The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps39 steps blu-ray
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Gaumont British Picture Corporation

#91 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
Multiple Viewings
IMDb users say 7.9; I say 9.0


The 39 Steps showcases Hitchcock as a master craftsman relatively early in his career. If the definition of a classic is a work that remains entertaining and surprising over time and repeated exposure, this film certainly deserves to be called one.

I revisited The Thirty-Nine Steps with the Blu-Ray disc from the Criterion Collection, which can be rented from Netflix.  The film has probably never looked more beautiful and is packaged with a number of extras including a commentary, a documentary on Hitchcock’s British films, a video interview with Hitchcock, a visual essay on the film by Leonard Leff, and audio excerpts about the film from  François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock.

The story should be familiar to any Hitchcock lover, if not from this film, from many that follow such as Saboteur and North by Northwest.  In this classic plot, a man is falsely accused of a crime and must flee both the police and the true criminals while attempting to clear his name.

Here our story begins when Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) visits a musical hall and catches the act of Mr. Memory, a man with reams of trivia at his disposal.   The way Hitchcock builds suspense by quick cuts between audience members shouting out questions in this scene is stunning.  The scene ends with a scuffle and gunshots.

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Hannay meets a woman as he is exiting the music hall.  She says she needs protection so he takes her to his apartment.  The woman is a spy on the trail of “The 39 Steps” and tells Hannay she has little time to prevent a valuable secret from leaving the country. She is promptly murdered in the apartment and Hannay is the prime suspect. Thus, begins his desperate flight from the police and quest to stop the spy ring.

Richard Hannay: Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.

Annabella Smith: That’s exactly what it is.

Hannay heads for Scotland based on a map he finds in the woman’s dead hand.  On his way, he spends the night with a crofter and his wife.  This scene is like its own short film about a jealous farmer (John Lurie), his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft), and a dashing young traveller.  It is a short scene but Hitchcock manages to pack in quite a bit of pathos and psychological depth to the predicament of a woman trapped in a bad marriage.

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With the police hot on his heels, Hannay meets The Professor and barely escapes with his life.

The 39 Steps

On the run again, Hannay finds himself the main speaker at a political rally and must improvise.  This scene would be copied many times, most notably in The Third Man.  He meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and they are both abducted by bad guys who eventually handcuff them together.

The third act plays as a sort of romantic comedy with the two sparring mightily before they fall in love.  Hitchcock is able to work in some slightly racy material when the two are forced to share a bedroom.  I hate to give away the ending of a 78-year-old movie so I will stop here.  Suffice it to say that the film ends on this shot.

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I’ve seen this one many times. The famous set pieces (Mr. Memory, the little finger, the handcuff scene in the inn) are indelibly imprinted in my memory. Yet I was surprised how fresh the story remains.  It is also a pleasure to enjoy the performance of Robert Donat, a consummate movie actor.  He said the secret of his success was his ability to be still and watching him just listen and think is a treat.  I prefer The Lady Vanishes among Hitchcock’s British films (why did that one not make The List?), but this ranks just behind it. It remains a witty and stylish suspense thriller.

Criterion – Three Reasons:  The 39 Steps


7 thoughts on “The 39 Steps (1935)

  1. I love this one too. It was one of the first movies from the thirties I saw when I was “officially” working my way through The List, and one of my first Hitchcock films. I still remember how shocked I was with the little finger – I audibly gasped and shot out of my seat when dude held up his hand. In revisiting The 39 Steps, which I’ve since done many times, it never fails to entertain. My rating was the same as yours!

    Nice write up. I like your inclusion of the final shot – that’s a sweet one.

  2. I am happy to finally read your posts. Very nice review indeed and I am very curious to read your back catalogue. I hope you do not mind a few comments here and there.
    I was particularly pleased with the scene in the cottage as well. A fun little subplot.

  3. I’m so glad to see you here! I love comments so I hope you will stick around.

    Peggy Ashcroft was great in that scene wasn’t she?

  4. OK, so I tried to leave a comment here last week, but apparently the interwebs destroyed it, so let’s try this again. I kinda sorta love this movie, and it’s nice to discover that you do too. The first time I watched it, I remember audibly gasping and leaping off the couch in the scene with the fingers. After that, the movie had me wrapped around its little finger (pun intended). Oh, the stockings! Oh, the chemistry! Oh, the set pieces! You’re very very right – it doesn’t get old. It’s definitely a standout film.

    • Oh, it’s great that your comment made it this time! I tried to leave a comment on your Written on the Wind review a couple of days ago but no luck. Will try again.

      • FYI, on my site, it may appear when you first try to enter a comment as though the comments are published twice, but no. It can be weird sometimes. Man, can’t these sites just work? I write about films, not coding!

        Well, I’m glad someone read my Written on the Wind piece! I was actually kinda proud of that one.

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