Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The 39 Steps (1935)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The 39 Steps (1935, UK)

In master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock's British classic spy thriller, his first worldwide hit movie - it was a tale of espionage, murder, and an innocent man on-the-run after being accused of murder. Although it was his 18th film, it was considered Hitchcock's first real masterpiece; it was both a crowd-pleasing box-office success and an extremely influential film that brought the famed director attention from US audiences.

It was adapted from John Buchan's 1915 espionage novel of the same name, with a plot about the master-minding theft of British military secrets by a group of assassins (presumably Nazi Germans), peppered with unpredictable plot twists. The film's protagonist took an exhausting 4-day cyclical journey to prove his innocence and to bring the spies to justice. During a series of action sequences, he assumed numerous identities (i.e., a milkman, an auto mechanic, a politician, and a newlywed), and journeyed from London to the Scottish Highlands and then back again. The film's two MacGuffins were the nature of the 39 Steps and the smuggling of secret plans out of the country - the mystery of which was only fully revealed in the final scene.

  • in the opening scene set in 1930s London, Canadian civilian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) was attending a Music Hall vaudeville-show performance at the London Palladium featuring Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a remarkable memory expert with tremendous recall; pandemonium broke out after two gunshots were fired, and Hannay found himself helping a frightened woman, who urged him to take her back to his own rented, furnished bachelor flat at Portland Place; Hannay prophetically responded with dark humor to the mysterious woman: "It's your funeral"
  • after arriving at his place by bus, she introduced herself as Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), or simply "Smith"; she admitted that she had fired two shots in the music hall as a diversion to aid her escape once she had been identified by assassins; Hannay responded skeptically: "Beautiful and mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story"; she went further by identifying herself as a mercenary counter-spy agent; he began to believe her when he realized that they had been followed (two agents were seen at the street corner)
  • she described that her mission was to stop a ruthless chief spy's smuggling of Air Ministry military secrets out of England to the enemy; she was a mercenary counterspy from the continent [not identified, but presumably Nazi Germany] working with the British against her own country
  • she asked Hannay: "Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?" - he was confused: "No, what's that, a pub?"; she further warned that she had discovered their plot to steal vital British military information: "These men will stick at nothing. I am the only person who can stop them. If they are not stopped, it is only a matter of days, perhaps hours, before the secret is out of the country"
  • Smith also described how the male mastermind of the espionage ring was easily identifiable - he was missing part of one finger; she also added that her destination the next day was Scotland
  • in the middle of the night, Annabella was fatally stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife; she staggered into the living room (where Hannay was sleeping) and delivered her last words to him - a warning: "Clear out, Hannay! They'll get you next"; she was grasping a map of Scotland with a place named Alt-na-Shellach circled - his only clue
  • a famous scene transition blended the scream of the housekeeper discovering Annabella's corpse to the shrieking whistle of a train
  • the wrongly-accused, hero-on-the-run Hannay (disguising himself as a white-uniformed milkman) snuck out of his apartment and ventured to Scotland (with Annabella's map of the Scottish Highlands with one small village circled) on the Flying Scotsman express passenger train during a widespread manhunt; on the train, to avoid detection by both spies (Annabella's killers) and detectives (who suspected him of the murder), he jumped into another train compartment, occupied by a lone, lovely blonde passenger later identified as Pamela (Madeleine Carroll); he faked knowing her and threw himself at her for an embrace and kiss in a romantic clinch; later, she rebuffed him when he claimed: "They're after me. I swear I'm innocent. You've got to help me"
  • Hannay was forced to jump off the train when she identified him, and he fled across the sparsely treeless Scottish moors toward Alt-Na-Shellac; after posing as an unemployed auto mechanic, he hid out for a night's lodging and shelter in a crofter's cottage with a couple:
    • stern, miserly, middle-aged, suspicious Calvinistic crofter-sheepherder John (John Laurie)
    • and his young and sheltered, unhappily-married wife Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft) (first wrongly assumed to be the crofter's daughter) from Glasgow
  • Hannay conversed with her about how she missed and longed for the "fine shops" and the Saturday night "cinema palaces and their crowds" of city life - and her expression of faith in Hannay's innocence while knowing about his incrimination in newspaper headlines: "PORTLAND PLACE MURDER TRACED TO SCOTLAND""; meanwhile, Margaret's possessive and treacherous husband, who suspected the visitor was romantically-inclined toward his wife, betrayed Hannay's location to authorities
  • Margaret warned Hannay to flee in the middle of the night when the police pulled up in a vehicle, while her jealous husband wrongly accused her of infidelity: "I might have known. Making love behind my back. (To his wife) Get out!"; Hannay explained otherwise: "Look here, you're all wrong about this. She was only trying to help me"
  • as Hannay was about to flee covered in the crofter's "Sunday best" overcoat, Hannay worried that Margaret would be ill-treated afterwards, but she reassured him: "He'll pray at me, but no more"; however, the camera lingered on Margaret's face as she longingly watched Hannay disappear into the night - it was a desolate look that conveyed the loss of any possibility of freedom and dreams (off-camera, she was soon to be fearfully condemned, cursed and savagely beaten due to John's puritanical, oppressive attitudes in their loveless, forced marriage)
  • Hannay arrived in the small village of Alt-na-Shellach at the huge mansion-estate of a newcomer in the neighborhood - the respectable Cambridge University Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) during a Sunday birthday party celebration; Hannay (who called himself "Mr. Hammond") told Jordan about his predicament - mistakenly believing that Annabella was Jordan's ally; he described her murder and the information she gave him about the spy ring that was leaking Air Ministry secrets abroad
  • during Hannay's tale, Jordan theatrically displayed his tell-tale disfiguration (that Annabella had warned about: "He has a dozen names, and he can look like a hundred people, but one thing he cannot disguise - this: part of his little finger is missing - so if ever you should meet a man with no top joint there, be very careful, my friend"); he was missing a portion of his little finger on his right hand, revealing his identity as a master spy
Master Spy Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) With a Missing Little Finger
  • afterwards, Jordan pulled out a gun and at first offered Hannay an opportunity to conveniently commit suicide, but then he shot Hannay point-blank, followed by a superb fadeout; it was revealed that the crofter's thick hymnbook in the breast pocket of the overcoat had saved Hannay's life
  • while on the run in a nearby town after stealing Jordan's car, Hannay hand been detained and was under arrest by the local Sheriff who was linked to the evil forces; Hannay crashed through the Sheriff's window, joined a Salvation Army band parade in the street, and ended up being mistaken for the overdue main speaker at a political rally; after he found himself - at an opportune moment - at a lecturn on a stage, he delivered a memorable, ad-libbed political speech: ("...may I say, from the bottom of my heart and with the utmost sincerity, how delighted and relieved I am to find myself in your presence at this moment... Delighted, because of your friendly reception, and relieved, because as long as I stand on this platform, I'm delivered from the moment (he caught himself from saying "of truth") from the cares and anxieties which must always be the lot of a man in my position"; then he said: "And I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel" - an apt description of his imperiled situation of being unjustly accused and hunted
  • Hannay was apprehended by the agents-spies (not the local police) after being pointed out by the feisty cool blonde Pamela who recognized him in the audience; as they were both being driven away in a vehicle, they came upon a flock of sheep obstructing the roadway; Hannay was handcuffed to Pamela, and when he made an escape attempt with her shackled to him, he had to drag her after him; he remarked: "There are twenty million women in this island and I've got to be chained to you"; the film's highlight was the many uncomfortable and belligerent situations that the two adversaries found themselves in (a "battle of the sexes")
Handcuffed to Pamela
  • during their stay at the Argyle Arms inn for the night, the two awkwardly attached to each other pretended to be young, eloping runaway newlyweds; during the night while sharing a double bed as "Siamese twins," Pamela escaped from her handcuffs, and overheard a phone conversation in the inn confirming that Hannay was telling the truth; she was tipped off that Jordan was going to warn "the 39 Steps," and then would be attending a show (and "picking up our friend") at the London Palladium; the next morning after a complete change of heart toward Hannay and an apology, he suggested that she return to alert the Scotland Yard
  • in the final sequence set in London, the Scotland Yard officers in Westminister didn't believe Pamela's account of spies in their midst, due to the absence of any reports of missing or stolen documents; however, she was followed as she proceeded to the Palladium performance; she and Hannay sat together in the audience as again, Mr. Memory was being questioned on stage; Hannay watched as Mr. Memory glanced up at Jordan in one of the upper opera boxes
  • Hannay suddenly realized that the memory expert held the Hitchcockian "MacGuffin" in his head - he had memorized the classified secret information regarding mechanical plans for the design of an airplane engine; as Hannay was being apprehended, he shouted out a self-incriminating question toward Mr. Memory, as the camera angle titled: "What are the Thirty-Nine Steps? Come on! Answer up! What are the Thirty-Nine Steps?"
The Death of Mr. Memory - Shot by Jordan Hiding in an Opera Box
  • hiding in the opera box, Professor Jordan attempted to assassinate Mr. Memory as he was divulging the crucial identity of the 39 Steps: "The Thirty-Nine Steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of..." - Memory was interrupted when he was shot, fell to the stage and grabbed his side from the lethal wound; Professor Jordan was caught while trying to flee
  • backstage, the lethally-wounded Mr. Memory confessed the secret information as he was dying - it was a proud recitation of the complicated scientific mathematical formulas of the secret documents that he had painstakingly memorized about how to make silent aircraft engines; as he finished the confession, he followed it with a statement of relief, before he died in peace: ("Thank you, sir. Thank you. I'm glad it's off my mind. Glad!")
  • meanwhile chorus girls kicked on stage behind him and Hannay (with the handcuffs only on him) voluntarily joined hands with Pamela in the foreground - in the closing image

Mr. Memory's (Wylie Watson) Performance Noticed by Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) at the London Palladium

Annabella to Hannay: "Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?"

Annabella's Map of Alt-na-Shellach

On the Train, Hannay Pretended to Know Blonde Traveler Pamela (Madeleine Carroll)

Newspaper: Manhunt for Hannay in Scotland

Hannay With the Crofter Couple and Wife Margaret

Hannay Saved After Being Shot By the Crofter's Hymnbook in His Pocket

Hannay's Memorable Political Speech to Save Himself

Hannay Shielding Pamela's Mouth While They Were Escaping

Film's Ending: Hannay Joining Hands Voluntarily with Pamela After Mr. Memory's Recitation


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