Sunday 24 March 2013

The 39 Steps (1935)

De 39 Trin
When Hitchcock started out in Hollywood and churned out blockbusters en masse he had already directed quite a few films in England. For his Blackmail (1929) I bought a box-set with some nine of his early films from the transition from silents to talkies and those movies were all over the place. Very few had what you would call Hitchcock features and only few more were really good. It actually took quite a while for Hitchcock to find his particular style and themes. But then by 1935 he seems to have struck gold. Suddenly he makes “The 39 Steps” and this is so right on everything we know Hitchcock for.

Actually I do not mind that he made different movies. Most directors do and probably should. It is just that Hitchcock is so famous for his thrillers and with “The 39 Steps” he makes a really good one.

“The 39 Steps” is the story of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian temporarily staying in London, who accidently becomes involved in a spy affair when he offers shelter to a beautiful and very nervous woman, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). She is on the trail on some spy master who is about to take a big Air Force secret out of the country. Unfortunately his goons are also on the trail of her and her nervousness is justified. In the middle of the night she gets stabbed and Hannay gets blamed for the murder. He takes up her task realizing that the only way to clear his name is to get the spy master and so he heads up to Scotland.

From here on he is both the hunter and the hunted. Both the police and the spymaster’s henchmen are trailing him and we get a series of close calls. Nobody believes his story about spies, whereas the accusation about murder is a lot more believable. This is particularly the case with a blond woman he keeps bumping in to (Madeleine Carroll as Pamela). To her he is a simple criminal and the sooner he is out of her hair the better. To us who of course know he is innocent she soon gets annoying with her insistence of refusing to believe his story, but then who can really blame her. On the other hand he gets help and understanding from unexpected corners like the young farmer’s wife and the innkeeper’s wife.

The pursuit is intense and the pace is high and we get quite a rollercoaster ride. It is one of those films which feel shorter than they are because we get carried away. Donat is quite believable and his distress and paranoia becomes ours as well. However he is resourceful and quick witted and he soon adapts to this spy affair. We get a hero who against odds is able to pull it through.

I have seen a number of comparisons to Hitchcock’s later “North by Northwest”, but I was mostly reminded of the much later “The Fugitive” (the one with Harrison Ford) where Dr. Kimble is on the run for a murder he did not commit and decides that the only way he can clear his name is to get the real murderer. There are so many similarities that it is clear that “the 39 Steps has been a major part of the inspiration, probably even to the original tv series. The police’ insistence that he is first of all a murder. The disbelief in the “real” story, the friends who are actually the bad guys, the show down at a major event, even one of the escapes where Ford joins a parade is an exact copy of “The 39 Steps”.

There were many elements that I enjoyed watching “The 39 Steps”. Besides the pace, suspense and sheer inventiveness of the story I enjoyed the play between Donat and Carroll when they get handcuffed together. She despise him and his exasperation with her takes a mocking, teasing slant as he gives up on convincing her to help him and instead just tries to get it over with and the best out of it. She needs to get the truth thrown smack in her face before she realizes her mistake and even then she does not seem particularly remorseful. Their dialogue here is gold.

Another element I liked was a surprising occurrence of dry dark humor. The train attendant’s insistence on serving tea for Hannay, the lingerie show on the train, the king pin’s wife’s interruption in what appears to be a death sentence asking if the gentleman will stay for dinner. Not to mention the jealous Scottish farmer who insists on believing that his beautiful wife is cheating on him. And yet all this hilarity never compromised or distracted from the central storyline. That is very well done.

And the object of all these spy games? The big secret? Who cares, that is entirely unimportant. The only thing worth knowing about it is that it is important enough to kill to get or protect it.

Go Hitchcock!


  1. I like your comparison to 'The Fugitive.' It's definitely similar in terms of tone and suspense elements.

    And I also liked how you mentioned that Hitchcock made many different types of films. You're so correct, it's a very good thing he did. Shows range.

    This movie is so much fun. I love those slightly morbid moments of humor that Hitchcock couldn't get enough of.

    1. In the past I have not really paid attention to the humerous parts, but they are always there. Here it just worked really well. For a movie of the thirties the suspense is really great.