Robert Towns, screenwriter of modern noir ‘Chinatown’ once remarked that it is ‘Not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with ‘The 39 Steps.’ This Alfred Hitchcock 1935 thriller certainly sets the foundations for the many ‘falsely accused man on the run’ films we have seen since.
Hitchcock, drawing on characters and situations created by John Buchan, in a novel that wasn’t much more than pulpy, here creates the classic movie-thriller recipe. He throws an amiable, innocent adventurer into a bubbling pot of espionage. Then allows the hero to sink so low he appears to be guilty—until finally he rescues his good name and the security of his nation.
The reluctant hero in this case is Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), a Canadian staying in London who gets into trouble when secret agents kill a glamorous spy in his bachelor flat. Hannay runs to picturesque Scotland, to search for the kingpin of the spy network whilst eluding police who suspect him of the murder.
This theme- of the innocent man trapped in a web of intrigue- was one Hitchcock returned to so frequently the term “Hitchcockian hero” became shorthand for such characters. The audience hurtles along with the beleaguered hero through the twisting plot of a persecution and redemption fantasy. Enemy Agents and police chase our intrepid hero over breath-taking scenery. North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Saboteur are also amongst the films showing off his mastery of the technique.
The 39 Steps stands out because it was one of Hitchcock’s first “talkies”. As such, it is too brash in places…
but what stands out is his use of silence or the unheard. In one scene, a crofter mistakenly believes his wife and Hannay are plotting a late-night tryst after seeing them converse and not hearing what they say.
Another Hitchcock motif is clear in the film; When Hannay makes his getaway from London on the Flying Scotsman, he startles a bespectacled blonde (played by Madeleine Carroll) in a train compartment, forcing a kiss on her to fool the cops in the train’s corridor. In this era of rampant male chauvinism, Hannay expects her not only to have greatly enjoyed the forced kiss but also for her to utterly believe his protestations of innocence.
But Hitchcock’s women don’t behave that way- his icy blondes are strong and smart. Pamela won’t just take his word and in a taut thriller/slapstick mash up the two end up handcuffed together, with Hannay dependent on her for his freedom. Their odd-couple relationship is an erotic version of tough love.
Thriller films are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged but The 39 Steps is both. Our hero is chained to a beautiful girl but accused of murder at the same time. Hannay might be Canadian but the film is quintessentially British- and here he fulfills another fantasy as he saves his country!
Hitchcock is able to rouse patriotic feelings without jingoism and with a master’s touch creates a whodunit throughout which we know who did it… but not why…