The 39 Steps

Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1935 version of The 39 Steps is one of those films that’s so seminal that when watched today it can seem like little more than a parade of hoary old clichés; that is, until you consider that The 39 Steps is where many of those clichés originated. The film lays a foundation that countless espionage thrillers have built upon and continue to build upon to the present day. It’s all here: The innocent everyman abroad who’s drawn into a web of intrigue by an encounter with a mysterious and exotic woman; the shadowy international criminal organization whose reach is so extensive that it’s impossible to know who can be trusted; the ardently sought-after “MacGuffin” that sets the plot in motion despite ultimately being inconsequential to the outcome; the criminal mastermind with an identifying disfigurement who hides behind a genteel facade of upper-class respectability; the urbane, witty hero who has a way with the ladies, etc. And while it’s hero takes the train rather than hopping the globe on a luxury airliner, The 39 Steps is worth considering as a necessary precursor to the jet setting spy capers that would follow in its wake some thirty years later.

Based very loosely on John Buchan’s 1915 novel of the same name, The 39 Steps concerns Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a vacationing Canadian businessman who meets up with an enigmatic woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) while fleeing a ruckus at a London music hall. After convincing Hannay to let her take shelter in his lodgings, Smith divulges that she is an agent working for the British government, and that she is working to prevent agents of a foreign power–men, she says, “who will stop at nothing”–from smuggling air defense secrets out of the country (an enterprise that required a considerable amount of leg work in those days before fax machines and email). Not too surprisingly, someone breaks into Hannay’s digs and pins a dagger in Ms. Smith’s back before the night is through, and she is only able to hand Hannay a map to a location in Scotland and gasp something about “the 39 Steps” before expiring.

Just as you or I would do, Hannay foregoes contacting the authorities, evades Annabella’s killers, and, with map in hand, hops on the next train to Scotland, ready to embroil himself in a deadly game of international espionage despite not being equipped in the least to do so. By this time, Annabella’s body has been discovered in Hannay’s apartment, ensuring that his search for the 39 Steps will be hampered by the unwelcome attentions of both the forces of the law and those of the foreign spies. This situation forces him to ditch the train on which he’s been riding and make his way across the fog enshrouded Scottish countryside on his own, with nothing but his wits and charm to get him by.

Over the course of a series of tight scrapes and daring escapes, Hannay finds himself on the run while handcuffed to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a young woman who has reluctantly become enmeshed in his predicament simply as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This circumstance adds an element of romantic comedy to The 39 Steps, and also allows Hitchcock an opportunity to cheekily flaunt the then stringent restrictions of the British censors–due to the fact that the unmarried couple, because of the handcuffs, must not only share a room, but a bed as well. Ultimately, the initially combative Pamela comes to believe Hannay’s version of events and, after divesting themselves of the cuffs, the two strive to solve the riddle of the 39 steps and foil the plans of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), the stump-fingered mastermind who masquerades as a pillar of society while scheming to betray his country. Of course, their success depends on them surviving their shadowy enemies’ repeated attempts to eliminate them.

The 39 Steps manages to remain a thoroughly engaging entertainment despite the over-familiarity of so many of its elements, largely due to Hitchcock’s typically masterful pacing and ambitious visual style. The director here pulls off some visuals that, though they would today only be a matter of a few keystrokes, boggle the mind at the thought of how difficult they must have been to achieve at the time (witness, for instance, what’s made to look like a seamless pan from the set-bound interior of a car to the exterior of an actual car speeding off down the road). Robert Donat as Hannay also serves to keep things interesting, and gives the proceedings a distinctly modern flavor, thanks to a sardonic wit that distinguishes him from the more square-cut and upright type of hero we might expect to find in a thriller of this vintage. Madeleine Carroll, likewise, matches him point for point, and the verbal jousting matches between the two serve to keep things crisp and lively.

The 39 Steps was one of Hitchcock’s first international successes, and these seventy-plus years later it’s still not hard to see why. That it’s venerable old formula can still bear results is testament to the fact that such tales of romance and international intrigue, when told with the right amount of wit and style, are a long way from wearing out their welcome.

16 thoughts on “The 39 Steps”

  1. I suppose I shouldn’t say this, but I’ve always been a bit lukewarm towards Hitchcock. On the one hand, it’s the impossibility of living up to the hype, and on the other, the fact that I think other directors were doing better with less money at the same time. But I’ve always adored this film.

    Todd – you’re spot-on in saying that it paved the way for the set-set era thrillers that came after (I’d even go so far as to say that the Flying Scotsman was the Pan-Am 747 of its day; but what I love about the film, which I miss dreadfully in modern thrillers, is the central concept of a central character who simply decides to do the Right Thing and have a Thrilling Adventure. No Chosen Ones, no Inescapable Destinies in Worlds of Pain and Betrayal (although, of course, it is set in a world of pain and betrayal), and best of all, no facepalming faux-angst.

    I’d like people’s opinion on this. At what time, and what sociological fulcra tipped the balance from main characters who start off blameless or shallow, but make the /decision/ to get involved in exciting adventures, and dig hidden depths out of themselves (a theme obviously continued in ‘North by Northwest’) to the cod-Schopenhauer slaves-to-destiny model that seems to be the norm at the moment? How did we get from Richard Hannay to sodding Batman?

    In any case, a delightful review, and an impetus for me to go back and rewatch a film I haven’t seen in far too long.

  2. I am reminded of Bulldog Drummond’s ad in the classified. “Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.”

    I am with you, Prof, in being weary for years now of the haunted angsty anti-hero forced by destiny. It was fun when it was new, but it’s done over and over now. I long for the days of, “By golly, grab my adventure boots and let’s get cracking!” simply for the sake of grabbing adventure boots and getting cracking. Surely this murky swamp of self-pity and grimness cannot last forever.

    The closest thing we have to modern day tally-ho heroes is, oddly, the Fast and Furious bunch.

  3. I’m right on board with you guys on this. Wondering if this recurring emphasis on being chosen for a special destiny is a cultural product of the emphasis on “specialness” that we see in this age of “indigo children” and attachment parenting. In any case, I wish those damn kids would stop being special all over my lawn.

  4. Ahh, remember Frodo? He wasn’t a chosen one foretold by prophecy. He was a hobbit who accepted a really crappy job. Good times

  5. Along with that one kind of overused character traits you all mention, I have one, but it goes especially with vigilante characters. Mine is the character avenging the murdered family or wife. It works once in a while (like Batman), but it becomes such a huge cliché. The same with the “war veteran cleaning up the town” idea. I wish more vigilante characters would become vigilantes just because they “feel like it,” without any back-story causing it.

  6. For me the all the problems with lazy narratives about a hero chosen by fate all driven by backstory and destiny and crappy upbringing is encapsulated by Zach Snyder’s belief that he must explain “Superman’s aversion to killing people.”

    All the crazy wrongness in one phrase.

  7. I think this is, in large part, a function of the “every child is a magic wonder whose every act is a miracle” style of child rearing we’ve adopted, at least here in the US. But it also smacks of a certain fundamentalist belief, that without God, there can be no morality — a chestnut lobbed at atheists time and again and in laughable defiance of all the moral non-believers in the world and all the religious scumbags. Having a movie hero who only becomes a hero because he has no choice, because he is fated by a higher power, implies that, if it weren’t for God (or The Gods) making us do so, all of humanity would sit around and do nothing. We are incapable of heroism unless it is forced upon us by divinity. That might explain why Superman cannot go one movie without assuming the Christ pose.

    Poppycock to that, I say.

    I think at least a part of it is also a result of modern…something that is a blend of cynicism and irony — the unwillingness to be thought earnest in anything you do. We are too cool, too real, to really believe in something. We are afraid of not appearing jaded enough.

    Now all I think about is Roger Ward shirtless with a scarf on, telling Mad Max that they’re gonna give the people back their heroes.

  8. Yes and yes. And some of it is the heroes created by people hostile to humanity, which is where nihilism can intersect with fundamentalism. Being a hero cannot be a part of the human experience if you are hostile to humans in the human world. The hero is special and different because he cares for people who don’t deserve his grace. (*cough* Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God *cough*). I read a really moving defense of Superman as a hero who saves us because we saved him first and that human grace is all lost if, with every hero, it’s, “Well, he didn’t make a choice” or “He’s special in the sense that he cares, who can understand it?” And, as a human, I am kind of offended because it diminishes us.

    So give me a jaunty hero who chooses to care and to do the right thing and has fun while s/he does it, who likes people and is not presented as amazing for the wonder of not disliking us. It’s a nice change.

  9. Grant: Agree entirely. Plus, once you’ve seen “Walkin’ Tall” or “Death Wish” (and possibly “Straw Dogs” or “I Spit on Your Grave”), you’ve seen that model executed as well as it’s ever going to be, so why bother?

    Keith: I’m purposefully avoiding the word “hero” here because it has Nietzschen connotations which your readers don’t need to waste their lives hearing me rattle on about; so I’ll just say that an Aristolean / Nietzschen ‘hero’ would actually be some someone who tells destiny and The Gods to fuck right off because they define their own morality and sense of right and wrong (like Prometheus or Zarathustra).

    As far as ‘no morality without God’…well, for starters, I’m glad we don’t derive much of our morality from Deuteronomy. But if I were a more orthodox Christian than I am, I think I would be offended by seeing my most beloved piece of theomythology pastiched like this. The whole point of the Jesus story is that God turns himself into a human in order to understand humanity, learns to understand it, leaves behind the gospels (or the Qu’an) and then lays off with the smiting and vengeance and the demanding of animal sacrifices. The reason that Islam explicitly states that Mohammed is the Last Prophet (and proscribes the death penalty for saying otherwise) is precisely to put a stop to all future prophesy / chosen one bullshit and put humans in charge of their own enlightenment and force them to take responsibility for their own actions.

    So Carol, if I’ve got you right, you’re suggesting that current hostile-to-humanity superhero aesthetics are a reactionary move back to Old Testament ethics….which makes for the astonishing irony of fundamentalists rejecting Christianity in favour of Judaism!

    Todd: Agree with you too, except to add that by wiring up someone’s achievements to ‘specialness’ or indigo halos, or even ‘talent’, you’re actually belittling the person’s courage, effort, dedication and whatever training or self-discipline they’ve undertaken. If it’s the hero’s ‘destiny’ to fight the villain and win, then the hero doesn’t actually have to do fuck-all in order to be a hero, do they?

    Keith again: You’ll notice that, throughout JRRT’s work, believing prophesies and following Great Men Of Destiny always ends badly. “it is the small hands that do great deeds” and all that.

    In conclusion, there’s a lot that I think I end up blaming postmodernism or poststructuralism for; (not that pomo doesn’t have real strengths in helping understand things, but it’s a forensic tool, not a surgical one): the idea that nothing really ‘means’ anything, and nobody really ‘believes’ anything, so why not just present an apocalyptic, eschatological world where the only thing we really look forward to is the end of it. I hope I’ve understood Carol correctly here when she spoke about nihilism and fundamentalism. I think I’ll go and watch “Threads” to cheer myself up.

  10. I promise I’ll stop soon soon, but….
    viz. “The Fast and the Furious”. In synch again: immediately I wrote my first comment, it popped into my head what a good-natured, big-hearted film “XXX” is. It’s not very good, but it’s definitely got the love-of-adventure-and-excitement just-because pulse that I love. I think we need a little more Vin Diesel in the world. And you can quote me on that.

    BTW. My adventuring boots are, as of this week, a delightful pair of soft brown leather three-hole desert boots by Sartorial. Got to go to work with the Kiwi Parade Gloss, methylated spirit and hot spoon now…..

  11. “we need a little more Vin Diesel in the world” – you will get no argument against this statement from these quarters

  12. Hello, as a long time reader of this site and an Hitchcock fan I find myself generally in agreement with your fine lot.Hitchcock usually was a master of pacing, execution, and, along with his wife, recognizing what makes a story work.Allthought I am not entirely sure the “do the right thing and have a thrilling adventure” part is wholly deliberate.What I mean is both the book and the movie were released at a time of grave international turnmoil and Hannay only does the right thing as far as British interests are concerned.Make him german and the plot becomes “How to get the information out of the country before the bloody brits catch up”.It also helps to know Buchan was rather conservative and a proponent of the “Britain expects every man to do his duty” mentality.Then it can be argued that Hannay does not in fact throw himself in this adventure purely for the heck of it but does so out of patriotism.Nevertheless I do agree that both film and book have a sense of fun sorely lacking in most movies nowadays.Again I would argue that there’s always been “chosen ones” stories.The whole of nordic mythology is nothing but that with Loki being the one who has to bring the apocalyspe about.However, if well done there’s nothing to complain about.However, it is the repeated employ of that device which has emptied it of most of its merits

  13. Charles-James: I don’t even thing we’re disagreeing here. Scandinavian myths are tragic-destiny stories because that’s what the gods are for, and they are the products of agrarian societies where the seasons and climate are the product of higher powers that mortals have no ability to influence (nordic hell is /nifil/, the eternal winter). Urban crime and international espionage are the products of society, which mere mortals certainly can change, if they /make the decision/ to do the right thing.

    It might be Loki’s destiny to bring about the end of the world, but it’s King Monkey and Anansi’s destiny to rip the piss out of it and mock the stuffy, prissy gods at every opportunity (and quite often get horribly punished for doing so)

    I’m not even arguing that Hannay’s decision was a particularly good one: his truly patriotic duty would be to do his day job and reinforce trade relations between the UK and Canada (with WWII looming). It’s the act of making the decision that’s heroic, knowing perfectly well that he’s unsuited to the task and facing a bunch of trained killers and spies who ARE suited to it. This places him in the Quixotic tradition rather than the Gotterdamerung one.

    You’re correct to say that it’s not the concept of tragic destiny that annoys me, (for some reason, I don’t even mind when Michael Moorcock does it.) it’s the endless, lazy over-use of it, and the nasty implication that gets my (sacrificial) goat, that it’s useless to try, useless to attempt to find hidden depths of bravery or resourcefulness within yourself. It’s effectively being told to Know My Place and Not Interfere with the business of my Betters, which I hold to be a far more Conservative and reactionary position than any that Buchan takes up.

    Worse, it’s gotten Boring.

  14. Charles-James again: previously, I didn’t fully justify what makes me so lukewarm towards Hitchcock generally, and I rather shamefully have to confess that it’s the fact that the innovations he made so rapidly became cliche, which is obviously my failure to contexturalise history, and not his fault at all.

    viz: the composition in “Vertigo” where he locks on the subject, dollies out and zooms in, so the subject remains the same size in the image but the background and foreground change relationally. I can’t help but associate that with washing powder adverts from the ’80’s, and that’s quite clearly not Hitchcock’s fault, it’s mine, and doubly so because I’ve had a right old go at people on this very site for failing to place things in their correct historical context.

    If I feel like I’ve a legitimate criticism of Hitchcock, it’s that his pacing is all over the shop. He seems to slow down and speed up for inexplicable reasons – or at least, reasons that don’t fill me with dread and suspense in the way I think they’re supposed to. I know that “Rope” is supposed to inculcate the viewer into feeling like a voyeur, and I know that “Rear Window” is supposed to generate unease by reminding the audience that they’re actually spying on both of the characters, but for me, they just…..don’t. But “39 Steps” is perfect, not just as an entity, but a model that could be used by future directors to great effect.

  15. Finally…
    “How to get the information out of the country before the bloody brits catch up”.
    But I’d love to see that movie, too. After all, it’s the plot of most episodes of my beloved ITC spy series from the ’60’s.

Comments are closed.