The 39 Steps
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Gaumont British Picture Corporation
#91 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
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.
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.
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.
With the police hot on his heels, Hannay meets The Professor and barely escapes with his life.
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.
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