The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): the movie with the secret code that cracked success for Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” (1935)

Very loosely based on John Buchan’s novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it’s best if you don’t read the novel first – this movie is an early example, if not the first, of a typical Hitchcock movie. An ordinary, innocent man called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) accidentally gets caught up in events in which a murder occurs and he finds himself accused of the crime so he must go on the run to prove his innocence and at the same time find the real killer and the reason for the killing. Going on the run means chases through a train with a narrow escape on a bridge and running through the Scottish moors with their famously moody and unpredictable weather and picturesque sheep farms inhabited by cantankerous loner crofter characters. There are the usual plot twists: a local helpful aristocrat turns out to be the head villainous honcho for the spy plot that led to the initial murder and Hannay becoming a fugitive, and the dastardly fellow shoots Hannay at close range; fortunately a Bible in Hannay’s coat chest pocket stops the bullet and Hannay is on his way again. Entanglement with a cool blonde chick called Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) – hey, women were definitely not in the novel except as extras! – and some fleeting encounters with women call attention to Hitchcock’s interest in detailing romantic attachments and the status of marriage as it plays out in individual couples’ lives. The film becomes a combination of romance comedy and a light crime caper with some violence and several scenes of slapstick and coincidence on one level, and on another level an interrogation into love and human relationships and their often fearful and deadly consequences.

The Buchan novel is in the vein of a Fleming / James Bond adventure in which the hero, who happens to have technical expertise and some military experience, cracks part of a code and engages help from a friendly politician while on the lam to discover and foil a German spy plot against the British empire. Hitchcock took the general premise of an innocent lone man on the run plus some other plot details from the book and dressed them with his own particular obsessions and cinematic devices to create something very different and original. The plot is lightweight against the novel but Hitchcock compensates for the flimsy and often implausible story-line with memorable and witty characters played by adept actors, a pace that is constant and which builds up the tension across locations in London and Scotland, and the use of comedy to stir up murky and unpleasant aspects of love, romance and marriage. Things, customs and people are never what they seem and Hitchcock delights in showing us the dark mirror twins of institutions we take for granted: characters who supposedly represent forces of law and order are in cahoots with the crooks; and a stranger who impulsively kisses ladies may be a lady-killer, figuratively rather than literally. The sudden and swift changes in the surface appearance of objects and people, and in the plot itself – for example, up to a certain point action that had occurred on-screen so far might switch to off-screen action recounted by a character – keep the film lively and flowing with continual and teasing suspense and tension.

By necessity, Donat carries the film for at least half its running time until Hannay meets Pamela a second time by chance. Hannay as presented by Donat is smooth and unflappable with an unexpected resourcefulness and bravado, especially in the scene where he blunders into a political meeting and is mistaken for a speaker. Once Hannay and Pamela are thrown together by the fake police, they literally stay together, handcuffs or no handcuffs, to the end of the movie as Pamela learns from eavesdropping on a conversation that Hannay has been framed for murder and she decides to help him. As played by Carroll, Pamela is a feisty and daring young miss used to getting her own way though sometimes it backfires on her. At least Hannay is gentleman enough not to take advantage of her when she pulls her stockings down in the bedroom while his hand is attached to hers with the handcuffs! The film’s coda suggests Hannay and Pamela decide of their own free will to stay linked and the handcuffs, which in the 1930’s might not yet have acquired all its dubious sexual connotations, dangle and glitter suggestively from beneath Hannay’s sleeve. Images and ideas of wedding rings, control, closeness and violence dance before your eyes.

Not surprisingly the film opened doors for its lead stars Donat and Carroll in Hollywood: Carroll’s career subsequently thrived while Donat, due to chronic ill health and general dislike of Hollywood razz-matazz, ended up with a more modest acting career that did include winning a Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for his role in “Goodbye Mr Chips”. As for Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps”, appropriately enough considering its subject matter and the nature of The 39 Steps (different from the novel’s 39 Steps), became his code that cracked access to Hollywood’s resources and actors to make bigger and better movies. How indebted Hitchcock was to this film as his breakthrough to Hollywood can be gleaned from other later films he made which in part could pass as remakes of “The 39 Steps”, revisiting and reinterpreting themes and concepts from that movie.

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