Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: The 39 Steps (1935)
Throughout his career, Alfred Hitchcock made a number of “wrong man” thrillers, usually featuring average civilians getting caught up in murder and/or espionage, on the run from the police, and out to prove their innocence. The first iteration of this theme is Hitchcock’s silent film The Lodger from 1927. Then in 1935, Hitchcock released The 39 Steps, which is an early prototype for Hitchcock’s signature “wrong man” spy thriller that mixes in comedic elements and a winking, risqué romance. The most famous version is the sprawling, iconic North by Northwest in 1959, but The 39 Steps is useful for showing Hitchcock’s minimalist technique when it comes to suspense.
Very loosely based on the John Buchan novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, the film stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London for a few months. Hannay encounters the secret agent Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) outside a music hall, after after a gunshot rings out inside. Hannay takes her to his apartment, where admits she fired the gun and she tells him about “the 39 steps,” and her mission to stop a spy ring from stealing British military secrets. When Smith is murdered, Hannay gets falsely accused of the crime, and has to evade the police as he tries to complete her mission. On the way he meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), and drags her along with him.
The 39 Steps is quite episodic, as Hannay moves from location to location uncovering clues to the mystery. Hitchcock lets each episode breathe, adding in seemingly random bits of humor that do pay off with the story. For example, on a train, Hannay sits across two lingerie salesmen who prattle on about nothing. But it’s through them that Hannay learns he’s wanted for murder. The 39 Steps only runs 87 minutes, and it’s a credit to Charles Bennett’s economical screenplay, and Hitchcock’s measured execution, that the film zips along but without losing character moments and dry British humor.
Hitchcock worked with screenwriter Charles Bennett a number of times, and the two collaborated on some of Hitchcock’s most popular 1930s and 1940s projects including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), and Foreign Correspondent (1940). The scene with Hannay and Smith at the apartment is a master class of building suspense through dialogue and direction. While Smith is relaying her dangerous, but perhaps too fantastical mission, the phone keeps ringing. Two men, menacing or innocent, wait outside. The room is full of shadows and a dash of moonlight. The sequence sets up the story with urgency and danger, and it’s easy to see how Hannay gets mixed up.
The film remains economical even when introducing Pamela and her “I love you, I hate you” chemistry with Hannay. Hitchcock has the pair at odds with each other, but they're still on the same side, against the villains. Hannay and Pamela find themselves in barely respectable situations, like having to share a hotel room pretending to be married, and keep sniping at each other. You would think that the movie would grind to a halt with this, but the story is always moving forward. Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll were somewhat well known at the time. Donat had previously starred in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), and the very well regarded The Private Life of Henry VIII, directed by Alexander Korda. Carroll had appeared in a few popular British films in the 1930s, and she shot to fame after The 39 Steps. She would become the first British actress to be offered a contract in Hollywood, but would abandon her career to work for the Red Cross in Italy during World War II, and she was later awarded the American Medal of Freedom.
Madeleine Carroll’s performance as Pamela became the early model for the “Hitchcock Blonde,” an archetype that would find its way in almost every film he would make. The Hitchcock Blonde is elegant and beautiful, but rigid and ice cold on the surface. As the film goes on, she would reveal a remote sexuality and sometimes bring danger to her leading man. The quintessential Hitchcock Blonde is probably Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, or perhaps Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964) and The Birds (1963). Pamela, here, is an early version of this type, more humorous and goofy than mysterious.
One of Hitchcock’s favorite running themes is a distrust of the police. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock manifests that through the idea of the police chasing after a wrong man. Then there’s the sheriff who doesn’t believe Hannay when Hannay tells him who the mastermind is behind the whole thing. Additionally, two henchmen kidnap Hannay and Pamela pretending to be police. Through these various incidents, Hitchcock shows police incompetence and a lack of awareness to what is going on.
Even though the film is over 80 years old, The 39 Steps remains a thrilling, funny, and surprising spy movie. Alfred Hitchcock employs clever audio and visual tricks to add flavor to the story, and makes good use of 1930s film technology. The 39 Steps is a very crowd-pleasing film, it has a lightning quick pace, charming leads, an intriguing story, and some fun directorial flourishes from the master of suspense.