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The 39 Steps (1935)

October 11th, 2007 · 6 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) – a native of Montreal visiting London – attends a music hall. He catches the act of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a vaudevillian who memorizes facts and remembers everything. A brawl breaks out at the bar, and when someone fires a pistol, a dash for the exit ensues. A mystery woman with a German brogue (Lucie Mannheim) grabs Hannay and asks if she can come home with him. “Well, it’s your funeral,” he tells her.

She gives a name of “Annabella Smith” and reveals that she fired the shots to escape two men who are after her. Annabella claims to have been hired by England to save a state secret from being smuggled out of the country by a foreign agent. She asks Hannay to stay the night. Later, she wakes him with a knife in her back and dies. Hannay evades two agents and with a map of Scotland as his only clue, heads there for answers.

Scotland Yard detectives board Hannay’s train. He attempts to hide by barging into the cabin of a blonde named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and kissing her, but she turns him over to the authorities. Hannay hops off the train and makes his way across the moors to the home of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle). Hannay believes the professor was going to help Annabella locate the foreign agent, a man missing his pinky finger at the knuckle.

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A glance at the professor’s digits reveals that he is the foreign agent. His deputies detain Hannay and Pamela, handcuffing the pair together. When Hannay escapes again, he has to drag Pamela along with him. She assumes he’s a killer and does not make for a good traveling companion. Hiding out at an inn, Pamela overhears two enemy agents talking about the London Palladium. The couple races there to stop the professor.

Production history 
During the filming of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, director Alfred Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville and screenwriter Charles Bennett began work on a treatment of John Buchan‘s 1915 adventure novel The 39 Steps. Buchan – a Scottish barrister turned novelist – had used the term “shocker” to describe his fiction, which Hitchcock loved as a boy. With a first draft complete, humorist Ian Hay Beith polished the dialogue.

Hitchcock was under contract to European studio Gaumont. Their board of directors felt The Man Who Knew Too Much had been just that – too highbrow. They pressured to Hitchcock to ditch The 39 Steps and make movies a mass audience could enjoy, like musicals. Fortunately, the director had an ally in studio head Michael Balcon, who sent word from the U.S. that Hitchcock was not to be interfered with.

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For his leads, Hitchcock chose Robert Donat, a British actor who embodied the gentleman adventurer of Buchan’s fiction. Hitchcock wanted Jane Baxter to star opposite him, but she’d committed to a play. The director cast a blonde bombshell with limited acting experience named Madeleine Carroll.

Shooting commenced in the spring of 1935 at Lime Grove Studios in London. Released in the UK in June 1935, the U.S. two months later, The 39 Steps became a critical and commercial hit on both sides of the Atlantic, where it was received as Hitchcock’s most entertaining film to date.

While the movie is built on all kinds of contrivances – Annabella revealing her secret mission to Hannay, Scotland Yard failing to apprehend a suspect on a train, enemy agents unable to locate a handcuffed couple on the moors – I ended up loving the movie. The 39 Steps has style and sophistication to spare. It’s wonderfully cast, ceaselessly rousing and may be one of Hitchcock’s most blatantly sexual “shockers.” All said, it’s a lot of fun.

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Donat plays a cocksure and dapper hero who reminds me a bit of Cary Grant in North By Northwest; we never find out what Hannay’s business is, but he demonstrates guile regardless of the situation he’s thrust into. The script does a wonderful job of upping the odds against him at every turn. My favorite bit involves Hannay ducking into an assembly hall, where he staves off arrest by pretending to be a political candidate on the stump.

Madeleine Carroll and Lucie Mannheim each bring tremendous aplomb and sensuality to the movie. I thought it was pretty bold of Hitchcock to open the film with the hero taking an anonymous fräulein back to his place. Carroll plays more of a nice girl, but has a sexy bit where she takes off her damp stockings while handcuffed to Donat.

Aside from its visual ingenuity, the movie has a charm that I responded to. It doesn’t take off until Donat & Carroll are handcuffed, but the climax is one of the most memorable of any Hitchcock film. Robert Towne has struggled to mount a remake of The 39 Steps for the last decade, but part of the original’s allure are the British music halls, trains and German secret agents that were truly of the time this picture was made. I can’t see it being improved upon.

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Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “You know a movie is good when the main complaint about it is it should have been longer, as it runs just over 85 minutes.”

The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s earliest blockbusters, and was the first film he was given nearly complete control of. Think of it as a warm-up to North by Northwest,” writes Sean McGinnis at DVD Verdict.

Tom Blain at Jackass Critics calls The 39 Steps, “an almost-masterpiece that laid the foundation for many Hitchcock masterpieces soon to follow.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Femme fatale · Interrogation · Paranoia · Road trip · Train

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Oct 12, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Hey Joe,
    Forgive my lack of comments lately…school is keeping me way too busy right now. I am loving your HItchcock posts and will be leaving some thoughts on some of them when I get a chance…keep up the great work. This review makes me want to go rewatch this film as it has been a long time…all the best…

  • 2 Justine // Oct 14, 2007 at 11:22 am

    This is actually one of my favourite Hitchcock films, it’s ridiculously charming and exciting. I can’t help letting a wide grin crawl across my face when I watch it. Donat is perfect and I regreat I still haven’t seen any of his other films. I always saw North by Northwest as a loose remake of it…

  • 3 Megan // Oct 16, 2007 at 9:57 am

    I love especially the ‘heckling’ from the audiences at the music hall and the political meeting. Hysterical.

  • 4 Damian // Oct 17, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    When I was a kid I used to love watching a movie with Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman called Cloak and Dagger. It was sort of a family fantasy/suspense-thriller with dangerous spies and exciting action, but not too much violence that young kids couldn’t enjoy it. There was a scene in it where the Thomas discovers that a character whom he thought was good actually turned out to be bad. The revealing characteristic was that she had only three fingers. I used to love that moment when she showed the boy her hand and he realized he was in big trouble. It sent shivers down my spine.

    When I later saw an identical moment in 39 Steps I finally realized how incredibly influential the movie (and Hitchcock himself) had been on the whole suspense genre. It all basically goes back to the 39 Steps!

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 17, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    Jeremy: No sweat. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Reading is fundamental. Don’t be a fool, stay in school [I think Mr. T said that one]. Anyway, I’ll look forward to your insights later in the month.

    Justine: I agree that this film would make a sweet double feature with North By Northwest (so would Foreign Correspondent). So far, I agree with all of your comments. Thanks for sharing, ghostwriter.

    Megan: Droll British wit can never go wrong with me, which is one reason I enjoy movies like The Lady Vanishes, Frenzy or this one that are loaded with British day players.

    Damian: I probably watched Cloak and Dagger 24 times when it ran on HBO. Director Richard Franklin was a Hitchcock disciple whose best known movies are probably Psycho II and Cloak and Dagger. The villain you’re talking about was sort of a homage or rip-off of the elderly couple in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the man with the missing digit in The 39 Steps. Awesome comment!

  • 6 Damian // Oct 18, 2007 at 12:46 am

    It’s great to find another fan of Cloak and Dagger, Joe.

    Oh, and speaking of that elderly couple, pay special attention to the actor who plays the sherrif when you watch Pyscho.

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