The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps: Alfred Hitchock / Suspense
“The story concerns Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) a handsome young man who owns a London flat. A mysterious woman comes to him for help, claiming that she is being hunted by some spies. Hannay helps her, but when she is murdered in his home it look like he is to blame, and he has to go on the run from the police (who obviously want him for the “crime”) and the spies (who want him to find out how much he actually knows). En route, he has many adventures as he flees across the South Scotland landscapes, including being handcuffed to a woman (Madeline Carroll) who happens to think he is guilty of the murder.” –From IMDB. Director: Alfred Hitchock, Actors: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Release: 1935.
The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, the film is about a man in London who tries to help a counter-espionage agent prevent an organisation of spies called The 39 Steps from stealing top secret information. When the agent is killed and he stands accused of the murder, he goes on the run with an attractive woman in order to save himself and stop the spy ring.
Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock’s film has been the most acclaimed. In 1999, the film came in fourth in a BFI poll of British films. In 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British movie of all time.
At a London music hall theatre, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson)—a man with a photographic memory—when shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, he finds himself holding a seemingly-frightened Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who talks him into taking her back to his apartment. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins, and that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the “39 steps”, but does not explain its meaning.
Later that night, Smith bursts into Hannay’s bedroom, fatally stabbed in the back, and warns him to escape. He finds a map of Scotland clutched in her hand, with a town circled. He sneaks out of the watched apartment disguised as a milkman and boards a train to Scotland. He sees the police searching the train and learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith’s murderer. Quickly, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, the attractive Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in a desperate attempt to escape detection. She frees herself from his unwanted embrace and alerts the policemen. Hannay jumps from the train onto the Forth Bridge and escapes.
He walks toward the town circled on the map, and stays the night with a poor crofter (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft). The next morning, Hannay flees from the police, wearing the farmer’s Sunday coat given to him by the young woman. Hannay presumes that the only new resident in the town must be Annabella’s contact, whom she was trying to meet and tell of the “39 steps”. With the police still in pursuit, he arrives at the man’s house, and tells his story to the seemingly respectable Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), who then shows that he is missing part of a finger. Hannay realizes his mistake, but Jordan shoots him and leaves him for dead. Luckily, the bullet is stopped by the farmer’s hymnbook, left in his coat pocket.
Hannay goes to the local police, but they refuse to believe his story, since the inspector knows Jordan well. Hannay jumps through a window and escapes into the crowd. He tries to hide himself at a political meeting, but is mistaken for the introductory speaker. He gives a rousing impromptu speech—without knowing a thing about the candidate he is introducing—but is recognised by Pamela, who gives him up once more. He is handcuffed and taken away by “policemen” who ask Pamela to accompany them. Hannay realises they are agents of the conspiracy when they bypass the nearest police station. Hannay is handcuffed to Pamela while the men try to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, but he still manages to escape, dragging the unwilling Pamela along.
They make their way across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While he sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of the handcuffs, but then overhears one of the fake policemen on the telephone; the conversation confirms Hannay’s assertions. She returns to the room and sleeps on a sofa. The next morning, she tells him what she heard. He sends her to London to warn the police. No secret documents have been reported missing, however, so they do not believe her. Instead, they follow her to get to Hannay.
Pamela leads them to Mr. Memory’s show at the London Palladium. When the performer is introduced, Hannay recognises his theme music—the annoyingly catchy tune he hasn’t been able to forget for days. Hannay puts two and two together and realises that the spies are using Mr. Memory to smuggle the secrets out. As the police take him into custody, he shouts out the question, “What are the 39 Steps?” Mr. Memory compulsively begins to answer, “The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of …” Just then, Jordan shoots him and tries to flee, but is apprehended. The dying Mr. Memory recites the information stored in his brain—a design for a silent aircraft engine.
- Robert Donat as Richard Hannay
- Madeleine Carroll as Pamela
- Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Smith
- Godfrey Tearle as Professor Jordan
- Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret, the crofter’s wife
- John Laurie as John, the crofter
- Helen Haye as Mrs. Louisa Jordan, the professor’s wife
- Frank Cellier as Sheriff Watson
- Wylie Watson as Mr. Memory
- Gus McNaughton as Commercial Traveller
- Jerry Verno as Commercial Traveller
- Peggy Simpson as Maid
- Matthew Boulton as Fake Policeman
The film’s plot departs substantially from John Buchan‘s novel, with scenes such as in the music hall and on the Forth Bridge absent from the book. Hitchcock also introduced the two major female characters, Annabella the spy and Pamela, reluctant companion. In this film, The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organisation, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps. By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with the town circled) Hitchcock avoids the plot hole in Buchan’s book where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.
The 39 Steps was a major British film of its time. The production company, Gaumont-British, was eager to establish its films in international markets, and especially in the United States, and The 39 Steps was conceived as a prime vehicle towards this end. Where Hitchcock’s previous film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, had costs of £40,000, The 39 Steps cost nearly £60,000. Much of the extra money went to the star salaries for Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Both had already made films in Hollywood and were therefore known to American audiences. At a time when British cinema had few international stars, this was considered vital to the film’s success. Hitchcock heard Scottish industrialist and aircraft pioneer James G. Weir commuted to work daily in an autogyro, and worked the aircraft into the film.