The 39 Steps (1935)

A couple of posts back, I’d mentioned one of my favourite directors: Alfred Hitchcock. And a few posts before that, an actor whom I’d want to see more of: Robert Donat. So here’s one that brings them together: a classic chase across Scotland, in one of Hitchcock’s early British films. This, by the way, was the first Hitchcock film I recall seeing as a kid. I enjoyed it as much then as I do now.

Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is in London for a few months, and goes one evening to a music hall. One of the main attractions here is Mr Memory (Wylie Watson), who commits 50 new facts a day—and can recall just about anything from history, geography, sports, entertainment—whatever.

Mr Memory's prodigious feats of memory

A brawl erupts at the music hall, followed by gunshots and a stampede. Hannay manages to get out, and finds himself accosted by a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim). She has a pronounced accent, and calls herself Annabela Smith. She asks Hannay if he’ll take her to his own home. Hannay, puzzled, does so, and finds her acting most suspiciously.

`Annabela Smith' and Hannay

Annabela Smith tells Hannay she’s a secret agent trying to prevent an important secret of the British Airforce being leaked. She’d gone to the music hall to gather information and was traced there by two men who’re part of the gang she’s trying to stop. Now these men have tracked her to Hannay’s rented flat, and are waiting on the street below.

The baddies on the street

She’s obviously desperate, and asks Hannay if he’ll let her spend the night. He lets her have his room while he sleeps on the couch—only to be woken in the middle of the night by her stumbling into the room, a knife in her back.

Annabela Smith dying

Annabela Smith dies after urging Hannay to run; all she leaves behind is a page torn out from a map of Scotland, with a place called Alt-na-Shellach encircled on it. The only other clues Hannay has is a cryptic phrase the woman had uttered: “The thirty-nine steps”—though she never elucidated; and a means to recognise the kingpin: his little finger on the right hand is missing the top joints.

The map in Annabela Smith's hand

Hannay manages to hoodwink her murderers—who’re still patrolling the street—and then he takes a train to Scotland. Midway, he realises the police are on the train looking for him. Annabela’s corpse has been found in his flat, and he’s the obvious suspect. Hannay ducks into a carriage occupied by a girl, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). He tries to tell her the truth, but she hands him over to the police.

Pamela hands Hannay over to the cops

Hannay escapes (there’s a memorable scene here on the impressive Forth Bridge), and finds himself trekking crosscountry. He takes shelter for the night with a suspicious and puritanical crofter, John (John Laurie) and his younger, sympathetic wife Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft). During the night, John tries to betray Hannay to the police, but Margaret gets him out and away—wearing John’s overcoat as disguise.

Hannay, Margaret and John

Next day, Hannay makes his way to the villa of the highly respectable Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) at Alt-na-Shellach. Hannay tells all, and is hopeful of Jordan’s co-operation. But Jordan has a trick up (or down?) his sleeve:

Professor Jordan springs a surprise

Jordan shoots Hannay. But John’s hymnbook, in the coat’s breast pocket, stops the bullet. Hannay plays possum, and as soon as his `body’ is left alone, escapes—to the local sheriff. He isn’t believed (who is?!), and they arrest him. Hannay’s getting good at escaping by now. He does it again, and winds up in a political rally, where good old Pamela, suspicious as ever, resurfaces and recognises her assailant from the train. She summons the police; they handcuff Hannay and tell Pamela they’ll need to take her along to identify Hannay formally.

Pamela, Hannay and the police

Pamela gets very irritated when she realises they’re headed for Inverary, two hours away—and then she finds they’re not even on the road to Inverary. She doesn’t really suspect anything, though Hannay realises the `policemen’ are really Jordan’s men. When the car gets stuck in the midst of a herd of sheep, Jordan’s men hop out, first handcuffing Pamela to Hannay so Hannay has to stay. But Hannay is desperate, and he decides to get away, with Pamela in tow.

Hannay drags Pamela off on an adventure

It’s not going to be pleasant, because Hannay’s now being tailed by not just the police, but also by Jordan’s men, who’re out to get him. And Pamela, certain that he’s a murderer and worse, is no help either.

This one may be over seventy years old, but it’s a humdinger! Lots of quick twists and turns and classic Hitchcock suspense. Very watchable.

What I liked about this film:
The suspense is tempered with requisite doses of humour (e.g, the political rally where Hannay barracks for someone he’s never heard of), romance and more.
Donat as the hero. What more can I say? My cup runneth over.

What I didn’t like:
The chase across the fells, when Hannay ends up at Professor Jordan’s house, has been shot at normal speed, but then fast-forwarded to look as if everybody’s actually running. It looks jerky and amateurish.

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11 thoughts on “The 39 Steps (1935)

  1. Did he? I didn’t know! But Saboteur, made in 1942 with Robert Cummings, has a very similar plot. I love Priscilla Lane, so that film is quite a favourite with me :-)

    • No, he didn’t remake it. But I could’ve sworn, that I’d read somewhere that this was a remake of an earlier silent film of his.
      Maybe I mistook it for The Man Who Knew Too Much. But that I knew already! My brain!

  2. Another great Hitchcock movie. Liked the humor as well. Hitchcock had a great sense of humor, and did manage to effectively employ it. Another film , “Frenzy”, has a humorous side story about the chief detective’s wife who keeps making “gourmet French” food (quail with grapes, soup de poisson etc.). The chief detective likes plain solid English food like English breakfasts, steak & potatoes, and sausages. Hitchcock show a few hilarious situations where the chief detective tries to squirm out of eating the fancy food.

    This one also had Hannay cooking haddock for Annabela Smith, and has Haddock at John & Margaret’s place. Incidentally, Peggy Ashcroft who played Margaret, was “Mrs. Moore” in “A Passage to India”.

    Remember my “soup de poisson”, I hope you made it sometime :)

    • I have seen Frenzy (which, incidentally, I did like a lot). Unfortunately, though, I’ve forgotten that side story. :-( I must borrow the DVD from my parents (they’ve got a 16-DVD Hitchcock set) and see it all over again. I love Hitchcock’s humour – especially in The Trouble With Harry. Family Plot is good too.

      And no, I haven’t gotten around to making your soup de poisson yet! I keep telling myself I must, but since both my husband and I don’t drink (not even wine) any more, I don’t want to end up with an open bottle of wine turning to vinegar in the fridge…

  3. Ooh, I never knew you reviewed this! Robert Donat. Sigh. I do agree about that scene on the moors, but it’s a small thing in the face of such awesome epicness! I just loved how Richard managed to escape over and over again. Especially when he broke that window in the police station. :P I just do.

    And Robert Donat’s so cute with that girl who’s married to that grumpy old farmer. I mean, when he kissed her, I literally let out a scream of joy and jumped up and down. But Pamela’s good, too.

    • I know! I read the book under the impression that it would be like the movie, and was surprised to find that there was very little similarity between the two! But still, both very good.

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