The 39 Steps

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian man visiting London, thinks nothing of assisting a strange woman (Lucie Mannheim) to escape a theatre riot, especially when, after the melee, she requests he take her home with him. She seems rather odd, with an indistinguishable European accent and clearly fake name, hiding from the windows and the reflection of the mirror, scared of a ringing telephone, and it turns out she’s being pursued by a gunman over some business involving a secret being smuggled out of the country. Hannay of course is sceptical, until she winds up dead on his living room floor, a knife in her back and a map in her hand, with Scotland’s Alt-na-Shellach circled. Hannay suddenly finds himself in the frame for murder, and must flee up north if he hopes to clear his name and save the secrets.
This could well be the most Hitchcockian of all the man’s early films, at least of all the ones I’ve seen so far. Pretty much every trope of his is used – with the possible exception of a maternal complex – such as a wrongfully accused, otherwise good man with a quick wit, dashing good looks and a way with the ladies, an icy blonde (Madeleine Carroll’s Pamela) initially frosty to the hero’s charms, events occurring on national monuments – there are several chases across the Highlands – a shady government organisation, murders, attempted murders, scenes on a train, ridiculous plot contrivances and of course the obligatory directorial cameo. However, this is still a film early in Hitch’s career, and is therefore lacking in the quality he’d later develop.

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

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9 thoughts on “The 39 Steps

  1. Actually I think it would have been more disappointing if North by Northwest was poorer than The 39 Steps. I would expect Hitchcock to improve over such a span of years. Compare it to his contemporary stuff this is really gold.Nice one with Taggart. That should satisfy anybody's need to hear "murder" pronounced in Scottish dialect.

  2. I agree that North By Northwest should have been, and is, better than The 39 Steps, I just wanted Steps to be better than it was in comparison. I've got Steps on DVD, and I'll definitely revisit it, at which point my opinion of it will probably improve.

  3. I'm pretty much with you on this one, Jay. I think we can't help but compare it to his later works with an innocent guy on the run, and those work out much better. I liked it overall but wasn't as enthralled as I've been by Hitchcock's latter films in a similar mold.

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  5. I’m watching my DVD of The 39 Steps now, it is very easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Though I’m sure exposition has improved over the years, this film still has a very quick and controlled tone. Many of the scenes are done simply and still tell the tale well.
    I’m not really a fan of Hitchcock at all, nor of Donat or Carroll, but there is rapidity which foretells of a future in storytelling.

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