|The 39 Steps|
The 39 Steps 1935 British poster
|Directed by||Alfred Hitchcock|
|Produced by||Michael Balcon|
|Based on||The Thirty-Nine Steps|
by John Buchan
|Edited by||Derek N. Twist|
|Distributed by||Gaumont British Distributors|
The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It is very loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It concerns an everyman civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organisation of spies called "The 39 Steps" from stealing British military secrets. After being mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland and becomes tangled up with an attractive woman while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name.
Since its initial release, the film has been widely acknowledged as a classic. Filmmaker and actor Orson Welles referred to it as a "masterpiece". Screenwriter Robert Towne remarked, "It's not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps."
At a London music hall theatre, Richard Hannay is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of "Mr. Memory" when shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, Hannay finds himself holding a seemingly frightened Annabella Smith, who talks him into taking her back to his flat. 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 information, masterminded by a man missing the top joint of one of his fingers. She mentions "The 39 Steps", but does not explain the phrase.
Later that night, Smith, fatally stabbed, bursts into Hannay's bedroom and warns him to flee. He finds a map of the Scottish Highlands clutched in her hand, showing the area around Killin, with a house or farm named "Alt-na-Shellach" circled. He sneaks out of his flat disguised as a milkman to avoid the assassins waiting outside. He then boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. He learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith's murderer. When he sees police searching the train, he enters a compartment and starts kissing the sole occupant, Pamela, in a desperate attempt to escape detection. She alerts the policemen, who stop the train on the Forth Bridge. Hannay escapes.
He walks toward Alt-na-Shellach, staying the night with a poor crofter (farmer) and his much younger wife. Early the next morning, the wife sees a police car approaching and warns Hannay; she also gives him her husband's coat. Hannay flees. The police chase after him, using an autogyro, but he eludes them. He eventually reaches the house of Professor Jordan. The police arrive, but Jordan sends them away and listens to Hannay's story after ushering out his guests (including the local sheriff). Hannay states that the leader of the spies is missing the top joint of the little finger of his left hand, but Jordan shows his right hand, which is missing that joint, then shoots Hannay and leaves him for dead.
Luckily, the bullet is stopped by a hymn book in the crofter's coat pocket. Hannay goes to the sheriff. When more policemen arrive, the sheriff reveals that he does not believe the fugitive's story, since Jordan is his best friend. The police handcuff Hannay, but he jumps through a window. He tries to hide at a political meeting and is mistaken for the introductory speaker. He gives a rousing impromptu speech--without knowing anything about the candidate he is introducing--but is recognized by Pamela, who gives him away to the police once more. He is taken away by the policemen, who insist Pamela accompany them, handcuffing her to Hannay. When they drive the wrong way, Hannay realizes they are agents of the conspiracy. When the men get out to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, Hannay escapes, dragging the unwilling Pamela along.
They make their way across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While Hannay sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of the handcuffs, but then overhears one of the fake policemen on the telephone, confirming 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 alert the police. No secret documents have been reported missing, however, so they do not believe her. Instead, they follow her.
Pamela leads them to the London Palladium. When Mr. Memory is introduced, Hannay recognizes his theme music -- a annoyingly catchy tune he has been unable to forget. Hannay, upon seeing Professor Jordan signal Mr. Memory, realizes that Mr. Memory has memorized the Air Ministry secrets to be smuggled out of the country. As the police take Hannay into custody, he shouts, "What are The 39 Steps?" Mr. Memory compulsively answers: "The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the Foreign Office of..." at which point Jordan shoots him, before being apprehended. While dying, Mr. Memory recites his memorized information: the design for a silent aircraft engine.
The script was originally written by Charles Bennett, who prepared the initial treatment in close collaboration with Hitchcock; Ian Hay then wrote some dialogue.
The film's plot departs significantly 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, the 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, with the German spies being called "The Black Stone". By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with Alt-na-Shellach house circled) Hitchcock avoids the coincidence in Buchan's novel 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 leads 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 had heard that Scottish industrialist and aircraft pioneer James G. Weir commuted to work daily in an autogyro, and worked the aircraft into the film.
Hitchcock had worked with Jessie Matthews on the film Waltzes from Vienna and reportedly did not like her very much. However, as well as the fade-out music in The 39 Steps, the song "Tinkle,Tinkle,Tinkle ", he also used an orchestrated version of her song "May I Have The Next Romance With You" in the ballroom sequence of his 1937 film Young and Innocent.
The 39 Steps is another in a line of Hitchcock films based upon an innocent man being forced to go on the run, including The Lodger (1926), Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959). The film contains a common Hitchcockian trope of a MacGuffin (a plot device which is vital to the story, but irrelevant to the audience); in this case, the designs for a secret silent aeroplane engine.
This film contains an Alfred Hitchcock cameo, a signature occurrence in most of his films. At around seven minutes into the film, both Hitchcock and the screenwriter Charles Bennett can be seen walking past a bus that Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim board outside the music hall. The bus is on London Transport's number 25 route, which runs from Oxford Street through the East End and on to Ilford. As author Mark Glancy points out in his 2003 study of the film, this was familiar ground to Hitchcock, who lived in Leytonstone and then in Stepney (in the East End) as a youth. The director's appearance can thus be seen as an assertion of his connection with the area, but he was by no means romanticising it. As the bus pulls up he litters by throwing a cigarette packet on the ground.:p. 45 Hitchcock is also seen briefly as a member of the audience scrambling to leave the music hall after the shot is fired in the opening scene.
In the middle of the film, Hannay is shot in the chest with a revolver at close range, and a long fade out suggests that he has been killed. This jarringly unusual development--the main character is apparently killed while the story is still unfolding--anticipates Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), and the murder of Marion Crane in the Bates Motel. Hannay, however, was not truly dead. In the next scene it is revealed that a hymn book in the pocket of his borrowed coat prevented the bullet from killing him.
The film established the quintessential English 'Hitchcock blonde' Madeleine Carroll as the template for his succession of ice cold and elegant leading ladies. Of Hitchcock heroines as exemplified by Carroll, film critic Roger Ebert wrote: "The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerised the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated".
Contemporary reviews were very positive. Andre Sennwald of The New York Times wrote, "If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate and entertaining melodrama of 1935, then it must be The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also out of Mr. Hitchcock's workshop. A master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit, he uses the camera the way a painter uses his brush, stylizing his story and giving it values which the scenarists could hardly have suspected."Variety wrote, "International spy stories are most always good, and this is one of the best, smartly cut, with sufficient comedy relief."The Monthly Film Bulletin declared it "First class entertainment," adding, "Like all melodramas in which the hero must win the story contains a number of very lucky accidents, but Hitchcock's direction, the speed at which the film moves, and Donat's high-spirited acting get away with them and the suspense never slackens."John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote, "Speed, suspense, and surprises, all combine to make The 39 Steps one of those agreeable thrillers that can beguile the idle hour ... Mystery experts will enjoy the whole thing, I think."
Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock's film has been the most highly praised. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century; in 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British movie ever made, and in 2011 ranked it the second best book-to-film adaptation of all time. In 2017, a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw it ranked the 13th best British film ever.
The 39 Steps was one of Orson Welles' favourite Hitchcock films, and of it he said, "Oh my God, what a masterpiece." In 1939, Welles starred in a radio adaption of the same source novel with The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 96% based on 47 reviews, with an average rating of 8.94/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Packed with twists and turns, this essential early Alfred Hitchcock feature hints at the dazzling heights he'd reach later in his career."
The 39 Steps, like all of Hitchcock's British films, is copyrighted worldwide but has been heavily bootlegged on home video. Despite this, various licensed, restored releases have appeared on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand from Network in the UK and The Criterion Collection in the U.S.
In the Sesame Street segment "Monsterpiece Theater" Alistair Cookie (Cookie Monster) introduces the audience to the thriller film, "The 39 Stairs" ("By guy named Alfred..."). Grover in a film noir setting climbs a set of stairs counting each one as he ascends. Once he reaches the top, he finds a brick wall. Instead of climbing back down, Grover slides down the banister.
The comedy play The 39 Steps is a parody of this specific movie version of the story, with a cast of just four people for all the parts. It was originally written in 1995 by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon; a version rewritten in 2005 by Patrick Barlow has played in the West End and on Broadway.