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The 39 Steps

Early Alfred Hitchcock - A Romp in the Scottish Highlands

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


The 39 Steps Review

The 39 Steps DVD Cover

(c) British Gaumont Pictures
The 39 Steps is an early Hitchcock suspense film made in Britain, with a number of uber-Hitchcockian themes that would be seen again in his American work – most notably North by Northwest. Here, a charming hero wrongly accused of murder sets out on his own to save jolly old England from a master spy...while literally handcuffed to a pretty, icy blonde who can’t stand him.

Hitchcock had already made 18 films, but The 39 Steps brought him international fame and the attention of Hollywood. He made only one more film in Britain – the inferior Jamaica Inn – before moving to the United States.

The Plot

Dashing young Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat of Goodbye Mr. Chips fame) visits a London music hall and sees the novelty performer "Mr. Memory," a mousy, mustachioed creature who commits trivia to memory and takes questions from the rowdy audience.

Shots suddenly ring out, there’s a general panic in the theater, and Hannay finds that a gorgeous brunette (Lucie Mannheim) has attached herself to his arm. She announces in a heavy German accent that she’d like to go home with him.

They’re followed back to his flat, where she entrusts him with part of her mission – thwarting an attempt to sneak an important naval secret out of the country and into the hands of a foreign power. He’s sleeping on the couch when she stumbles in from the bedroom, a map of Scotland in her hands and a knife in her back – and he quickly realizes unless he solves the mystery, he’ll be the prime suspect in her murder.

The map takes him to Scotland on a train, where he attempts to gain the help of the lovely Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who promptly turns him over to the constables. He makes a daring escape, finds the man in Scotland the deceased brunette was looking for, and finds himself in hot water all over again, pursued by both the police and the spies.

A coincidence puts him back in Pamela’s orbit, and she turns him over to the police again, only to wind up handcuffed to Hannay and traipsing across the Scottish countryside.

The complex, tight plot, comic scenes and clever dialog keep the audience guessing until the end, with plenty of suspense and a light, sweet love story.

The Cast of 'The 39 Steps'

Donat is wonderful as the quick-thinking Hannay, who simply refuses to be rattled by his extraordinary bad luck and constant peril. He’s particularly good when he’s mistaken for a politician from the national party, come to support a local candidate whose name he can’t quite pronounce. He remains a perfect gentleman while handcuffed to Pamela, and it takes her far too long to fall under his considerable spell.

Carroll is intelligent, no-nonsense and completely natural as Pamela, and Mannheim is appropriately mysterious as the doomed lady spy. Sir Godfrey Tearle is excellent as the master villain, with Helen Haye as his imperturbable wife (she inquires whether the gentleman at whom her husband is pointing his gun will be staying for lunch.).

The whole supporting cast is marvelous. Look for a very young Dame Peggy Ashcroft as the abused wife of a cruel Scottish farmer (character actor Hugh Laurie). She takes a fancy to the charming fugitive, and helps him escape. You would, too.

The Backstory

The themes that run through The 39 Steps would forever interest Hitchcock, and would appear again and again in his movies over the years. An innocent man wrongly accused; the potential for suspense in train travel; happy marriages vs. miserable unions; the ability of an ordinary man to respond to extraordinary events; bumbling efforts by police; and of course, mildly racy scenes with smart, icy blondes who may not be interested – at least, not right away.

Hitchcock’s cameo comes early in this film, as a passerby who’s littering the street as Donat and Mannheim board a bus. One of the most famous effects in the film comes when the maid discovers the brunette’s body in Hannay’s flat…and her scream dissolves into the train whistle of the Flying Scotsman as Hannay makes his escape.

'The 39 Steps' - the Bottom Line

The 39 Steps is a fast-paced, darkly comic and fun little movie that is very good on its own, and foreshadows the truly great Hitchcock movies to come.

Recommended for You:

If you liked The 39 Steps, you may like North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, Charade, or To Catch a Thief.

'The 39 Steps' at a Glance:

Year: 1935, Black and White
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Running Time: 86 minutes
Studio: Gaumont British Picture Corporation
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