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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The 39 Steps

“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
Alfred Hitchcock

“Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.”
Alfred Hitchcock

“I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen and their names are Alma Reville.”
Alfred Hitchcock, accepting AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979

“Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.”
The Telegraph.co.uk, The Top 21 British Directors of All Time

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1935

Background

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that we’ve already done one Hitchcock in this series: The Lady Vanishes, back in June. In that article, I focused on Hitchcock’s life and career up to that point (1938), and promised to give you a (Wikipedia-cribbed) gloss on his later exploits when we got to The 39 Steps. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do right… now:

The success of The Lady Vanishes allowed Hitch to negotiate a favorable seven-year deal with David O. Selznick. After completing Jamaica Inn (decidedly minor Hitchcock, for completists only), he moved to the United States, where he would direct his greatest films and enjoy nearly four decades of artistic freedom and financial success.

His first American film was Rebecca, a classic of creeping dread and gothic melodrama. Though the finished film seems every inch a Hitchcock creation, it came at a price; Selznick gave Hitch endless “notes” and interfered with the production every step of the way. The voluminous adversarial correspondence between the two men is included on the Criterion edition of Rebecca, and is alone worth the price of the set.

Selznick International Pictures only made two or three films a year, and often “loaned” Hitchcock out to other studios. This, in addition to the fairly consistent profitability of Hitchcock’s films, and the deep pockets of U.S. studios (relative to UK studios), meant that Hitchcock enjoyed extraordinary freedom to make a variety of pictures for a multitude of studios over the following 36 years.

His films during the 1940’s included: Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, wartime espionage thrillers; Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a screwball comedy; Lifeboat (best Hitchcock cameo ever, btw) and Rope, which experimented with suspense in confined spaces; Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt (Hitch’s personal favorite of his films), in which family members are suspected of heinous crimes; Bon Voyage and Adventure Malgache, French-language propaganda shorts; and Spellbound, which featured creepy Dali-designed dream sequences.

The 1950’s are generally considered Hitchcock’s most fruitful years, in which his stylistic flourishes, technical prowess, thematic preoccupations, and kinky fetishes were most potently mixed into what we now think of as a “Hitchcock film.” Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much were all released during the 1950’s.

For Hitchcock, the 60’s began with the shocking, unprecedented nastiness of Psycho, but they ended in artistic irrelevance. Hitch’s career limped toward the finish line with such lightweight, muddled entries as Marnie, Topaz, and Torn Curtain. His final two films, 1972’s Frenzy and 1976’s Family Plot, each have their defenders, but a cursory comparison with Rebecca, Rear Window, Vertigo or (name your favorite Hitchcock film here) makes plain how far the mighty Hitch had fallen. Frenzy is primarily notable for being the first Hitchcock film to feature titties, and Family Plot for being the only Hitchcock film scored by John Williams.

Hitchcock trivia and trademarks:

  • Cool, blonde heroines who start icy but who are (a)roused by danger and criminality
  • The “Dolly Zoom”
  • The “Wrong Man” plot
  • Droll humor
  • Never learned to drive
  • Mockery of religion and, particularly, the clergy
  • Cynicism about marriage and family
  • Sneaking naughty innuendo past the censors
  • Cameo appearances in many of his films
  • Extensive pre-production and storyboarding (though this generalization has been debunked by recent film scholars)
  • Mommy issues
  • “Actors are cattle” (though, again, his supposed thespian antipathy has been much debunked in recent years)
  • Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series of books for young people
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, and its memorable theme music
  • He is the voice of the Jaws ride at Universal Studios
  • Never won a Best Director Oscar

One last weird bit of trivia. According to Hitch’s daughter Pat, Smokey and the Bandit and Benji were two of his guilty pleasures.

Hitchcock died in of kidney failure in 1980, at the age of 80. Francois Truffaut and Mel Brooks were among the guests at the funeral. His body was cremated, and the ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Synopsis

Items of note in the opening credits:

I love the British Board of Film Censors “APPROVED” certificate that appears on these older UK films, with the title of the film hand-written on the dotted line. Makes me wonder about the guy whose job it was to fill out that form. I imagine him using this peripheral fame as a pickup line: “Ever see The 39 Steps? The Hitchcock film? Yeah, that was my handwriting on the censor’s certificate…”

Continuity: Alma Reville. Anyone remember who Alma Reville was? If you had read our article on The Lady Vanishes, you would know the answer to this question. Keep up!

Controlled Throughout The United Kingdom and Irish Free State by Gaumont British Distributors, Ltd. “Irish Free State”? Three years later, and it would probably have read differently.

We open at a Music Hall. A man buys a ticket; this is our suave, thin-mustached hero, Richard Hannay.

The MC is introducing the next performer: Mr. Memory. “Ladies and Gentlemen, ask him your questions! He will answer you, fully and freely! I also add, Ladies and Gentlemen, that Mr. Memory has left his brain to the British Museum.”

The working-class audience throws out all sorts of questions like “Where’s my old man been since last Saturday?” and “Who was the last British Heavyweight Champion of the World?” and Mr. Memory answers most of them, to the patron’s delight.

“How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?” asks Hannay, and Mr. Memory answers correctly, including some trivia about each city just to show off.

More importantly, we now know that Hannay is Canadian! You might think this would come into play later in the film, but you’d be wrong; it does not.

One guy at the bar keeps yelling out, “How old’s my wife?” which inexplicably leads to a fistfight, and then someone fires a gun, and a riot erupts, and Hannay escapes into the street.

“May I come home with you?” asks a femme fatale with a German accent. Also, a mysterious fat guy walks past…

Hannay, a smooth operator, obliges fraulein, and they retire to his crib.

She won’t go near the windows, doesn’t want him to answer the phone, and clearly is involved in some sort of international espionage! Turns out she – Annabella – fired the shots in the theater to create a distraction. “There were two men there who wanted to kill me…”

“…the very brilliant agent of a certain superpower is on the point of obtaining a secret vital to your air defense!” she continues, as Hannay smokes a cigarette and fries up some haddock. He doubts her story until he looks out the window and sees the two men in the street below.

“Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?” Hannay’s visitor asks. “You don’t know how clever their chief is. Clever… and ruthless.” Just in case, she tells Hannay about the one distinguishing physical characteristic of this ruthless villain: He is missing part of his little finger! Should be easy enough to spot.

During the night, Annabella stumbles into her host’s room: “Clear out (cough) Hannay! Or they’ll get you (cough) next!”

She dies and hands him a crumpled sheet of paper; a map of Scotland with a city circled: Alt-na Shellach.

Hannay sneaks out disguised as a milkman, hops on a train bound for Scotland, and the chase is on! Of course, he soon finds that he is wanted for the murder of Annabella the Spy. Hannay tries to get another pretty lady to be his cover, but she spills the beans, and he has to jump off the train.

With the coppers in pursuit, he hard-arses it across the Scottish countryside, to the remote village of Ye Olde Shellack. Or whatever.

He spends the night at a farm owned by a grumpy old Christian and his noticeably younger bride. At dinner, the husband offers a prayer: “Sanctify these bounteous mercies to us miserable sinners…”

but Hannay can’t pay attention because he’s eyeing the newspaper story about his escape. During the night, the cops arrive at the farm, and the sympathetic wife helps the dashing Hannay escape across the moonlit moor!

With the fuzz (and a poorly-animated helicopter) hot on his heels, Hannay makes it to Altar of Shellfish (or whatever), where a rich-folk party is swinging. After identifying himself as a friend of Annabella’s, Hannay is ushered into the study. “Give me five minutes to get rid of these people, and then we can talk,” says the master of the house.

He’s a well-bred man, clearly a leader and clearly wealthy. Oh, also, he’s missing part of his little finger. OH NOES!

“I live here as a respectable citizen. And you must realize that my whole existence would be jeopardized if it became known that I’m not… how shall one say… not what I seem…” And with that, he fires his gun, and Hannay crumples to the ground.

Luckily, the bullet is blocked by a hymnal in Hannay’s pocket (actually the property of the cranky old farmer)…

…and Hannay escapes. After an abortive attempt to report the crime, he escapes again, joining the ranks of a passing parade. He ducks into a building, is mistaken for some kind of political figure, and is ushered onstage to deliver a speech for an assembled crowd (which is the second time that has happened in as many weeks).

He skillfully fakes his way through the speech as his foes circle: “I’ve known what it is to feel lonely and helpless, and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel!” Hear, hear! He whips the crowd into a froth, and is then led away in handcuffs.

Whatsername, the woman from the train who ratted him out, is the one who led the coppers to Hannay, and she is bundled into a car with the prisoner, to be questioned by the constable in Inverary. But these aren’t real cops at all; just minions of Shortfinger! A flock of sheep block the road (that happens all the time in Scotland, I’m told), and Hannay escapes once again, slowed somewhat by the shrieking female (whatsername) handcuffed to his wrist.

Hannay and whatsername spend the night in a hotel, where there’s all sorts of cute sexual innuendo, interrupted occasionally by whatsername threatening to give up the jig! (“Give up the jig?” Is that even an actual expression?)

“How’d you get your start?” she asks, still half-believing Hannay is the dread murderer.

steps_inn3

“Oh, quite a small way, like most of us, pilfering pennies from other children’s lockers at school, then a little pocket-picking, then a spot of car-pinching, then smash-n-grab, so on to plain burglary. I killed my first man when I was nineteen,” he responds, stifling a yawn. “And in years to come, you’ll be able to take your grandchildren to Madame Tussaud’s and point me out.”

Of course, they’re – you know – handcuffed to each other, so they have to (ahem) sleep in the same, ah, bed. Strictly a matter of necessity, you understand, no monkey business.

Meanwhile, Shortfinger is retrieving some state secret or other (I think this is what you call a MacGuffin), after which he plans to flee the country.

Whatsername wakes up in the night and manages to free herself from the handcuffs. (How? Who knows?) As she prepares to flee, she overhears the two killers (the same ones who earlier pretended to be police officers) down in the lobby.

(Why are they down in the lobby of this particular hotel? Who knows?) “He’s alerting the whole 39 Steps,” says one. “He’s picking up our friend at the London Palladium on the way out…”

Realizing that Hannay has been telling the truth all along, whatsername decides to stick around. The not-quite-lovers rush back to London to foil… whatever it is… that’s happening at the Palladium! Whatsername tries to warn Scotland Yard, but you know how they are; all harrumphing and “what’s all this then?”

Whatsername goes to the Palladium, trailed by a whole squadron of coppers, intent on catching the murderer Hannay. There are bobbies backstage, outside the front door, and even in the orchestra pit. Seated in the audience, Hannay spots Shortfinger in a private balcony seat.

After the comedic dance trio, guess who appears onstage? Mr. Memory! From the opening scene! Hannay interprets this turn of events as incontrovertible proof that Mr. Memory is IN ON THE PLOT! Of course! Instead of stealing the secret documents, the spies just have Mr. Memory MEMORIZE THEM! Or something!

As the police move to arrest Hannay, he shouts out a question to Mr. Memory: “What are the 39 Steps?”

“The 39 Steps is an organization of spies,” replies Mr. Memory (who apparently – in addition to the photographic memory – is possessed of a congenital inability to lie), “collecting information on behalf of the Foreign Office of (BANG!) AAUGH!” A shot is fired, and Mr. Memory doubles over, clutching his gut.

As the audience shrieks, Shortfinger leaps from his balcony seat and tries to escape, but the coppers surround him and he doesn’t have a chance.

Mr. Memory limps backstage, and, prompted by Hannay, begins to recite that pesky state secret that he had been forced to memorize.

The police realize that this Hannay fellow was right all along, eh what? The effort of the recitation tires Mr. Memory, who slumps to the ground, dead.

Dancing girls are quickly ushered onto the stage to distract the audience. Hannay and whatsername hold hands.

The End.

What I Liked

Robert Donat is super-smooth as Hannay, tossing off bon mots left and right, easily masquerading as a populist politician, jumping from speeding trains, and using the handcuff thing as an opportunity to touch a pretty lady’s stockings. Sexy!

Considering that it was made in 1935, the cinematography was beautiful, as you can see in some of the screen grabs above.

As long as I didn’t try to make sense of the plot, the script was great fun, with heaps of daring escapes, neat action sequences, zippy comedic bits, and naughty innuendo.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

The 39 Steps, while certainly being a whole lot of fun, is not nearly as funny or as thrilling as later Hitchcock films. It’s absolutely worth seeing, but sometimes plays like a dress rehearsal for a better movie.

Should You See It?

Oh hellz yeah. It’s only 86 minutes long, and it’s chock-full of snappy dialogue, great British character actors, action, and as much sex as the British Board of Censors would allow in 1935.

You’ll never be bored, and you’ll be able to identify all sorts of plot devices and visual tricks that would become Hitchcock trademarks.

Next: Ugetsu

One Comment

  1. I know what the 39 steps are. I’ve seen the remake of the “39 Steps” from the mid 70’s or something. So you don’t need to be telling me what the big secret is…oh wait…

    So, yeah, this is Hitchcock again and we’re into the Hitchcock milieu (sic?). Innocent man on the run, hot blond with him, moments of intrigue, moments of suspense, dead bodies, etc. What’s not to like?

    Well…

    Here’s the story: Robert Donat is a Canadian on vacation in London. How do we know he’s Canadian? It’s because he asks this “memory man” questions about Canada. (note, he doesn’t say “aboot” instead of “about” and he doesn’t follow everything with “eh”) When some bullets fly during the performance he retreats with a woman who admits she shot the bullets. Hiding out in his room she comes up with some weird cock-and-bull story about a guy with half-a-pinky and you’ve got to go to Scotland and figure out what is going on and spys are afoot!

    When she ends up in his room with a knife in her back, he does what any sane person will do and that is…well…believe whole-heartedly in what she says and try to come up with what is going on. Of course he doesn’t want to be pinned to her murder so what else to do?????

    This is not the only time that someone in this film doesn’t make good decisions…but I digress. On a train to Scotland we encounter rule #75 of film-making. That’s the rule that says: “If a person is on the run for murder the murder headline is on the front of the paper, above the fold, in the center with a photo of the criminal taken what is seemingly the day before.” Golly! He’s bound to be caught!

    So he kisses a girl (the blond) and pretends he’s her husband (or something) – but she rats him out and he has to jump off the train to escape. Good ol’ Canadian!

    On the run he ends up at a farm house to stay the night. For some reason (only really to move the story forward) the lady of the house takes a liking to our “criminal” and helps him escape.

    When Robert shows up where he thinks he’s safe he’s confronted my Mr. Short Pinky. (Now, remember folks, I’ve seen “39 Steps” remake so I know what the 39 steps are.) Our hero gets shot but, lucky him, the coat he was given by the smitten housewife had a hymnal in the pocket which saved his life (find religious significance if you will). But all is OKAY because he’s gone to the sheriff who acknowledges that he’s surely innocent only to, moments later, give him up to the villain. On the run you go!

    He’s soon discovered in the best scene in the film when he has to pretend he’s someone he’s not and do a rousing political speech. Seems the bad guys have the blond, too, and within a few moments they’re handcuffed together and escaping. But she thinks he’s a murderer and he uses her fear (and a cigar pipe in the pocket trick) to his advantage.

    After an uncomfortable night in a hotel she wiggles free of the handcuffs and goes to escape only to hear some cryptic talking of the two henchmen downstairs. She assumes that Robert is telling the truth and time to high-tail it back to London and figure out the 39 steps (which, of course, I already know – ’cause I’ve seen the remake).

    Once they arrive back in London they go to the Palladium and wouldn’t you know it…but the “memory man” is there, along with half-pinky guy and before you can say “tea and crumpets” they’ve figured out the deal and what the 39 steps are…and the film is over.

    But wait? What about the remake? I KNOW where the 39 steps are! Uh…uh…? Hello?

    WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE FILM:

    Robert Donat is good as is everyone in the film. The acting is fine and the Hitchcock set pieces are well done. There are a couple good moments.

    WHAT I DISLIKED ABOUT THE FILM:

    Sadly…I never really connected with Donat (though he’s good). In a lot of ways I didn’t care. The fact that people do things with very little question or thought seemed illogical and disingenuous to me to the point that I really didn’t “buy” the goods being sold to me.

    The other thing is that Hitchcock in this film uses the same scenarios as in other films (such as “The Man Who Knew Too Much”) so those moments seemed derivative to me (though these came first).

    The film also did not have the same amount of humor as the other Hitchcock film we’ve seen in this collection.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Not that good. Not that bad. Still, a couple moments – but not enough to add up to a whole.

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