The 39 Steps (1935) Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay. Based on The Thirty-Nine Steps a novel by John Buchan. Produced by Michael Balcon. Run Time: 86 minutes, Black and White. U.K. Spy, Thriller, Drama
I always enjoy learning something new about a favorite filmmaker. While I have enjoyed many of Alfred Hitchcock films, I have by no means seen them all. So I’m always delighted when I have the opportunity to watch one of his films that I have not already seen. Such is the case with The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s 1935 British film about murder and counter-espionage.
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation was once the British arm of the French film company Gaumont. Founded in 1885, Gaumont was and still is the oldest continuously operating film company in the world. Its British division became an independent company in 1922, when Isidore Ostrer acquired control of the firm. The production company was always eager to make movies that would appeal to audiences outside the UK, and especially in the United States. To that end, they made The 39 Steps with Alfred Hitchcock directing.
The production was budgeted at £60,000, which was £20,000 more than Hitchcock’s last film, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (not to be confused with his own remake in 1956 starring James Stewart and Doris Day. “Que Sera Sera”.) The larger budget went to actors’ salaries, chief amongst them Robert Donat, who had already been in a movie that did well in the United States, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934).
The film is supposedly quite different than the novel it is based on, also called The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan. Hitchcock’s film introduces characters and scenes absent in the novel. But as always, the movie is responsible for telling a compelling story and if it has to divert from the source material to do that, then so be it. A film must be judged on its own story-telling and not in how well it follows the novel or the play on which it is based. If it can do the former while also doing the latter, than all the better, but following the original text at the sake of failing as a movie is no good.
The 39 Steps opens with a London music hall theatre. In the audience is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) a Canadian on vacation. While he is watching the exploits of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), who memorizes 50 new facts a day and can answer most questions by using his superlative powers of recall, police arrive at the theatre. A fight breaks out and shots are fired, which disperses the crowd. Hannay finds himself holding onto a frightened Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who asks if she can return with him to his apartment. Hannay agrees and takes her back to the flat he’s renting.
She tells him she’s an actress, but not the way he’s thinking. When the phone rings she asks him not to answer it. At that point, she confesses to him that she’s a spy being chased by two men who are out to kill her. Hannay doesn’t believe her until he looks out the window and sees two men casing the street. She tells Hannay that she’s uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man who is missing the top joint of his pinkie. She tells Hannay that her next stop is Scotland so she can spoil the plan. She also mentions, but doesn’t elaborate on, The 39 Steps. She tells him that she might tell him in the morning and he gives up his bed for her.
|Annabella (Lucie Manheim) wakes up Hannay (Robert Donat).|
However, in the morning, Hannay is awakened by Annabella, who warns him to escape while he can. She then falls over on top of Hannay dead with a knife stuck in her back and a map of Scotland in her grip with a town, Alt-Na-Shellach, circled on it. The phone rings again and Hannay sees the two men using a phone booth down on the street. In flashback, wherein a disembodied head of Annabella’s repeats her warnings while Hannay watches the men and hears the phone, he realizes he’s in danger.
|In Annabella's hand, Hannay finds a map of Scotland with the town of Alt-Na-Shellach circled on it.|
In order to escape, Hannay talks a milkman into letting him wear his coat and hat, telling the milkman that he is having an affair with a married woman and that the two men out front are her brother and husband. The milkman is then only too pleased to help.
|Hannay talks the milkman into letting him borrow his uniform so he can make his escape.|
Hannay manages to board a train for Scotland just before the nationwide manhunt for Smith’s murderer begins. Her body is found by the char woman (Peggy Simpson) at the beginning of her work day and in one of the more famous shots from an early Hitchcock film, when the maid turns to scream at her discovery, we hear the train whistle instead.
|Char woman (Peggy Simpson) screams when she finds Annabella's body.|
When the train stops to board more passengers, one of the men in Hannay’s compartment buys a newspaper to check on a sports score. But Hannay sees a story, with a photograph linking him to the murder. The police board the train and start to search. Hannay tries to hide and enters the compartment of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and, in a desperate attempt to avoid detection, starts to kiss her. However, while the police initially pass them by, they do come back. In the meantime, Hannay has confessed to Pamela that he’s on the run for murder. When the police return, Pamela tells them everything she knows and they move to arrest him. However, he eludes capture.
|Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) tells the police everything she knows about Hannay.|
The detectives succeed in stopping the train on the Forth Bridge, but Hannay manages to disembark the train. He hides until the train starts up again, it is apparently against regulations to stop a train on a bridge. He continues to make his way to Alt-Na-Shellach.
He finds refuge for a night with a poor tenant farmer (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft). The farmer thinks there is something going on between his boarder and his wife, which he feels is confirmed when he finds the two of them conspiring in the morning. But she is only trying to help him escape, having figured out his story and hearing the approaching of a police car.
|Hannay finds refuge with a poor tenant farmer (John Laurie).|
Even though Hannay pays the farmer £5 to stall the police, the wife is certain that he will turn Hannay in. As a way to disguise him, the wife gives Hannay her husband’s darker overcoat to wear, while she lets him out the backdoor of their house.
|The farmer's wife (Peggy Ashcroft) helps Hannay escape the police by giving him her husband's overcoat to wear.|
Hannay continues to Alt-Na-Shellach and, thinking the only new resident in town must have been Annabelle’s contact, he goes to his manor. Even with the police in hot pursuit, the respectable Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) takes him and sends away the authorities. Professor Jordan offers a sympathetic ear and seems eager to hear what he has to say. Hannay doesn’t have much to tell, except he repeats Annabelle’s warning to avoid a man missing part of his pinkie finger. Jordan reveals that he is the man she warned him about.
|Hannay continues on to Alt-Na-Shellach on foot.|
But rather than kill Hannay or turn him into the authorities, Jordan offers him a pistol to allow him to take suicide as his way out. When Hannay refuses to do so, Jordan shoots him and Hannay collapses to the floor. He is left for dead, except the bullet got stopped by the farmer’s hymnbook, which is still in the overcoat Hannay’s wearing.
|Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) gets ready to shoot Hannay.|
Hannay escapes from Jordan’s manor and goes to the local sheriff. Hannay appears to have found a friendly ear, as Sheriff Watson (Frank Cellier) seems to take it all in. But he’s just been biding time until the local police can arrive to arrest him. They get only get one handcuff on Hannay before he bolts out through the front window and escapes into the street, hiding in a parade, before ducking into a town hall. There he is mistaken for an introductory speaker. Up to the challenge, Hannay makes a rousing impromptu speech, all without knowing a thing about the candidate he’s introducing, even his name.
|On the lam from the police, Hannay is called upon to introduce a candidate he doesn't know.|
As he is speaking, he recognizes Pamela, who reciprocates and turns him into whom she thinks is a policeman. But when they take Hannay away, they take Pamela along, telling her they’ll need her to identify him. Their story keeps changing, when they pass the local police station. They tell Pamela that they have to take Hannay to a police station 40 miles away and become annoyed when she realizes they are going in the wrong direction.
|Pamela recognizes Hannay and turns him in again to the police.|
When they pass over a bridge, the car is stopped by a flock of sheep blocking the road. When the agents of the conspiracy get out to clear the road, they handcuff Pamela to Hannay as a human anchor. Hannay uses the distraction to escape, taking the reluctant and unwilling Pamela with him. He convinces her that if he’s as dangerous as she thinks he is, she had better cooperate with him.
They make their way across the countryside and, pretending to be newlyweds with car trouble, they get the last room at the inn. Hannay convinces the inn keeper’s wife that they are a runaway couple and asks for her help in keeping their secret. Thinking they’re very much in love, she agrees.
|Pamela is about to make her escape, when she notices the two fake policeman at the bar in the inn.|
While Hannay sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of her handcuff and is about to make her escape when she sees the two fake policemen questioning the inn keeper. She also overhears them on the telephone. Their conversation includes references to having had to take her with them, and that whoever is in charge is fleeing the country. He’ll stop on his way out at the London Palladium to pick up the information. Basically, what she overhears confirms everything Hannay has been asserting. She returns to the room and sleeps on the sofa. Meanwhile, the inn keeper’s wife prevents her husband from telling the fake policemen about the couple, using the illegal after hour’s sale of a drink as a reason to hustle the two men out.
|The innkeeper's wife hustles the fake policeman out of the bar.|
The next morning, Pamela tells Hannay what she heard. He is mad that she gave the men such a head start and they follow them to London. Pamela has already called Scotland Yard in London and by the time she arrives in London, they have already investigated but have found no secret documents have been reported missing. But while they don’t believe her, they do follow her, thinking she’ll lead them to Hannay.
|Scotland Yard has already investigated Pamela's claims and think they're without merit.|
Unknowingly, Pamela leads them to the London Palladium where she sees Hannay sitting in the audience. Hannay has spotted Jordan sitting in one of the balcony seats. When Mr. Memory takes the stage, Hannay recognizes his theme music—an annoyingly catchy tune he has been whistling for days without remembering its origin. And seeing Jordan’s interest in Mr. Memory, Hannay manages to put two and two together. There are no documents missing, since Mr. Memory can memorize them. As the police move to take Hannay into custody, he shouts out the question, "What are the 39 Steps?" Mr. Memory compulsively begins to answer, "The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of ..." At that point, Jordan shoots him. He tries to flee, but is forced to leap down onto the stage where he is quickly apprehended by a swarm of police.
|Jordan shoots Mr. Memory in an effort to keep him from revealing the 39 Steps.|
Backstage, the dying Mr. Memory refuses help, but when Hannay asks, he gladly recites the information stored in his brain—a design for a silent aircraft engine. Hannay is cleared and he and Pamela hold hands without having to be handcuffed.
|The dying Mr. Memory recites the 39 Steps stored in his brain. They turn out to be a design for a silent aircraft engine.|
As previously mentioned, the movie is not a strict adaptation of the book it is based on. The characters introduced are the two female leads, Annabelle Smith and Pamela, neither of which are in the book. Also in the novel, the 39 steps is not an organization, but is rather a location, physical steps. One device the movie uses, the map, actually fills in a plot hole in the novel, in which Hannay just happens to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.
But there are still some plot holes in the film. The most notable is how Annabelle gets stabbed in Hannay’s room while Hannay, sleeping nearby, is spared. Now I know if they had killed him, then there would be no story, but it still doesn’t make sense they would kill Annabelle, but not Hannay when they were in the same apartment at the same time.
Also, Hannay, after being shot by Jordan is left for dead, even though there is no blood. While the lack of blood may have helped the film get past the British censors, it is a little unrealistic to think a cold-blooded killer wouldn’t have expected blood after shooting someone at such close range.
Those concerns aside, the film is really very interesting and the story is well told. I’m a bit of an Anglophile, so I find the scenes of the music hall and town hall meetings very interesting, even though I’m sure so much of British life has changed since the mid-1930s.
The film is also an early example of a themes Hitchcock comes back to many times throughout his long career. First is the innocent man, wrongly accused of a crime, usually involving murder, having to go on the run to prove his innocence. The first example is The Lodger (aka The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog)(1927), but the director returned to it again and again in such films as Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).
The 39 Steps also features one of the prototypical cool, glib and intelligent blondes that would be a hallmark of future Hitchcock stars like Grace Kelly, Eva Saint Marie and Janet Leigh to name a few. I am of course not the first “critic” to note this. Per Roger Ebert, Carroll exemplified Hitchcock’s preferred heroine:
“The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerized the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated.”
Halfway through the film, it appears that Hannay, our main character, is shot and killed while the story is still unfolding. Hitchcock would return again to this in Psycho, when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is killed, after embezzling money, at the Bates Motel. But instead of the story going off on a tangent, the way Psycho spun on that event, The 39 Steps just picks itself up and continues.
Another theme that is introduced here, but also appears later in Saboteur, is the idea that the well-respected are not above reproach. The same way that Charles Tobin and Mrs. Henrietta Sutton in Saboteur are urban, rich and respected members of their communities and initially above suspicion, so is Professor Jordan in The 39 Steps. One of the reasons that the sheriff doesn’t believe Hannay is that the Professor is one of his best friends.
I was not a fan of Robert Donat going in, but I really came away with a lot of respect for him. Sometimes, an actor needs a role that gives you a way in to watching them. This may have been that role for me with Donat. Ill health apparently kept Donat from making too many movies. He is perhaps best remembered as Mr. Chips in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) the role for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor over Clark Gable in a little film called Gone With the Wind.
While her role in The 39 Steps might have been a defining one for Madeleine Carroll, she would move to Hollywood a few years after the movie, one of the first British actresses to be offered a major contract with a major studio. Her lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures would, for a time, make her the highest paid actress in the world. But before she left England, she would reteam with Hitchcock in Secret Agent (1936), which was originally supposed to reteam her with Donat, but instead she co-starred with John Gielgud, Peter Lorre and American actor Robert Young.
Peggy Ashcroft, who had a small but pivotal role as the farmer’s wife, was appearing in just her second film, but would have a long career on radio, television (appearing in a 30-minute excerpt of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on the BBC TV service back in 1937) and film. She would go be nominated for the British Academy Awards, the BAFTA’s for Best Supporting Actress in four films, The Nun’s Story (1959), Three Into Two Won’t Go (1969), Madame Sousatzka (1988) and for A Passage to India (1984), the latter for which she actually won. She would also win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mrs. Moore in that film.
The 39 Steps, like many of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood British films, are no less well-crafted than his perhaps better known Hollywood films. Many of the elements that we came to expect from the famed-director were already present in these works. I look forward to seeing more of the films from this period in the director’s career.
I would definitely recommend The 39 Steps to anyone who loves Hitchcock and to anyone that loves a good movie.