“What are the 39 steps?”
If you’re a true cinephile, and you do not know the answer to that question we’ve got some work to do. Consider this a serious intervention. “The 39 Steps” is a 1935 thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Let me rephrase that. “The 39 Steps” remains one of the most dynamic, ingenious, literate and diverting movies. Its formula and set pieces have been imitated, but you should not accept substitutions. It’s 86 minutes of laughter, thrills and a masterclass in filmmaking.
It is a loose adaptation of John Buchan’s adventure novel of the same name. It begins at a Music Hall in London, where Richard Hannay is attending a performance and shots are fired. An apparently frightened young woman – Annabella Smith – asks him for refuge in his apartment. She tells Richard she’s a spy and that there are assailants after her. She’s figured out there’s a plot to steal plans from the Air Ministry. At first, he doesn’t believe her. She entrusts him with some key pieces of information. He needs to beware of a man who has part of his finger missing, and she circles a location in Scotland – “Alt-na-Shellach.” She mentions the 39 steps but doesn’t explain their meaning. Soon after, she turns up dead. Richard sneaks out of the apartment, and he is now on the run – trying to solve the mystery. He boards the Flying Scotsman express train, and while aboard he finds out that there’s a national hunt for him. He’s accused for the murder of Annabella. So Richard is being chased by the police and the mysterious assasins and is on a mission to clear his name.
This is one of the earliest examples of the “man on the run” premise – and one of the many times Hitchcock will put a man in the position to having to prove his innocence. “The Lodger” (1926), “Saboteur” (1942) and “North by Northwest” (1959) will follow. It is one of the first times he will use the “MacGuffin.” It is basically a plot device that propels the story forward but it’s ultimately inconsequential to the audience. Think of the 40,000 dollars that Marion steals at the beginning of “Psycho.” It starts the narrative moving, but at the end do you remember the money she stole? In this case we have the designs for the secret silent airplane. Hitchcock also uses for the first time the icy blonde – who is cold, blonde and aloof. In order to evade the police, Richard runs into a compartment of the train and starts kissing Pamela – who in turn alerts his persecutors. Later, she will betray him for a second time – and end up handcuffed to him.
It’s a given in a Hitchcock film that you’re going to have suspense. The shocking aspect of “The 39 Steps” is how funny it is. It plays at times like a screwball comedy. The relationship between Richard and Pamela recalls Gable and Colbert in “It Happened One Night.” The fact that they’re bound to one another by the physical restraint leads to some hysterical physical comedy – including having to cross a fence and him lifting his arms and pulling at her unconsciously. Later, there’s an irrepressible moment where she wants to take off her soaking wet stockings and she has to maneuver out of them while his hand is attached to hers.
Hitchock will take us on this chase from London to Scotland – on a train, through windows – over bridges -through the countryside and stopped by a flock of sheep and their incessant baaing. The camera usage is intrepid. Notice how he frames everything from the moment the movie starts. Richard is introduced to you faceless – an innocent everyman. The angle and perspective in which you see the stage of the music hall is important. The last scene of the film will bookend with another audience perspective of a stage – and it will be altered. When Richard takes Anabella to the apartment, it’s worth luxuriating in the framing devices – and how symbolically she asks him to turn over the mirror on the mantel. Nothing is as it appears. The editing of climactic scenes – that basically cut away from the punch line, evading the blow – are on par with the character of Richard – the action hero who has a stiff upper lip – and a knack for getting himself swiftly out of whatever corner he’s painted himself in – including being saved from a bullet by a hymn book. “Some of those hymns are terribly hard to get through,” says cheekily the sheriff. The juxtaposition of shots as the maid uncovers the dead body of Annabella with the whistle of the train pulling out of the tunnel is iconic.
Richard Donat is tremendous as Hannay. There’s one delicious moment in which he finds himself speaking at a political rally in order to save himself. There’s so much double-meaning – and he delivers it all with such aplomb. It’s time for you to know about “The 39 Steps.”
Richard: “As for you, may I say, from the bottom of my heart and with the utmost sincerity, how delighted and relieved I am to find myself in your presence at this moment. Delighted, because of your friendly reception, and relieved, because as long as I stand on this platform, I’m delivered from the moment – from the cares and anxieties which must always be the lot of a man in my position. When I journeyed up to Scotland a few days ago, traveling on the Highland Express, over that magnificent structure, the Forth Bridge, that monument to Scottish engineering and Scottish muscle, I had no idea that within a few days’ time, I should find myself addressing an important political meeting. No idea. I planned a different program for myself. A very different program.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Amazon Prime and The Criterion Channel. Available to rent on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
Written by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay
Based on the novel by John Buchan
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim and Godfrey Tearle
The Collaboration Between Alfred Hitchcock and Cinematographer Bernard Knowles
Prior to teaming with Hitchcock, the cinematographer’s other credits included “Love’s Option” (1928), “The Broken Melody” (1929), “The Silver King” (1929), “Auld Lang Syne” (1929), “Rookery Nook” (1930), “The Nipper” (1930), “French Leave” (1930), “School for Scandal” (1930), “Canaries Sometimes Sing” (1930), The Calendar (1931), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1931) and “White Face” (1932). A Gaumont-British production, The “39 Steps” was the company’s major stab at breaking their pictures into the U.S. market, with much of the budget spent on the cast. In the scene above, our stars are handcuffed together, walking through the misty Scottish “countryside” — filmed on stage at Lime Grove Studios in west London. (ascmag.com)
About Author John Buchan
John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was born Aug. 26, 1875, Perth, Perthshire, Scotland…His 50 books, all written in his spare time while pursuing an active career in politics, diplomacy, and publishing, include many historical novels and biographies. A clergyman’s son, Buchan was educated at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, where he began to publish fiction and history. He was called to the bar in 1901 and worked on the staff of the high commissioner for South Africa in that country (1901–03), forming a lifelong attachment to the cause of empire. Back in London, he became a director of Nelson’s, the publishers for whom he wrote what is often held to be the best of his adventure stories in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Prester John” (1910); it is a vivid, prophetic account of an African rising. During World War I Buchan held a staff appointment, and in 1917 he became director of information for the British government. His “Thirty-Nine Steps” (1915) was the most popular of his series of secret-service thrillers and the first of many to feature Richard Hannay. The 1935 film of “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is often acclaimed a classic motion-picture thriller. After the war Buchan became assistant director of the British news agency Reuters and was member of Parliament for the Scottish universities, 1927–35. His biographies, “Montrose” (1928) and “Sir Walter Scott” (1932), are illuminated by compassionate understanding of Scottish history and literature. In 1935 he was raised to the peerage and appointed governor-general of Canada, which was the setting for his novel, “Sick Heart River” (1941; U.S. title, “Mountain Meadow”). His autobiography, “Memory Hold-the-Door,” was published in 1940. (britannica.com)
About Director Alfred Hitchcock
“Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in London, England, on August 13, 1899, and was raised by strict, Catholic parents. He described his childhood as lonely and sheltered, partly due to his obesity. He once said that he was sent by his father to the local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him away for 10 minutes as punishment for behaving badly. He also remarked that his mother would force him to stand at the foot of her bed for several hours as punishment (a scene alluded to in his film Psycho). This idea of being harshly treated or wrongfully accused would later be reflected in Hitchcock’s films. Hitchcock attended the Jesuit school St. Ignatius College before going on to attend the University of London, taking art courses. He eventually obtained a job as a draftsman and advertising designer for the cable company Henley’s. It was while working at Henley’s that he began to write, submitting short articles for the in-house publication. From his very first piece, he employed themes of false accusations, conflicted emotions and twist endings with impressive skill.
In 1920, Hitchcock entered the film industry with a full-time position at the Famous Players-Lasky Company designing title cards for silent films. Within a few years, he was working as an assistant director. In 1925, Hitchcock directed his first film and began making the “thrillers” for which he became known the world over. His 1929 film Blackmail is said to be the first British “talkie.” In the 1930s, he directed such classic suspense films as “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) and “The 39 Steps” (1935). In 1939, Hitchcock left England for Hollywood. The first film he made in the United States, “Rebecca” (1940), won an Academy Award for best picture. Some of his most famous films include “Psycho” (1960), “The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie” (1964). His works became renowned for their depictions of violence, although many of his plots merely function as decoys meant to serve as a tool for understanding complex psychological characters. His cameo appearances in his own films, as well as his interviews, film trailers and the television program “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1965), made him a cultural icon. Hitchcock directed more than 50 feature films in a career spanning six decades. He received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1979. One year later, on April 29, 1980, Hitchcock died peacefully in his sleep in Bel Air, California. He was survived by his lifetime partner, assistant director and closest collaborator, Alma Reville, also known as “Lady Hitchcock,” who died in 1982.” (biography.com)