A handsome, charming, innocent man who is wrongly accused of a crime runs into a smart, beautiful blonde in a chase thriller that revolves around international espionage. This is the story depicted in what is – exactly – just another Alfred Hitchcock spy story. Except it is also among the director’s best visual narratives and considered his first masterpiece – The 39 Steps.
I’m obliged to warn that spoilers lay ahead.
Setting the hero in motion
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) attends a show in a London music hall where a certain Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) is performing. Mr. Memory’s talent is a photographic memory, which he demonstrates by answering random questions from the audience. As the performer performs shots are fired in the theater, which naturally causes mayhem. Along with everyone else, Hannay rushes out of the theater and finds himself next to a woman who seems particularly shaken, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). At her suggestion the two go to his apartment where she proceeds to tell Hannay that she is a
spy and that the shots fired earlier in the theater were meant for her. In fact, the near assassins have followed them to the apartment, which prompts her to tell Hannay her story – she has uncovered a spy ring intent on stealing British military secrets. The leader of the ring being a man who is missing part of one of his little fingers. Annabella also mentions something about the 39 Steps, but doesn’t elaborate.
Later that night Annabella stumbles into Hannay’s room clutching a piece of paper and muttering a warning that he should get out of there. She then drops onto the bed – dead – the result of the huge knife that’s sticking out of her back. Hannay grabs the piece of paper from her dead hand and sees it’s a map of Scotland with a town circled on it.
And so it is that Richard Hannay becomes one of Hitchcock’s first “innocent man mistaken for someone else forced to go on the run in order to clear his name and expose the bad guys”
protagonist, a theme the director would return to time and again in films like Saboteur (1942), The Wrong Man (1956) and North by Northwest (1959). As is often the case for Hitchcock what really matters in The 39 Steps is the hero’s journey or the thrill of the hunt. What matter a lot less are the bad guys. In this case it would be the snoops, or spies whose purpose is to set the story in motion as we delve deeper and deeper on our way to the McGuffin – the plot enabling device – we care nothing about.
Heeding Annabella’s warning, recognizing that whoever was after her will now think he knows about the military secrets, Hannay wastes no time in setting forth toward Scotland and the town circled on the map in hopes of spoiling the spy plot.
Hannay manages to sneak out of his apartment disguised as the milkman to board a train, the Flying Scotsman. As soon as the train starts moving, however, we see that the spies that were
watching his apartment are hot on his trail. Soon after Hannay learns that the police are after him too – for murdering Annabella Smith. As the police search the train Hannay is able to avoid detection by entering the compartment of a woman named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and kissing her so that they think they are a couple traveling together. But Pamela alerts the police as soon as Hannay loosens his grip, which forces him to jump from the train to escape.
As Richard Hannay continues toward the town circled on the map the police remain close behind almost catching up with him again in a remote farmhouse where he stays for a night as
the border of an old farmer, John (John Laurie) and his much younger wife, Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft). Margaret takes a liking to Hannay and forges an immediate connection with him, which we are shown by way of a terrific silent sequence as Hannay reads of the police manhunt for Annabella’s killer in a newspaper headline and Margaret noticing same. By way of glances and quick edits we are made privy to Hitchcock’s silent roots and the power of the visual over dialogue, a choice the director made often. Anyway, Margaret helps Hannay get away just as the police are seen driving toward the house. She even gives him her husband’s overcoat to use as a disguise.
As Hannay runs from the farmhouse chased by the police we get to see another notable sequence across rocky terrain, which includes brief shots of a menacing helicopter hovering above the hunted man. Although the helicopter gets minimal attention in this sequence
it is reminiscent of the iconic crop duster scene in North by Northwest, which was made nearly a quarter century later. In fact, in case you’re unaware, North by Northwest is a remake of The 39 Steps and similarities are evident throughout. As are, in fact, many other elements used in The 39 Steps familiar in other Hitchcock movies – dark humor, newspapers, trains, even this film’s opening sequence which is made up of a continuous shot of a man’s legs was used later, although much more elegantly, to open Strangers on a Train (1951). But I digress…
The police stay close behind Hannay as he makes it to the home of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), who Hannay thinks was working with Annabella, but that proves not to be the case.
After Hannay shares Annabella’s story Jordan reveals his hand – missing part of its little finger. In other words, this is king snoop! Mr. bad guy himself in charge of the spies who are trying to smuggle the military secrets out of the country. Unhappy about the fact that Hannay seems to know way too much about him, Jordan very casually shoots Hannay in the heart. But thanks to the hymn book the old farmer kept in the breast pocket of his overcoat our protagonist survives and is able to get away.
Now that he knows who’s in charge of the spy ring, Hannay goes to the chief of police, but the man doesn’t believe the story. Instead Hannay is ordered arrested for murder, which forces him to jump out of the window and try to hide in a political meeting in progress. His bad luck continues as he’s mistaken for a featured speak, put on the spot to deliver a discourse, which leads him to be recognized by a woman in attendance – Pamela, the woman he’d kissed on the train – who immediately turns him into the police. Hannay is quickly handcuffed and taken away with Pamela who goes along for the ride as the accuser. But as conversation ensues Hannay realizes that the ones who are holding him are not the police, but the spies and when he calls them out on it they handcuff him to Pamela. The ever resilient Hannay is able to escape yet again – even while handcuffed to Pamela – thanks to a flock of sheep that block the road forcing the spies’ attention away from the couple.
Bound together Hannay and Pamela make their way across the countryside and to an Inn where they spend the night. The danger of Hannay being arrested or captured and killed by the spies
is ever-present, but now we have the added bonus of fantastic romantic/sexual chemistry added to the mix as we see the two get through an uncomfortable night while handcuffed to each other.
After a few moments that should have alerted 1935 censors the couple falls asleep and sometime during the night Pamela is able to free herself of the handcuffs. As she leaves the room trying to get away she’s stopped in her tracks by a conversation she overhears taking place in the lobby between the two spies who’d handcuffed them, (paraphrasing) “It’s too dangerous with Hannay on the loose. The old man’s warning the whole 39 steps and heading for the London Palladium to pick up you-
know-what.” The conversation makes Pamela realize that Hannay has been telling her the truth all along – that he’s not a murderer and that there are government secrets in danger of being exposed. The next morning Pamela tells Hannay what she overheard and he sends her to the police, but again the story of international espionage and secret documents is just too far-fetched to be believed. The police then follow her to where she’s meeting up with Hannay – the London Paladium…where the featured entertainer for the night is…Mr. Memory.
The police catch up with Hannay and just as they try to arrest him he yells out to Memory, “What are the 39 steps?” and the brainwashed man has no choice but to answer, “The 39 steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of…” and before he
can finish Mr. Memory is shot by a man sitting in the balcony – who happens to be missing a portion of his little finger.
Now Jordan is apprehended, everyone finally believes Hannay’s story and we see him trying to get the final piece of the puzzle from Mr. Memory who’s holding onto dear life. The military secrets in this movie turn out to be one of my favorite McGuffins in a Hitchcock movie because it seems he makes even less effort than usual to disguise the fact it matters so little. Here they have something to do with an airplane device and gamma something or other – who cares? What matters is resolved – our hero has beaten insurmountable odds and is out of danger and he and Pamela are in love, joining hands by choice now, rather than by force.
The 39 Steps is Alfred Hitchcock’s eighteenth film and the second in what has come to be known as his classic, thriller sextet, which is made up of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) – The 39 Steps – Secret Agent (1936) – Sabotage (1936) – Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) – films he made at Gaumont-British Picture Corporation before venturing forth toward Hollywood. The 39 Steps is my favorite of that impressive lot and was a big hit with audiences in 1935 despite the fact that the movie veers far from the 1915 novel by John Buchan on which it’s based. The movie’s success is no wonder though – the cast is stellar and the story – a sexy, exciting tale – moves along in a flash. In fact, I’ve little doubt this post feels longer than the movie it discusses.
“If it sounds like a spy story, that’s exactly what it is.”
Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t mince words – or images. He’d tell this tale again. Even in similar fashion, which is testament to his genius as each telling is as compelling as the next despite the familiarity. So, in that sense The 39 Steps is just another Hitchcock spy story, which basically means it shouldn’t be missed.
This post about a spy movie with incidental spies is my entry for the Snoopathon, a Blogathon of Spies hosted by Fritzi at Movies, Silently. Visit the Snoopathon main page starting on June 1 and meet the greatest spies in the business.