We first meet our enigmatic hero lost amidst a crowd at a show, during which a so-called Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) can reportedly answer any question the audience cares to shout his way, as he willingly commits facts to his impressive memory on a daily basis. Hannay immediately ousts himself as a stranger in a foreign land by enquiring about Canadian distances as opposed to heckling after the age of Mae West, and ultimately reveals himself to be kind-hearted and selfless when he ‘rescues’ a woman from the ensuing ruckus. This is all just character set-up and bare bones of plot instigation, as everything comes together to send Hannay on the run in a country he doesn’t know, heading to a place he’s never heard of after a crime he didn’t commit and from the killers he’s never met. If this all sounds a little familiar, well that’s because it’s almost exactly the same plot as North By Northwest, but swapping a mistaken phone call for accepting the wrong women into his home. This may not be a fair comparison – a wrongfully accused man on the run is hardly a rare character, and certainly not amongst Hitchcock’s back catalogue – but it is a comparison I couldn’t help making, and one that does not do The 39 Steps any favours.The problem, you see, is there aren’t enough set pieces for me. Where NxNW has the crop duster, the drunk driving, the Mount Rushmore finale, all this has is some Highland gallivanting, a show hall scuffle and escaping a train. But then, this is a film on a much smaller scale. Where NxNW sees Cary Grant travel from Long Island to South Dakota, via Chicago along the way, a total of almost 1800 miles, Steps see Robert Donat take in a paltry 470 in comparison. That’s barely more than a quarter of the distance! So it makes sense that Steps wouldn’t go as far as NxNW (which I swear is the last time I’ll ever write it like that, I hate it too), instead it shackles itself to a smaller story, a presumably smaller budget and smaller level of thrills. The way it succeeds with this shackling is, wonderfully, with shackles. Or rather handcuffs, which are behind the greatest aspect of this film; the relationship between the leads, which grows from hatred, through intolerance and finally resolves itself into something that could one day become love.
The most famous scene of The 39 Steps, and the one I was looking for and had heard a great deal about before watching, occurred after a slightly silly plot contrivance that requires Hannay to be handcuffed to Madeleine after she identifies him as the man who was fleeing the police earlier in the film. Inevitably he drags her on the run with him, and after a run-in with some Scottish wetlands they hide out in a small B&B, where she needs to remove her clothes to dry off. This requires the removal of her stockings, which sees Hannay’s hand nervously twitch and shudder down and up the full length of her exposed leg. This film was released in 1935, at which point this was probably the equivalent of the camera attempting to anally violate Megan Fox in Transformers 2, but today, alas, this is not in the least bit as erotic or steamy as it should be. The main reason for this is because during the entire journey of his right hand up and down Madeleine’s leg, with his left hand Hannay is eating a particularly unappetising-looking sandwich, that rather effectively casts a dampened outlook onto the scene. For a segment supposedly the most famous and memorable, it was sadly a bit of a let down.
As usual with Hitchcock, there are a few technological aspects I admired, particularly his cut from a screaming woman discovering the body in Hannay’s flat being audibly merged with the screaming train emerging from a tunnel. I also liked the short chase through the narrow train corridors, and the scene where Hannay was required to give an impromptu speech without the slightest knowledge on what it was supposed to be about. If you’re looking for a best man at a wedding, you could have done far worse than him. I’m always happy when John Laurie (Dad’s Army‘s Frazer, of the catch phrase “We’re all doooooomed”) pops up in a film, as he does here as a jealous crofter who puts Hannay up for the night whilst on the run, and I also love how Scottish people pronounce murder as “Muhr-durh.” If you are of a similar disposition, I strongly recommend tracking down the TV series Taggart, in which the word is said by a Scotsman approximately once every 35 seconds.
Unfortunately this film did not live up to my admittedly high expectations, but this most certainly does not make it a bad film. Perhaps on a repeated viewing, now I know what to expect, it may improve in my opinions, but for now it will always remain as the little brother trying desperately to compete with North by Northwest. And the central plot device turned out to be just a little too silly for me to handle, but this is Hitchcock, it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously.
Choose film 7/10