felt more comical than anything else, the film is a tense and taunt thriller that keeps things simple. There's no explosive action scenes, bloody gun battles or high-speed car chases - it feels like a proper espionage film rather than a glamorous Bond flick with set pieces and sexuality flooding from every shot. You can also see The 39 Steps influencing other fugitive films - handcuffing the lead actor with their female co-star is a moment of genius and has been replicated in films such as The Defiant Ones and Fled.
Should I watch it?
It may lack the punch and sheer power of some of Hitch's best work but The 39 Steps remains a solid and highly enjoyable thriller that eschews spectacle for narrative. Led by a charismatic Donat and alluring Carroll (who would work with Hitchcock again in future), the film is a straight-forward thriller that offers much more than you think it might. Even today, the film stands up as a great chase film with a gripping story that gives little away.
Great For: pencil moustaches, Hitchcock's career, fugitive films
Not So Great For: fans of Buchan's book (the film has only a passing resemblance to the source material), anyone attempting a remake
What else should I watch?
Hitchcock had already built a enviable reputation as a director before he moved to Hollywood in 1940. Films like The 39 Steps stand alongside other classics such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes which are all still highly regarded. Carroll would appear in Hitchcock's next film, Secret Agent, which features similar themes to this film as John Gielgud finds himself recruited by a mysterious figure to assassinate a German agent in Arabia.
From 1940 to 1976, Hitchcock was a dominant presence in Hollywood with a number of films frequently cited as some of the best thrillers ever made such as Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Birds and the iconic slasher Psycho. His final film, Family Plot, still received a positive reception from critics despite not being considered a classic Hitchcock picture, the film being more of a dark comedy than anything else.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox