Filmsite Movie Review
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935)
Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

With a classic Hitchcock touch - probably Hitchcock's most famous scene transition, the chambermaid/landlady opens her mouth to scream at the discovery of Annabella's murdered corpse (a shadow of her figure and a knife) in his flat. The sound of her shrieks are blended together and replaced by the piercing screeches from a train whistle as a train emerges from a tunnel - this is an imaginative Hitchcockian touch overlapping and combining sound and visual techniques. [The train is the Flying Scotsman rushing northward to carry Hannay away from the scene of the crime.]

Hannay, viewed in profile, finds himself in a train compartment shared by two traveling salesmen and a minister, in a brief scene that provides a comic interlude. The underwear/corset salesman speaks about his new, "free and easy," "streamlined" products, as he holds up a bra to the other smutty-minded traveller:

Salesman: Put a pretty girl inside those and she needn't be ashamed of herself anywhere.
Traveller: All right. Bring it back to me when it's filled.

When the train stops at Edinburgh, through the window, a policeman is seen standing as a potential danger and threat. The day's newspaper, purchased by one of the salesmen at the train stop and displaying Hannay's photograph prominently, features an account of Annabella's murder. One of the salesmen comments: "There's been another woman murdered in a West End flat." Hannay learns that he is the wrongly-accused, prime suspect from the salesmen's conversation - they summarily take for granted that the suspected tenant is guilty:

Salesman One: What was she like, one of the usual?
Salesman Two: A well-dressed woman of about thirty-five, with a knife in her back. The tenant, Richard Hannay, is missing.
Salesman One: You surprise me. Ha, ha, ha!
Salesman Two: At seven o'clock this morning, the charwoman Elizabeth Briggs...Is there no honesty in this world at all?! (He is distracted by reading a competitor's advertisement for a new line of panty corsets and brassieres)

Trying to remain anonymous and invisible behind the borrowed newspaper, Hannay steals a glance over the paper at the compartment-mate across from him. From his point-of-view, he sees the pipe-smoking salesman with a glint of a smile across his face - has he been recognized? To avoid a search by both spies (Annabella's killers) and detectives (who suspect him of the murder), he jumps into another train compartment, occupied by a lone, lovely blonde passenger later identified as Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).

Faking friendship in another clever improvisation [Second Identity], he throws himself at her and embraces her ("Darling, how lovely to see you!") and forces a kiss, causing her eyeglasses to slip from her hands when they relax their grasp. Her eyes shut as she is kissed. After a detective and two policemen have bypassed their compartment, not wanting to disturb the two in a romantic clinch (and joking: "I don't mind having a free meal in there"), Hannay apologizes to the startled woman:

I was desperate. I'm terribly sorry. I had to do it. Look here, my name is Hannay. They're after me. I swear I'm innocent. You've got to help me. I've got to keep free for the next few days.

He begs for help and protection, but she rebuffs him. She spitefully identifies him and turns him over (without acknowledging his innocence) - after a pregnant pause - when questioned by police who return down the corridor: "This is the man you want, I think." In an exciting pursuit sequence after he breaks away, he eludes his pursuers when the train stops in the middle of the Forth Bridge. He stands precariously behind one of the girders.

As he flees on foot across the sparsely treeless Scottish moors toward Alt-Na-Shellach, he seeks shelter with a stern, middle-aged, suspicious Calvinistic crofter/sheepherder named John (John Laurie) and his young wife - later identified as Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft). [Third Identity] Again, Hannay poses and masquerades in a different identity: "I'm a motor mechanic. I'm looking for a job." Hannay learns that there is a newcomer in the Scottish neighborhood, a Cambridge professor who "lives at Alt-na-Shellach...on the other side of the loch." But because his destination is fourteen miles away, it is late and almost dark, and there are no more public transport vans or boats, Hannay offers to pay "two and six" for a night's lodging and shelter. Hannay assures the crofter that he will "eat the herring" and "sleep in a box bed."

When Hannay meets the harsh, abusive crofter's very young, innocent wife, he mistakes her for the crofter's daughter:

Hannay: Your daughter?
John: My wife.

When John leaves, the kindly, openly-friendly Margaret shows him his bed and then begins to prepare their supper - another fish dinner. Hannay spots a newspaper on the table partially covered with packages of wrapped food. To prevent the crofters from reading the incriminating news story, he reaches for it, but Margaret moves the whole pile from his grasp and begins to set the table. As they discuss her background, he learns that she is an innocent young dreamer originally from Glasgow. She often misses and longs for the "fine shops" and the Saturday night "cinema palaces and their crowds." The young, sheltered wife is grateful for his company - and enjoys his improvisation as a sophisticated, worldly, experienced man from the city. He is quickly overcome by her poignant sweetness, her wide-eyed fantasies, and her fearful shamefulness. He flirts with her until the dour, domineering husband arrives and interrupts them:

Hannay: Well, I've never been to Glasgow. I've been to Edinburgh and Montreal and London. I'll tell you all about London at supper.
Margaret: John wouldn't approve of that, I doubt.
Hannay: Why not?
Margaret: He says it's best not to think of such places and all the wickedness that goes on there.
Hannay: Well, why not listen now, before he comes back? (Hannay rises when she uncovers the newspaper) What did you want to know?
Margaret: Well, is it true that all the ladies paint their toenails?
Hannay: Some of them.
Margaret: Do London ladies look beautiful?
Hannay: They do. But they wouldn't if you were beside them. (John enters the house)
Margaret: You ought not to say that.
John: What ought you not to say?
Hannay: I was just saying to your wife that I prefer living in town than the country.
John: God made the country. Is the supper ready, woman?

The young crofter's wife is entrapped and denied her freedom by her fettered, unhappy marriage - just like Hannay is trapped within his own predicament [and later shackled to the heroine with literal handcuffs]. As Margaret lights a lantern, the glow illuminates the article in the newspaper that Hannay is finally able to read: "PORTLAND PLACE MURDER TRACED TO SCOTLAND - Exciting Incident on the Forth Bridge." Hannay identifies himself as "Hammond." [Fourth Identity] After he is asked to put down the paper, he joins them for supper at the table.

During the remarkable prayer sequence, as the religiously-fanatical John gives the blessing for the meal, he reveals his brutish, foul-minded nature rather than a religious nature. The scene, with a masterful "silent dialogue" and a revealing exchange of glances, communicates much about the relationships between the three characters:

Sanctify these bounteous mercies to us miserable sinners. Oh Lord, make us truly thankful for them and for all Thy manifold blessings.

(Margaret follows Hannay's attention and gaze directed toward the newspaper article.)

And continually turn our hearts from wickedness

(From her point-of-view, she looks down at the article - Hitchcock has inserted a sly joke, an advertisement about "cold meat" in a box in the top left corner of the page. Margaret looks up at Hannay - their eyes meet)

and from worldly things.

(From her unsmiling, unspoken reaction, it is clear that she is now aware that he is the wanted fugitive accused of murder, but her eyes voice a query. Silently, Hannay mouths and solicits an appeal from her that he is innocent. John looks up from the prayer, in a straight-on camera view, noticing with surreptitious eyes shifting right and left that they are intimately exchanging and communicating looks.)

Unto thee. Amen.

The possessive husband's suspicious thoughts are masked by the words of the prayer. Suspecting that they are romantically-inclined, the crofter rises with the excuse that he has forgotten to lock the barn. The camera follows him outside, where from his point-of-view at the window, he peers in on them to spy on his wife to see if he can determine whether she is unfaithful. From their non-verbal behavior as they talk heatedly over the table, it appears that Hannay is telling Margaret his story and begging her not to betray him.

Later that night, Margaret lies wide-eyed and awake in bed. Next to her, her husband feigns sleep. She rises after hearing a distant car horn of an approaching vehicle. She goes out to the parlor and awakens Hannay to warn him: "There's a car coming. It'll be the police. You'd better be going...I'm not going to let them catch you." Grateful, he promises: "I'll never forget you for doing this for me." As she leads him to the door, the jealous husband comes upon them - shining a bright candlelight and accusing them of romantic intentions. He insists on explaining his behavior as the police lights shine in:

John: I might have known. Making love behind my back. (To his wife) Get out!
Hannay: Just a minute!
John: (To Hannay) Aye, and you too! Get out of my house before I...
Margaret: (To Hannay) Aye, go, go!
Hannay: And leave you like this? No fear! ... (The camera cuts to a shot of the three characters viewed through the bars of one of the wooden upright chairs from the dining room. The bars of the back of the chair symbolize the imprisoning bars that confine them, each in their own personal or marital prisons.) (To John) Look here, you don't understand (The car horn honks louder and headlights from the car sweep across them.) ...Look here, you're all wrong about this. She was only trying to help me.

Hannay explains the truth to John to quiet his accusations - he tells him that the police are after him for murder, and that was all he secretly communicated to her the night before. The fugitive successfully offers "five pounds" to buy John's silence and mislead the police. As the crofter speaks to the police in the other room, Margaret and Hannay are left alone. Not trusting her husband, she listens to the muted voices and is proved right - John asks the police about a reward. While imploring Hannay to leave at once, she gives him her husband's darker "Sunday best" overcoat to wear. Hannay fears: "He'll not ill-treat ya?," and she assures him that he will only pray over her: "He'll pray at me, but no more."

As he hurriedly departs, he learns her name for the first time, kisses her on the lips, and promises: "I'll never forget you for this." The camera lingers on Margaret's face as she longingly watches him disappear into the night - it is a desolate look that conveys the loss of any possibility of freedom and dreams. [Off-camera, she is soon to be fearfully condemned and cursed by John's puritanical, oppressive attitudes in their loveless, forced marriage.]

Day Three: (Sunday)

After a parodic chase scene involving clumsy police and accompanied by background music and sped-up action, Hannay avoids the police and finally ends up near a sign that identifies the place as Alt-Na-Shellach. He reaches the apparent safety of the mansion of amiable Cambridge University Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), who is celebrating his teenaged daughter Hillary's birthday after Sunday morning church. Jordan convinces the police to leave, and then guides Hannay (still masquerading as "Mr. Hammond") to the picture window that looks out on the Scottish landscape - and the police scampering around the river rapids: "Come and look at the view from this window, Mr. Hammond. We're rather proud of it."

They sit by the window and patiently overhear a foreground discussion, brilliantly-choreographed in a single long take, of Hillary and her neighborhood friends casually bantering about the excitement of having the "Portland Place Murderer" somewhere nearby on the moors. Hillary's animated hands gesture her expressions. After announcing: "There's no hurry, my dear. Still, if you must go...," the Professor ushers the guests to the door as the camera pulls back and follows their movements. They say their goodbyes and depart. With Hannay immobile and dwarfed by the large picture window in the room, the Professor tells his wife: "Louisa, my dear, if you'll excuse us, Mr. Hammond and I want to have a chat before lunch."

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