The 39 Steps, 1935.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft and Wylie Watson.
Wrongfully accused of the murder of a counterespionage agent, a man (Robert Donat) must go on the run to clear his name whilst preventing a spy ring from stealing top secret information.
"Clear out, Hannay! They'll get you next..."
With these words on her lips and a knife in her back, Annabella Smith, spy for hire, dies. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), the man who put her up for the night, is now in mortal danger. From here on, The 39 Steps continues to shift up gears into a breathlessly paced thriller, often imitated, never bettered.
Crucially, Hitchcock doesn’t cheat with rapid-fire edits to get the audiences’ pulses pumping. Scenes are played out to their natural length, teasing out real tension from everyday occurences, planting us so firmly in Hannay’s shoes we can practically feel the patent leather pinching our toes.
Adapted from John Buchan’s novel, this is Hitchcock’s original “innocent man on the run” story. It doesn’t have the Technicolor gloss or the stirring orchestral score of North by Northwest; this film feels truer and wittier and more convincing by a country mile than the master director’s later Hollywood efforts.
A lot of this is down to Robert Donat’s central performance, lending the desperate Hannay an air of wry cunning and a tireless energy that sees him escape capture again and again. Whether he’s hanging off the Forth Bridge, silhouetted against the rolling valleys of the Highlands, or leaping head first through windows, Donat makes for a mesmerising man of action.
Donat’s Hannay is an individualist; an first-rate improviser who seems far more at home spinning saucy yarns for milkmen or stirring up a crowd, cooking up slogans on the fly. He’s always got a cheeky line for the crooks, and we love him for it.
If that doesn’t seem quite true to the awkwardness of real life, then the little, humanising moments between characters more than make up for it. Hannay fries a herring for a secret agent. Corset salesmen get tetchy about advertisements and cricket scores. Stockings are propped up to dry in front of the fire. It doesn’t sound like much, but these little things ground a scene in mundane reality, providing a springboard to the outlandish antics of a fugitive from the law.
The 39 Steps really sets alight when Hannay is handcuffed to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a beautiful schoolteacher convinced of his guilt, if only out of spite for being kissed without permission. The atmosphere between the two is electric; they spark off each other at the slightest remark, the smallest touch. In characteristic Hitchcock style, Donat and Carroll were cuffed together on their first day of filming, and the key was conveniently “lost”, forcing the two to get to know each other very well indeed.
Whatever tactics Hitchcock worked on the pair, it worked. Hannay and Pamela’s relationship doesn’t feel like the usual tacked-on romantic subplot. Peppered with delightfully bitchy repartee and driven by a palpable chemistry between the leads, it’s the centrepiece of the film. Shifting constantly from shaky alliance to open warfare, it doesn’t take a genius to see where they’re headed with this kind of behaviour.
Whichever way you look at The 39 Steps – whether you catch it on daytime TV or turn out the lights for that teatime premiere feel – this is a film that earns its ‘classic’ status with effortless style and panache. The visuals are gorgeous. The cast are restrained (especially for the typically stagey style of most 1930s acting) and colourful. Buchan’s original plot is kept simple and compelling, the best kind for a thriller. Don’t bother with the remakes, or you may never find out what a flock of detectives, Mr McCrocodile and a man with no top joint to his little finger have in common.
Movies... For Free! The 39 Steps (1935)
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.