The 39 Steps
(SPOILERS) Hitch’s gamechanger and still one of the most purely enjoyable pictures in his oeuvre. Much of that, beyond simply telling a breathless narrative with endless invention and style, is The 39 Steps' pitch-perfect casting; he’d rarely be quite as lucky again with both his leads.
Of course, The 39 Steps gets all the attention, despite honing the elements established by the previous year’s The Man Who Knew Too Much; that’s probably because it does so in a yet lighter and frothier manner. Consequently, it cemented the thriller as the director’s synonymous genre, along with all the ingredients – mostly in the form of strung-together perilous vignettes, or set pieces, featuring our hero – later most identified with the modern action movie. Hitch confirmed this as intentional: “I saw it as a film of episodes, and I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need a good short story’… each one would be a little film in itself”.
Which is why the picture doesn’t really show its age at all. The 39 Steps doesn’t waste a minute and is often extremely impressive in the way it speeds creatively from scene to scene. Hitch was quite correct to be both dismissive of the need for the plot to make perfect sense and to admit to what he had done well: “What I like in The Thirty-Nine Steps are the swift transitions”. He uses as an example Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), arrested by the police; Hitchcock cuts to the street outside, and we see Hannay burst through a window, head off, take cover as part of a Sally-Ally band and then slip into a conference hall (where he is a victim of a case of mistaken identity and gives an impromptu speech in support of whoever the political candidate – “Mr McCrocodile” – is). Hitch really wasn’t blowing his own trumpet when he commented “The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement. It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort”. The 39 Steps exudes that effort.
Hannay: A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.
A sense of urgency intrudes from the first, when the picture’s running theme of playful innuendo is introduced and Hannay agrees to Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) accompanying him home. There, he cooks her a hake (not the most romantic of dishes), and she reveals she is an agent to “any country that pays me”. From there, Hannay’s intrigue at his guest rapidly escalates into desperation when she staggers into his bedroom with a knife in her back.
Hitchcock pocks the picture with such sublimely-staged sequences, from Hannay being pursued across the Highlands, to hiding under a bridge with a reluctant Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), to being shot by Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle as the man with a missing finger Hannay was warned about; in a lovely ironic touch, he reveals his lack of appendage to Hannay just as the latter relates Annabelle’s information).
But the key to the picture is that it’s every bit as good with the character work as it is with the set pieces. Hitch waxed approvingly of Buchan, commenting that the appeal of the author was “his understatement of highly dramatic ideas”. For all the director’s changing of the text – courtesy of Charles Bennett, the peak of his string of collaborations with Hitch that decade – this element comes through most in Donat’s marvellously capable Hannay. He received great notices at the time for how he “suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order” with his “easy confident humour” (CA Lejeune in The Observer). Lejeune was absolutely right to compare Donat’s potential to Gable or Coleman, but he never really made the most of the kind of roles Hitch would later provide Cary Grant.
Hannay’s sprightly quick wit is weighed and balanced against an unerring ability to make the wrong decisions. He wants to tell the truth from the off (as he does in a nice little sequence with Frederick Piper’s milkman, before winning his cooperation by telling him he’s having an affair with a married woman, right up a milkman’s street). Unfortunately, he fails to learn from his mistakes, first confessing to Pamela, who promptly shops him (and later, she shops him again for good measure). Then to John Laurie’s crofter (who takes his money and then shops him). Then to Jordan. And then to Frank Cellier’s sheriff. It’s well after the hour mark that Pamela finally believes him, and only because she overhears the fake policemen discussing their plan.
Hannay: For all you know, I murder a woman a week.
Beyond that, though, the chemistry between Donat and Carroll is on It Happened One Night levels; even if there weren’t a thriller element, the love/hate back and forth between Hannay and Pamela would be hugely entertaining. That they’re stuck together, due to the inspired handcuffs conceit, only makes the sexual tension that much more effective. The extended bedroom scene, full of suggestion while remaining entirely chaste, is a suspense-free highlight of the film, relying as it does on its stars’ timing and Bennett and Hitch’s ready wit. The reluctant couple have already proved a hit with the innkeeper’s wife (Hilda Trevelyan), who can only see how in love they are (“Mr and Mrs Harry Hopkinson, the Hollyhocks, Hemel Hempstead” intones Hannay breezily as they check in). The wonderfully-timed business that follows involves removing stockings, eating sandwiches, and attempting to pick handcuffs.
Carroll is absolutely terrific, a funny, headstrong Hitchcock blonde who more than holds her own against her leading man (she’d be rather let down by their second and final team up Secret Agent a year later; even given that the director was unable to bring back Donat, her role simply wasn’t up to snuff).
As I said, there’s no waste here at all. The apparent interlude where Hannay stays with crofter John Laurie and his lonely wife Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft) is both an exercise in suspense (Laurie quickly becomes suspicious that he has designs on his Margaret, but the reality is that she has figured out Hannay is wanted for murder) and a very sad little tale in miniature (“He’ll pray at me, but no more” she assures Hannay of potential repercussions for her helping him escape; the last we see is John moving to hit his wife on learning Hannay took off in his best coat).
Audience Member: Where’s my old man been since last Saturday?
Hannay boards a train replete with double-act corset and bra salesmen. Godfrey Tearle is the first of a run of extremely polite, genteel villains that culminates in James Mason. More still, he’s humanised by having a family (see also Sabotage and Foreign Correspondent for villains who really do care for their relatives). Mr Memory (Wylie Watson) is both part of the slightly dappy loop plotting that doesn’t withstand much scrutiny – the film kicks off with Hannay at his performance, and it turns out that he’s the key to the entire affair – and an instantly, er, memorable character in his own right. The opening scene, in which the audience doesn’t pay much attention to Memory’s requests for sensible questions (“How old’s Mae West?”) is highly entertaining in itself, but his climactic delivering of his secret after being shot, noting the 39 Steps is an “organisation of spies”, is touchingly pathetic (and the sort of thing ripe for comedy riffs).
Pauline Kael called The 39 Steps “one of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did” and it’s difficult to dispute her assessment. If anything, the picture impresses more every time I revisit it, for the sheer confidence and also how fresh it remains. Hitch would later command bigger budgets and bigger stars, but this is where he is at his most consistently assured.