The 39 Steps (1935)
“The MAN who put the MAN in roMANce.”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim
Synopsis: A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.
Although The 39 Steps was made relatively early in Hitchcock’s career, it already contains the key ingredients that would show up time and time again: the average man wrongly accused of a crime, the cool blonde love interest, the search for a MacGuffin — here the meaning of the 39 Steps — are all present and correct in this entertaining, but slightly creaky, thriller based on the John Buchan novel of the same name.
Robert Donat, probably the closest thing Britain had to a screen heartthrob in the era of US quota quickies and obscure regional comedies, plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian living in London who visits a show given by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), who claims to be able to instantly recall thousands of facts — although he does sidestep one particularly challenging question about what causes pip in poultry. During his act a rumpus breaks out at the bar which quickly escalates into a brawl before shots are fired and everyone makes for the exit. Hannay finds himself assisting a darkly attractive woman (Lucie Mannheim) out of the hall, and she repays his kindness by brazenly inviting herself around to his rented flat for a nice piece of haddock.
The woman, who calls herself Miss Smith, reveals to Hannay that she was the one who fired the shots in the hall because she was being chased by spies out to kill her because she knows about their plot to steal British military secrets. Naturally, Hannay is sceptical (wouldn’t you be?) until she points out two shady looking characters lurking under a street lamp on the street below his flat. You’d think they be taught at spy school to lurk in the shadows, but there you go — plot development demands, and all that. Anyway, later that night Miss Smith bursts into Hannay’s room with a map in her hand and a dagger in her back. It’s never really made clear where she obtained either of them, or why her killers didn’t also do in Hannay on the off-chance that she may have blabbed to him, but as she has blabbed he feels it might be prudent to make his escape. He does this by borrowing a milkman’s jacket. Interestingly enough, the milkman is reluctant when Hannay claims he’s being followed by spies, but when he changes his story and pretends that the two men outside are the husband and brother of the woman he’s spent the night with he’s only too happy to help. It’s one of a number of digs at marriage in the film which most noticeably manifests itself in the loveless relationship between a gruff crofter (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft) on whose charity Hannay relies as he flees from both the spies and the police, who believe he murdered Miss Smith, while heading to Scotland in search of the meaning of the 39 Steps.
On the train to Scotland, Hannay encountered an attractive blonde named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) whose aid he attempted to elicit but who tried to turn him over to the police. Their paths cross again while Hannay is once more trying to evade capture, but this time they end up handcuffed together by a couple of spies posing as police officers. Escaping once more — thanks to their captor’s stupidity rather than any guile on the part of Hannay — the couple continue the search for the 39 Steps.
While The 39 Steps is showing its age these days, it continues to provide effortless entertainment with a successful blend of comedy and suspense. Donat makes an engaging hero. Never forgetful of the precariousness of his situation, he nevertheless maintains a robust sense of humour that relieves the tension when it needs to be lifted, and makes Hannay an affable hero it is easy to root for. Madeleine Carroll looks incredibly sexy as his reluctant companion, treating the audience to a lingering contemplation of her shapely legs as she removes her stockings while still handcuffed to Hannay, who obviously enjoys the experience as much as the audience. The film does lack a consistent chief villain, though; the man with the finger missing a joint (Godfrey Tearle) who is the mastermind behind the spy ring pursuing Hannay, makes only a brief appearance and little impression.
Although Hitchcock was yet to reach the creative and commercial heights that would elevate him to the world’s foremost movie director, it’s clear from The 39 Steps that all the key elements necessary to propel him to that position were pretty much already in place by 1939. Already, he displays those unique touches that marked him out as an individual, and seems fully in control of all aspects of the story, and thus the audience. The 39 Steps is a treat that shouldn’t be missed.
(Reviewed 21st April 2013)