The 39 Steps (1935)
The 39 Steps (1935)

Genre: Mystery and Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 26 min.

Release Date: August 1st, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye

 


 

T

he announcer at a music hall introduces one of the most remarkable men in the world, Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a man who has committed to memory countless facts. Although the crowd heckles him mercilessly, he does indeed recite a wide range of correct trivia. Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) inquires specifically about a geographical distance, which is answered precisely, before a fight breaks out and gunfire is unleashed. A beautiful, mysterious, paranoid woman, giving the name Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), peculiarly wishes to accompany Hannay back to his West End flat at Portland Place. Once there, her behavior becomes stranger, clearly exhibiting signs of fear, requesting that a mirror be turned away and the shades drawn.

After a drink, she explains that she’s a secret agent, unaffiliated with any specific country, and that she possesses valuable information, which led her to shoot at the hall as a distraction to avoid two men from pursing her. She insists that Hannay is now involved and that he’s to avoid at all costs a man of many faces and identities, who is missing the top part of his pinky finger. In the middle of the night, Smith stumbles into Hannay’s room with a knife in her back, proclaiming with her last breath that Hannay must clear out or he’ll be the next target.

The pacing is so fact that there’s barely any time to get to know Smith before she perishes. Later, this is one of the film’s greatest assets, moving along speedily to keep viewers as anxious and harried as the hero, who is frenziedly ferried from one location to the next with no time to adapt or adjust. This unwitting lead character, classically caught up in an adventure of espionage and murder, is forced into continuing a harrowing mission, clued in only by a map of Scotland. Also, in a now standard twist, Hannay is unable to convince anyone of the truth and must create believable lies to maneuver about town (including disguising himself as a milkman, a motor mechanic, etc.) and must continually worry about being recognized. He’s a man wanted for a crime he didn’t commit, further wrapped up in a cross-country mystery for which he couldn’t be less prepared.

Ironically, when he initially doesn’t believe Miss Smith, he mentions the notion of “persecution mania,” which he then displays genuinely for the remainder of his venture. As director Alfred Hitchcock hones his storytelling techniques, the audience is acquainted not only with the “wrong man” premise, but also stunts, numerous narrow escapes from the authorities, assumed identities, chases across rocky mountainsides (the Master of Suspense has an affinity for choreographing distressing movement through unique landscapes), and unintentional mix-ups at large gatherings. And, as the director knows quite well, moments of humor greatly enhance the alternating sequences of excitement.

Fortunately, Hannay is a surprisingly confident, capable man, though not immune to flirting with married women and misplacing faith with a clearly distrusting crofter. Characters assume conspiracies in million-to-one shots (Hannay is curiously unable to hide in plain sight), rejoin each other in extreme coincidences (Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, is briefly confronted on a train before improbably popping up during one of Hannay’s many apprehensions), and are frequently not who they seem to be (including the police). Although these contrivances could certainly use some polishing, “The 39 Steps” is nonetheless a noteworthy example of Hitchcock’s early thrillers, riddled with plotting, backstabbing, uncomfortable yet humorous cooperation and arguing between fugitive and handcuffed captor (substituting for a traditional romance), clever twists, and the big reveal of the meaning behind the title.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10