Filmsite Movie Review
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935)
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The 39 Steps (1935) is one of the earlier Alfred Hitchcock British spy-chase suspense-thrillers from a vintage period, his 18th film. Considered his first real masterpiece, it is both a crowd-pleasing box-office success and an extremely influential film that brought the famed director attention from US audiences. The film's tightly-plotted screenplay was loosely based on the 1915 novel of the same name by Scottish author John Buchan, and freely adapted by playwright Charles Bennett, Ian Hay and Hitchcock himself. The film was remade twice afterwards, both in the UK:

  • The Thirty-Nine Steps (1959), d. Ralph Thomas
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978), d. Don Sharp

Uncharacteristically, a comical theatrical version of the film, officially called "John Buchan’s The 39 Steps," opened in 2007 in London's West End. It then premiered on Broadway in early 2008 as a fast-paced stage production, now more accurately titled "Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps," with a cast of four performers playing almost 250 roles. The tour-de-farce, breakneck-speedy adventure also included many allusions, puns and visual gags of other well-known Hitchcock films.

The Thirty-Nine Steps, a contrived title, is Hitchcock's first film with a classic theme that he modeled repeatedly for the remainder of his career. It is the typical Hitchcockian story of an average, innocent, ordinary man who is framed by circumstantial evidence and thrust against his will into an extraordinary situation that he doesn't understand. This filmic model of the 'wrong man' was also found in Young and Innocent (1937), Saboteur (1942), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and culminated in Hitchcock's similar North by Northwest (1959) twenty-four years later - it is widely considered his "American Thirty-Nine Steps." Posters advertised: "A HUNDRED STEPS AHEAD OF ANY PICTURE THIS YEAR."

Over a four day period, the suave, imperturbable and clever male protagonist (played by Robert Donat who had recently starred in the swashbuckler The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and was popularly known as the "Monte Cristo Man"), is paired (literally handcuffed) to a classic, cool and icy, intelligent blonde maiden - Madeleine Carroll. [Note: She was the first in a notorious line of Hitchcock's female stars that later included Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren.] One of the film's posters declared: "Handcuffed to the Girl Who Double-Crossed Him." His exhausting cyclical journey to prove his innocence and to bring the spies to justice, in which he assumes numerous identities (i.e., a milkman, an auto mechanic, a politician, and a newlywed), takes him from London to the Scottish Highlands and back again, through a series of action sequences.

There are many of Hitchcock's major motifs in the film, i.e., a middle-class Everyman protagonist who was innocent and wrongly suspected of a crime, a train journey, a charming, cultured and respectable villain character, an icy blonde heroine, a shocking murder, a frantic chase (or chases), scenes in a hotel and/or in a theatre (or public venue), one deeply-religious figure (priest, nun, or ordinary individual), some kind of perversion (the handcuffing together), an ending in which the villain was apprehended or died, and the hero/heroine had a happy ending. One prominent motif in this film is the confining, sexually-frustrating institution of marriage. [Note: There are three married couples in the film that provide the commentary: Margaret and her abusive husband John, Professor and Mrs. Jordan, and the innkeepers who encourage romance.] The film's two MacGuffins are the nature of the 39 Steps and the smuggling of secret plans out of the country - the mystery of which is only fully revealed in the final scene.

Plot Synopsis

Day One: (Friday)

The film opens with a panning movement along an electrical marquee sign: "MUSIC HALL." An unidentified, faceless, well-dressed man purchases a ticket to the music hall theatrical performance. With his back to the camera, he is followed down the aisle to his seat. The on-stage, vaudeville show at the London Palladium features Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a memory expert who is introduced by the Master of Ceremonies [Mr. Memory's character was based upon the real-life performer Datas]:

Ladies and gentlemen, with your kind attention and permission, I have the honor of presenting to you one of the most remarkable men in the world. Every day, he commits to memory fifty new facts, and remembers every one of them. Facts from history, from geography, from newspapers, from scientific books...Test him please. Ladies and gentlemen. Ask him your questions and he will answer you fully and freely.

Members of the audience are encouraged to ask questions of Mr. Memory to test his abilities. In a confused give-and-take within the crowded music hall, both boisterous lower class hecklers and serious questionners present him with challenges about Derby winners, dates, "What causes Pip in poultry?", "How old is Mae West?", and "Who was the last British heavyweight champion of the world?"

[Note: The practical "pip in poultry" question (referring to a hidden or underlying disease) was asked by a timid and henpecked country-bumpkin husband, who should have been answered by Mr. Memory that fowls often are afflicted with respiratory issues that produce thick mucus, and force the birds to breathe through their beaks, causing thick scaling at the end of their tongues. However, the questioner was shushed, admonished and rebuked by his intimidating wife: "Shh – don’t make yourself so common!" She had also probably understood the question's double-meaning - that "Pip" in slang referred to venereal disease.]

With his question, the well-tailored, anonymous audience member, Canadian hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) unconsciously identifies himself as a foreigner, a member of the upper-class who is visiting London from Canada: "How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?" Mr. Memory first responds with a joke: "Miss Winnie who, sir?" But then gives the correct geographical answer, ending his feat with: "Am I right, sir?" Hannay replies: "Quite right!" and the audience joins in applause.

Distressed by the confusion of a melee that develops among spectators, Mr. Memory and the Master of Ceremonies try to calm the audience [they function as a talking puppet and ventriloquist]. The manager pleads for order: "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please, you're not at home!" In the ensuing brawl, a gun fills the frame and two shots are fired as a diversion. In the panic and rush toward the exits, Richard finds himself in the arms of another foreigner, later identified as Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). The beautiful woman coyly calls herself "Smith" and asks to accompany him home to his rented, furnished bachelor flat at Portland Place. He prophetically responds with dark humor to the mysterious woman: "It's your funeral." [As they go to board a bus, director Hitchcock makes his customary cameo performance as a passer-by who tosses litter onto the sidewalk.]

In his uninviting, cold flat where the furniture is covered with dust sheeting, the transient Canadian attempts to entertain the mysterious brunette by pouring her a drink. She asks that he reverse a large mirror on the wall and rushes to hide when the lights are turned on. When the phone rings two different times, she entreats him not to answer it, speculating that it is for her and that the call spells her doom: "'Cause I think it's for me." They retreat to the kitchen where there are no windows. As he lights the gas stove in the kitchen to fry up a large haddock filet for his guest, she is startled by the loud poof of the gas catching fire. She admits that she fired the shots in the theatre to create a diversion and escape from two men who are on her trail to kill her. He is skeptically amused by her story about how she is an agent who offers her services to the highest bidder:

Beautiful and mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.

He learns that she is a secret "agent" being pursued by two men sent to follow and kill her [agents of the 39 Steps (the trademark Hitchcock MacGuffin) - it refers to the code name for the organization of enemy spies and - the British secrets that they carry]. Thinking that she is afflicted with "persecution mania," he treats her 'life-in-jeopardy' story as unbelievable. She challenges him to go to the window and look down into the street outside. As he goes to look out the apartment window from another room and spies two men under a corner streetlight, Hannay carries a bread cutting knife and hugs the shadowed wall. Now convinced that she is telling the truth, he returns to the kitchen and admits that she is being stalked: "You win."

She reveals more fragments of her story and passes on her struggle to the unwitting Hannay: "Listen, I'm going to tell you something which is not very healthy to know, but now that they have followed me here, you are in it as much as I am." Her mission, she explains, is to stop a ruthless chief spy's smuggling of Air Ministry military secrets out of England to the enemy. She is a mercenary counterspy from the continent [not identified, but presumably Nazi Germany] working with the British against her own country. Hannay has not heard of the 39 Steps:

Smith: Have you ever heard of the Thirty-Nine Steps?
Hannay: No, what's that - a pub?
Smith: Never mind. But what you are laughing at just now is true. 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.
Hannay: Well, why don't you phone the police or something?
Smith: 'Cause they wouldn't believe me any more than you did. And if they did, how long do you think it would take to get them going. These men act quickly. You don't know how clever their chief is.

The master spy's name is unknown, but he can not disguise the fact that his little finger is missing a top joint:

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.

Annabella's first wish is to "have a good night's rest." He offers her his own bed and agrees to sleep alone on the couch ("shakedown on the couch.") She also reveals that her destination the next day is Scotland:

Annabella: There's a man in Scotland whom I must visit next if anything is to be done.
Hannay: Are the 39 Steps in Scotland by any chance?
Annabella: Perhaps I'll tell you tomorrow.

Day Two: (Saturday)

The next scene is prefaced by a mood-setting long-shot of Hannay's open window, where white curtains flap and flutter around its frame in the night breeze. In a shocking scene, in the middle of the night, Annabella staggers into the living room and awakens Hannay. With her last dying breath, she warns: "Clear out, Hannay! They'll get you next." She slumps over his bed, revealing that she has been stabbed to death with a kitchen knife in her back - the knife he used to cut a fresh loaf of bread for her last meal. The telephone rings again, this time sounding the alarm for him. He peers out the window and from his point-of-view sees the two men pacing around - one is at the corner phone booth. Seeing Annabella's ghostly image (super-imposed) and feeling ashamed that he hadn't believed her, he remembers her words of warning to him:

What you are laughing at just now is true. These men will stop at nothing.

He removes from her clutching grasp a map of Scotland with a place named Alt-na-Shellach circled - his only clue. More nightmarish words from her image superimposed over the map return to him:

There's a man in Scotland whom I must visit next if anything is to be done. It's only a matter of days, perhaps hours, before the secret is out of the country. The police will not believe me any more than you did. I tell you, these men act quickly, quickly, quickly.

Personally taking on her responsibilities, but trapped in his apartment by the two men on the street and not really knowing why, Hannay eludes pursuers by changing places with the white-uniformed milkman making his rounds. [First Identity Change, the first of many masquerades or assumed disguises in the film.] When his story regarding foreign spies and a murder of a woman in his flat meet with disbelief, he improvises a more intriguing sexual scenario to convince the unhappily-married man to exchange his coat - for the good of male brotherhood and male sexual freedom:

Hannay: Are you married?
Milkman: Yes, but don't rub it in. What's the idea now?
Hannay: Well, I'm not. I'm a bachelor...A married woman lives on the first floor.
Milkman: Does she?
Hannay: Yes, and I've just been paying her a call and now I want to go home.
Milkman: Well, what's preventing you?
Hannay: One of those her husband. Now do you see?
Milkman: Why didn't you tell me before, old fellow? I was just wanting to be told. Trying to keep me with a lot of tales about murderers and foreigners. (The milkman happily and freely offers his coat and hat)...You're welcome to it. You'd do the same for me one day.

After a shot of the milkman's cart and pony waiting for its master, Hannay heads for her destination on the map by boarding the Flying Scotsman train to Scotland. As the train pulls away, his pursuers (Annabella's rival spies) are unable to catch the moving train.

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