The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
By no means is The 39 Steps, an everyman-caught-up-in-intrigue narrative of the first order, the first great Alfred Hitchcock film; both Blackmail and The Man Who Knew Too Much circumvent such a claim. What can be said about its superlative nature, though, is that it’s the first film he made that is as overwhelming, as much an intoxicating sensory experience as the best of his later American works. Apart from being his best creation up to this moment and the finest of his 22 extant British features, as the second of the celebrated Gaumont Six (the series of breathlessly exciting thrillers he began one year earlier), it finishes defining the niche market of the Hitchcock thriller for international audiences and thereby leads directly to his shuttling off to Hollywood by David O. Selznick. It’s reductive, however, to see the film as simply the beginning of some tradition; its fusion of flawless narrative leanness — no frame wasted — with evocative visual poetry, as well as its wit and air of unexaggerated physical danger, allow it to remain a singular experience and possibly the director’s most purely exciting film. To see it with one’s full attention is to surrender to being absorbed and to being played like an instrument, now as always; even on repeat viewings, one’s involvement is as unshakeable as though the film were a dream that cannot be interrupted.
Steps ties itself to Hitchcock’s correct idea that cinema should be separate from all other mediums. The source material — John Buchan’s novel — is thrown out the window, its skeleton exposed and used to the best advantage for the screenwriters, Ian Hay and the great Charles Bennett (with considerable input from Hitchcock himself). The plot is streamlined and made clearer, with a number of crucial new characters and details added. We begin in a working class music hall in London, following the marvellous, warm Robert Donat as temporary Canadian expat Richard Hannay — instantly visible in a large crowd — as he is approached by a mysterious woman (Annabella Schmidt, lit aflame with lust and mystery by Lucie Mannheim) after a chaotic brawl, punctuated by gunfire, erupts. She goes home with him and confesses to being a spy, out to prevent the transport of unspecified British government secrets; when she is stabbed in the night, her dying admonishment to Hannay “clear out — they’ll get you next!” a vivid reminder of “don’t breathe a word to anyone” in Hitchcock’s previous film, he must escape the inevitable accusation of her murder and expose the actual culprits even as police chase him across the United Kingdom. The chain reaction that follows and the web of intrigue Hannay is stuck in would be difficult to summarize, but eventually his quest is made doubly arduous when he’s handcuffed to one Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, who plays the character’s understandable skepticism perfectly), who has no interest in his spy stories and suspects him to be the murderer cast by every newspaper in the country.
A significant factor in the success of The 39 Steps as a narrative, episodic by nature, is that it requires and possesses very little setup or expository detail; it opens with a bit of comedy in the music hall as a “memory expert” performs, answering questions for an audience, then adds intrigue with Schmidt and Hannay’s brief, suggestive liaison, but from the moment the knife in her back is revealed the race is on and rarely a minute passes uneventfully thereafter. Hitchcock refuses to stop the narrative for any sort of explanation of precisely the nature of these government secrets people are running and dying for, what he would always call the MacGuffin, the motivation for all of the events that nevertheless is irrelevant to their emotional significance; the film’s moments of rhythmic breathing are rather dedicated to his scenic, lyrical (and largely fake!) travelogue of England and Scotland and the people Hannay finds therein. It’s possible to avoid the intricate busyness of the usual spy story because Hannay is an outsider unfamiliar with these matters, a stand-in for us as the audience; while he’s clever and thinks quickly, he is never a James Bond-like figure with all the answers at a given moment, and his chief skill set is to know when to run — he tends to stumble more when deciding his next step. There’s never a moment when those of us watching are out of step with or unsympathetic to him, since he’s positioned as one of the most strongly defined of Hitchcock’s “Wrong Men,” and our identification is secured each time the director renders us paranoid and terrified by showing other characters gazing with accusatory eyes directly at him, therefore directly at us.
In fact, the best way to track the narrative of The 39 Steps is not a conventional measurement of the cat-and-cat-and-mouse among Hannay, the police and the ruthless spy network of the title but as a catalog of the people Hannay encounters during his travails: Mr. Memory, Annabella, the milkman, a pair of lingerie salesmen in possession of a newspaper, Pamela, a deeply religious rural farmer and his wife, a kindly professor who turns out to be a key villain, a duplicitous police inspector and his minions, a crowd at a political rally, spies posing as cops, Pamela again, a sweet old couple running a bed & breakfast, and at last Mr. Memory again. No matter how frivolous their presence may seem, each meeting and episode plays an important role in allowing the remainder of the story to continue locking into place. All of the corresponding scenes are expertly conceived and mounted. But this is no simplistic puzzle-movie, because Hitchcock’s wish is for us to be wrapped up in the emotional urgency that lights up every scene, shot, frame — he means to immerse you and make you succumb to every cut, every tic of an actor’s face, every note of the score, and he succeeds.
Most of those tics are those of Robert Donat, later to win an Oscar for Goodbye Mr. Chips and charm the daylights out of everyone in Vacation from Marriage but never to be so believable and enviably handsome as here, when he becomes one of the most magnetic pawns in Hitchcock’s favorite story and theme. That the director routinely has a field day with the idea of a man accused falsely of a crime with police and mounting evidence on his back, such that he must solve the case himself, makes it no less horrifying in abstract, not least because every one of us can easily imagine such a scenario happening to us. Unlike the haunting, documentary-like 1956 film The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps treats the subject comedically, laced with crowd-pleasing action, but the excitement is healthily stunted by an air of genuine menace. “These men will stop at nothing,” Schmidt tells Hannay, and after all, when we meet Mr. Memory — an unwilling conduit, as it turns out, for the dark scheme at the story’s center — for the first time, he’s drenched with sweat. And after Hannay is warned early on to watch for a man with a partially severed pinkie, it’s truly terrifying when a cheerfully raised hand by Professor Jordan (delightfully wicked Godfrey Tearle), assumed to be his savior and for whom he trudged across seemingly all of Scotland on foot, makes him realize he’s fallen directly into the hands of his new enemies. (Yet crucially, when Jordan’s wife walks directly in on her husband threatening Hannay with a revolver, her deadpan response of wondering why he’s taking so long to come down for tea is a perfect return to the morbid, blackened British humor that litters the film and calls ahead to “what seems to be the trouble, captain?” in The Trouble with Harry.)
Modern reviews of The 39 Steps tend to make much of celebrating its glimmers of “genius” that still lay ahead in Hitchcock’s career; one can be sympathetic to this view when revisiting Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much or particularly The Lodger, but Steps is itself a work of genius, leaps and bounds over even those previous masterpieces in Hitchcock’s catalog, and in fact can be justifiably celebrated as one of the greatest feature films ever made. Whatever suddenly lights a fire under the director, whether the validation seemingly provided by his new studio and his newfound control over his own material or the sympathetic oversight of producer Michael Balcon, the hard work and dedication he emits in response is evident throughout the picture, and pays off handsomely in a film that functions as a thrill ride, a work of extremely intricate pacing. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut years later, “What I like in The 39 Steps are the swift transitions. Robert Donat decides to go to the police to tell them that the man with the missing finger tried to kill him and how the Bible saved his life, but they don’t believe him and suddenly he finds himself in handcuffs. How will he get out of them? The camera moves across the street, and we see Donat, still handcuffed, through the window that is suddenly shattered to bits. A moment later he runs into a Salvation Army parade and he falls in step. Next, he ducks into an alley that leads him straight into a conference hall. Someone says, ‘Thank heaven, our speaker has arrived,’ and he is hustled onto a platform where he has to improvise an election speech.” In order to make this technique, far ahead of its time, work properly, a strict attention, almost an obsession, was required, and this eye for detail has survived into the film. Every moment feels like the most important in the film to the director, from start to finish, even while exercising his favorite trait: understatement.
On multiple viewings it’s riveting to watch how all of these components have been carefully engineered for maximum effect. Hitchcock: “I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.” Each of the settings established in Steps is treated as a complete world all of its own: the London music hall, Hannay’s flat, the train station, the train itself and its bridges to the North, the mountainous Scottish countryside and the croft, Professor Jordan’s home, the police precinct, the street parade and conference hall, the bed and breakfast, the Palladium. So many of these moments could indeed be their own films, none more resonant than the chilling Scottish farmhouse sequence with John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft, which has enough depth and detail to go on for the full length of the movie, and deserves its own appreciation.
The series of scenes in which Hitchcock and Bennett establish these two (unnamed) characters and their relationship is a model of narrative subtlety and brevity. Laurie, as much an enemy as Tearle, has less than three minutes of screen time but you’ll never forget him; Ashcroft’s part is only slightly larger but her moments on camera are scarring and flawless, all but stealing the film with Donat happy to hand her the privilege. Having followed Schmidt’s map, Hannay first encounters Laurie’s crofter at the outer fence of his property, where he pretends to seek work while really trying to get some hint from Laurie of where the Professor’s house is located; when the farmer is derisive about the possibilities of making the fourteen-mile trek that night, Hannay gives him money for a bed for the evening — Laurie’s disinterested until payment comes into play — accompanied by the promise that Laurie’s wife, Ashcroft, will provide a meal.
Initially believing — to Laurie’s obvious chagrin — that she’s his daughter and not his wife, Hannay spends a bit of time alone with Ashcroft and we learn much about the couple’s lifestyle during this interlude. She longs to hear stories of Hannay’s life in London, waxing rhapsodically about her former home of Glasgow and its nightly flashing lights and activities on bustling Saturday nights, but warns him he won’t be able to talk of this at dinner because her husband considers such ideas “wicked.” When Hannay is nearly caught innocently flirting with Ashcroft upon Laurie’s re-entrance, he covers by returning to this topic of preferring urban life to rural and Laurie’s response is “God made the country.” Hannay spies a newspaper — his face is currently prominent in seemingly all of them — and borrows it for a spell before Laurie insists it’s time to say the blessing, during which he opens his eyes long enough to see his wife and the stranger communicating silently regarding the front-page article about Annabella Schmidt’s murder. The mastery of the blocking and performing here is down to minute changes in movement and expression, like watching a John Ford scene unfold but with one of the characters fully attuned to the subtext. Suspecting a lustful connection and clearly well-schooled on his idea of wickedness, Laurie fakes going out to the barn to lock up and instead stands by the window, watching Hannay frantically explain his situation to Ashcroft, suspecting much more.
During the night, a flashing light is seen from beyond the hills; Ashcroft approaches the bed to warn Hannay that the police may be arriving. The crofter awakens and believes he has caught his wife committing adultery, but they quickly correct him and explain everything; Hannay tries to bribe Laurie to deny his presence to the police now knocking at the door, but Ashcroft suspects correctly that her husband will betray him, and helps Hannay escape out the back when Laurie begins querying the police about reward money instead. She lends Hannay a coat of Laurie’s that will conceal him more fully in the night, and he responds with a grateful kiss that leaves her intoxicated, her face filled with sensual yearning as she watches him leave. That seems to be all of their lives we are to glimpse — and it would be enough; so much happening here, so beautifully and quietly expressed — until we return to the farm house long enough to discover later that a hymnal in the pocket of Laurie’s coat is what has prevented Hannay from being shot to death in a future scene. Hitchcock’s camera stays away as Laurie reacts violently to the revelation that his wife gave away his coat, one last note of the hypocrisy within this man and his empty piety, preaching of wickedness while beating his wife and selling his moral judgments to the highest bidder. Hitchcock’s cynicism about religion here is secondary to his holistic comprehension of the complete isolation and misery of this marriage, which feels hauntingly true. It’s as though Ashcroft and Laurie are real people we stop to meet, and thus when our spatial distance from them is emphasized later with the hymnal reveal, it’s genuinely jarring to realize how long ago and far away that episode already seems. Moreover, Hitchcock gathers this portrait of human isolation — the only sign of larger civilization is the daily newspaper — as a contrast to the city life he explored in Blackmail, wherein alienation was just as possible for a character coping with the cruelty of men, but there was so much more possibility of temporary respite than the chance that a kind stranger might briefly enter one’s life.
Just as importantly, the Ashcroft-Laurie relationship carries through from Rich and Strange a classic Hitchcock caution about the misery that can result from loveless marriage and its potential stunting of one’s freedom, accompanied by many earlier incidental jabs in the film’s dialogue (almost universally by unnamed characters) comprised of men bellyaching about their wives, their unattractiveness or their needling or just their existence. It’s such a universal language that Hannay is forced to use it to get out of a tight spot early on, borrowing a milkman’s uniform to escape the scene of the Schmidt murder by claiming he’s trying to escape his lover’s husband. Laurie represents the logical conclusion of this idea of marriage as a prison in which one is subservient by default to a sort of casual, everyday cruelty and control, but in the second half of the film Hitchcock explores romance as something more complex and liberating. The most obvious measurement is the cheerful couple running the bed & breakfast into which Hanny and Pamela stumble when they are linked by handcuff after escaping two agents out to kill them. Taking note of the pair’s obvious nerves and assuming they’re not newlyweds, as they claim, the co-owner whispers giddily to her husband “They must be terrible in love!” and admonishes him about even considering letting a pair of alleged investigators know that there’s a “runaway couple” on the premises.
In the meantime, Hannay and Pamela’s relationship enjoys a logical progression after its awkward beginnings that serve as a perverse, underworld mirror of the cross-country travelers in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, not the last time Hitchcock would provoke memories of that source. She doesn’t believe Hannay is innocent, especially after he begins their drawn-out alliance with an unexpected kiss (the only way he can think of to escape pursuit by the police aboard the train) but he disarms her with his outrageous stories about his spontaneously invented criminal past, and the obvious compassion he demonstrates when he helps her hang her stockings and borrows a nailfile to try and separate them. It goes back to the force of identification common to all of Hitchcock’s best movies — you are running from the law and making these big sweeping movements and dodging treachery with Hannay and Pamela, and when she learns he’s telling the truth and journeys out to Scotland Yard to warn them of the pending leakage of state secrets, she becomes the hero of the film in its final act. The closing reveal that resolves the MacGuffin — carried out of the country not on paper but via Mr. Memory — is mostly incidental by then, because thanks to our own degree of involvement, what matters is how all of this falls on the two leads, who are finally safe, and their sole gesture of redemption for their chaotic non-romance is when she reaches for his hand in the final shot. Like so many of Hitchcock’s greatest works, the film ends without catching its breath, but having said all that it needed to about the dim possibility of warmth and companionship in a fickle, mad world.
The 39 Steps has been remade at least three times, twice as a feature film (Ralph Thomas’ 1959 version was derivative of Hitchcock’s but with more explanatory material and far more location filming; the 1978 film by Don Sharp was more faithful to Buchan’s novel) and once as a BBC telefilm, as well as being adapted for the stage in 2005 and as a video game (!) in 2013. Many argue that Hitchcock himself virtually remade the film in 1959 as North by Northwest, another film in which an ordinary man (this time Cary Grant) stumbles into a series of bizarre scenarios after he’s mistaken for a spy. Northwest was not the first Hitchcock film to revive such a scenario, which also appears in his later British film Young and Innocent and WWII thriller Saboteur, but structurally North by Northwest is all but a direct revision of the rhythms and breezy style established in The 39 Steps, with a noticeably larger budget, color, big stars, much gloss and a lighter, more carefree and comic air. (That said, The 39 Steps is hardly lacking in humor, much of it from Hannay, whose comment “It’s a whole flock of detectives” when he sees a group of sheep crossing the road could easy be misremembered as a Cary Grant line, while Hannay’s showstopping political speech, in which he knows neither who he’s supposed to be or who he’s introducing, is echoed by Grant’s clueless entrance into an auction house.) These are both masterpieces, but in terms of its flair for pure, incisive technique The 39 Steps still carries an obvious edge, with North by Northwest magnifying this film’s personal scope to an almost cartoonish extreme, making its sexuality more explicit, its action more thunderingly obvious, and presenting it all at far more luxurious length.
Moreover, The 39 Steps is one of the few films in cinematic history that captures an actual feeling of movement — it has such a breathless rush about it as to seem alive. That’s especially true in the chase sequences. It shares again with North by Northwest a feeling of being a passenger as its story and characters travel a considerable distance, which is also the case for all but one of the other Gaumont thrillers, but none of these films have quite the same urgency and intensity as The 39 Steps, the sort of movie that makes the strongest case against technological progress: its depth of focus is impossible to imagine it without the grand dual assets of black & white photography and Academy ratio. Hitchcock tells hundreds of stories in his movie, and he and his cinematographer Bernard Knowles capture thousands more in the lit skies of London, the smog and beauty of Scotland (mostly recreated on sets but gorgeously so), the tense pregnancy of Donat’s face in his impossibly maddening situation, and simply the painterly grace of every shot in the movie. You just can’t make something that looks like this now; the palpable energy in its photography and editing leave the viewer feeling physically affected. There is much time for beauty, as well — the open window and breeze in Hannay’s sitting room just before Annabella’s murder is revealed, Hannay alone in the professor’s office uncertain of his fate, Hannay rendered as a shadow on a mountainside, and the many Scottish night scenes recreated impressively, atmospherically on soundstages, their artificiality never taking us out of the moment.
Because of the editing, the adroit camerawork and that effortless, almost stumbled-upon beauty, the best spiritual “remakes” of The 39 Steps may be the other black & white films that carry on its tradition of rapid movement, the films that make us feel as if we are physically running. The Battle of Algiers is one, The 400 Blows another, and A Hard Day’s Night even feels in some small way like it’s about the same England as the one in Hitchcock’s film. Richard Lester and Francois Truffaut may never have tried to match a woman’s scream to a train whistle, but they clearly learned something from the emotional investment wrought by such imagination and trickery, and the education pays off in the gut-level impact of their films.
On a personal note, The 39 Steps is the film that awakened me to how much movies could really mean to me. It wasn’t the first Hitchcock I loved and it didn’t even hit me the first time I saw it. But when I picked up the Criterion DVD in 2003 and saw the restored print in all its glorious clarity, I was utterly captivated for the duration. It didn’t seem like an “old” movie to me, which started to melt away my perception of what that even meant, and began a process and a passion that has led directly to my writing this at this very moment all these years later. The sensation I felt that night of being seduced by it is very much by design; it’s a step further in Hitchcock’s idealized notion of “pure cinema.” Whatever the topical themes that once drove it, The 39 Steps feels as if it is happening now, like the challenges facing Hannay are direct threats against us. Further outstanding achievements and great experiments were still in Hitchcock’s future, beginning immediately with his darker follow-up Secret Agent and the multiple lean, probing thrillers he would make during his last four years in Great Britain, but The 39 Steps lingers as a monument all its own regardless of what came later. I get a strange chill when I think of that dissolve into Annabella Schmidt’s map of Scotland and the circle around her destination of Alt-na-Shellach in the Highlands (evidently the correct modern spelling is “Achnashellach”; fans of this film should get a thrill out of playing with Street View around that region), and of moving toward that village with Hannay as if I’ve no will over my own legs, yet I never want the foggy, propulsive dream to end. When Mr. Memory says, just before dying, “I’m glad it’s off my mind at last,” my only thought is of how wrong he is because of how soon I will force him to endure the same scenario all over again, loving every moment every time. For me, this movie feels like running off into a cloudy oblivion; its energy still stirs me.
[Extensively rewritten variation on a review posted in 2004.]