Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller “The 39 Steps” speeds along like a ray of light shooting through dark clouds. The film waste not a moment from the opening scene at the Music Hall to the closing tense finale at the London Palladium. The script was written by Charles Bennett who had already worked with Hitch on two other works (The Man Who Knew Too Much and Blackmail), and would collaborate on other films including “Secret Agent” and “Sabotage” and “Foreign Correspondent.” The screenplay is very loosely based on a novel by John Buchan, originally published in 1915, which by the time it was filmed was too antiquated in style for the 1930’s cinema. Subsequently, Hitchcock and Bennett made many changes including the adding of the leading female character, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).
Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is mistakenly implicated in the murder a woman, Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim); he met at the music hall while watching an act called Mr. Memory. She admits to being a spy selling herself to the highest bidder and right now, the British were paying the best. She is being followed by foreign agents who are on the verge of smuggling top-secret papers out of the country. In a Hitchcock film, it does not really matter what the papers are, this is the MacGuffin, a red herring that gets the story moving. Taking sanctuary in Hannay’s apartment, Annabelle tells the skeptical Canadian that two men are following her. After looking out his window, seeing two shadowy figures standing out on the street Hannay become’s a believer. Unfortunately, her time is short, as Hannay sleeps; Annabelle is knifed in the back. With Annabelle leaving few details before her death, something about “39 Steps” a map of Scotland with the area known as Alt-na Shellach marked on the map as the location she believes the ring leader of the spies is located, Hannay heads for Scotland with the police on his trail as the accused murderer of Annabelle Smith. Along the way, Hannay ends up handcuffed to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) who turns him into the police or so she thought, as they turned out to be foreign agents kidnapping both Hannay and Pamela. The plot leads up back to London and the famed Palladium where Hannay comes to the realization how the foreign agents are going smuggle the secret plans out of the country.
This quickly paced episodic film runs from one short descriptive scene to another. Filled with suspense and humor, some risqué for its time, the film is a rollercoaster ride that does not stop for 85 minutes. The opening music hall scene get things off to a rousing start filled with laughter and a marvelous setup; the meeting of Hannay and Annabelle that sets the rest of the film in motion. Hannay’s relationship with Pamela is another highlight. Taking an instant dislike to him after he burst into her compartment on the train and begins kissing her in order to hide from the pursuing police, she quickly turns him in. The couple will soon meet again and find themselves handcuffed together in a series of scenes that are both suspenseful and comedic. Hitchcock liked pushing the censors’ buttons even as far back as 1935 when the British board did not allow unmarried couples to share a bed. Hitchcock gets away with this through some clever direction and skillful performances by Donat and Carroll including the scene where Pamela removes her stocking and Hannay, his hand handcuffed to Pamela’s, is “forced” to rub up against her leg. Left unsaid, but still it must be in the back of filmgoers mind is how did they go to the bathroom? The film is actually filled with sexual innuendo. The salesmen Hannay meets on the train heading Scotland, displayed their samples, women’s under garments. When Hannay takes refuge in a Scotsman farmhouse, the farmer at one point insinuates Hannay and his wife have slept together. Even at the beginning of the film when Hannay meets Annabelle, one of the first things she says to him is “May I come to your home.” Hannay quickly agrees, and when Hannay tries to sneak out of his apartment after Annabelle’s murder, the only way he can convince the milkman to switch clothes with him so he can sneak past the two men watching outside is to tell him he has just spent the night with a married woman.
Speed is of the essence in this film, with swift cuts and lightening transitions from one scene to the next. Note how quick the editing is when the housekeeper finds Annabelle’s body and screams, her scream blending together with the train whistle of the next scene. Hitchcock and his editors do this so well the train’s whistle seeming coming from the woman’s mouth as she screams.
For the first time, Hitchcock used what would become one of his most famous motifs that of the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. It would surface again in films like “The Wrong Man”, “Saboteur” and “North by Northwest.” Other themes that show up again and again in his films appearing here are the cool blonde; Madeleine Carroll may be the first in a long line of cool Hitchcock blondes. Spies and secret organizations are another theme that would continue to show up in future works.
When the film opened at the Roxy Theater in New York in September of 1935, New York Times critic Andre Sennwald called it “one of the most fascinating pictures of the year.” He continues, “If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate, and entertaining melodrama of the year, it is “The Man Who Knew Too Much” which is also out of Mr., Hitchcock’s workshop.” Today, the film remains one of the greatest from his under appreciated English period.