A light dusting of snow danced in swirling eddies across the sidewalk as we waited for the rumbling old elevator to arrive and admit us into its dark, wood-paneled interior. The operator nodded wordlessly to us, slid the door closed, and threw the lever that sent us upward in that creaking, moaning, shaking box. After what seemed an impossibly long and precarious ascent, the lift finally stopped and, just as wordlessly as he’d greeted us, the elevator operator bid us adieu and left us standing in a foyer lit by the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs. A row of wooden telephone booths lined one wall, and the sound of a little big band working their way through a Kay Kyser tune drifted to us on wisps of blue smoke coming from somewhere down a dark hallway.
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.