The 39 Steps is a 1935 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, with the classic Hitchcock plot: an ordinary man finds himself mixed up in acts of espionage against his will and has to find a way to extricate himself and save the day. Adapted from the first of adventure novelist John Buchan’s “Richard Hannay” novels — and apparently adapted very loosely — it stars Richard Donat in the lead role as Hannay.
Hannay is enjoying himself at a public performance by “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson in a small amusing role) when a fight breaks out in the audience and shots are fired. After the theatre clears out, he is approached by an attractive young woman (Lucie Mannheim), who asks if she can come home with him. He thinks she’s just being pleasantly forward, but when they get to his rented apartment, Miss Annabelle Smith reveals that she is the one who fired the shots, as a diversion to escape two men who are hunting her. She’s a spy, charged with protecting a national secret, and if she doesn’t get a message to a certain Scottish village in time, the secret will be smuggled out of the country.
Dating services today have a thorough vetting process specifically to prevent the “unwittingly taking a spy home” situation.
Circumstances unfold so that Richard Hannay is sent on his own to the Scottish town, without Miss Smith. He’s not just hoping to prevent the revelation of the secret — he’s a Canadian, and the national secrets of England aren’t top priority for him — but by exposing the spy ring, he hopes to clear himself of a murder the spies committed but which the police are laying at his feet. Complicating matters is that he knows very little of the business he’s about. He knows to beware of a man who has lost part of his finger (Godfrey Tearle), but he doesn’t know exactly to whom he’s supposed to deliver his warning, or what the secret is that’s going to be revealed, or what “the 39 steps” he’s been warned about are. Rather than being a man who knows too much, he’s a man who knows too little, but he’s surprisingly quick on his feet, improvising solutions to problems that come his way. Robert Donat makes for an engaging adventure hero, with a quick delivery of Hannay’s lines, and adeptly portraying the rapid adjustments the character has to make in his thought processes.
Further complicating Hannay’s voyage is Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a woman with whom he tries to hide out from the police, but who turns him in instead. After a few such run-ins, the two wind up hand-cuffed together by the police — who were hoping that she’d keep him in place while they were busy, but failed to account for the fact that a tall man can easily move a small woman. Is The 39 Steps the first film to feature the now-familiar motif of two people who can’t stand each other being hand-cuffed together on the run? It’s one of the earliest, at any rate, and Donat and Carroll have such good chemistry as the bickering twosome that the film is entertaining even when the scene isn’t an active part of the chase.
He may not have committed murder, but she sure seems like she’s contemplating it.
The 39 Steps is a fun adventure story with a sprinkling of humor throughout, and good performances out of the lead actors. It also seems to be a fairly influential film, with some of its motifs informing not just later Hitchcock works (such as the fantastic North By Northwest), but also works by other directors. It’s well worth a watch, both to see some early uses of standard genre tropes and as a solid film in its own right.