The 39 Steps [50 Films Older Than Me #18]

Over six months ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #18. So, that’s 18 movies out of 50 in somewhat over 50% of the year, which just goes to show how far behind I am with all this.

Spoilers ahead.  

The 39 Steps

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Release Year:  1935 (35 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Richard Hannay is an ordinary guy who finds himself accused of murder and caught up in a deadly game of espionage and international intrigue when a woman is murdered in his apartment. Fleeing the police to Scotland, he goes through a variety of adventures in his attempt to discover the truth, eventually finding himself unwillingly allied with a young woman, Pamela.

In the end, Hannay realizes that complex technical documents have been memorized by a memory expert whom foreign agents are planning to smuggle out of the country, but thanks to his efforts the plan is thwarted.

Starring Robert Donat as Richard Hanney, Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, and Godfrey Terle as Professor Jordan (the mastermind behind the foreign plot). John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft are a farmer and his wife that Hannay briefly stays with, Hilda Trevelyan as a innkeeper’s wife, and Lucie Mannheim as the spy who is murdered in Richard’s apartment that gets the whole story going.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’ve read the short novel by John Buchan that this movie is loosely based on, so I knew the general plot. And knowing that this is a Hitchcock film from the 1930’s gave me the idea that this was going to be a well-executed but stagey thriller with a certain amount of romance and comedy.

Reality: The 39 Steps follows the basic structure of the novel upon which it is based–a guy goes on the run after he is accused of murdering someone in his apartment, who died after sharing the hints of a espionage plot.

In the novel, he goes to Scotland to hide and by complete coincidence winds up in the home of the man behind the plot. In the movie, Alfred Hitchcock wisely avoids this fairly unbelievable coincidence by having Richard Hannay have enough information from the start to lead him toward that home.

And this is just one of many such changes that are made to strengthen the plot and emotional engagement of the film’s story. In the novel, Hannay is mostly on his own, but in the movie Hitchcock pairs him with Pamela, a woman Hannay first meets on the train and then later at a political rally. The two end up handcuffed together in a sequence that almost turns the movie into a romantic comedy. In this way, the movie is reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, another Hitchcock film from the same period, although The 39 Steps is more polished.

The film also changes the whole meaning of the story’s title: in the book, “39 steps” refers to physical stairs, and is simply information to tell characters which of several sets of steps is the right one where critical information can be found. The movie changes the “39 Steps” to a ring of spies, which while not explored deeply is all together more intriguing.

Hitchcock’s early mastery at staging is on full display here, with some excellent action sequences including one with Hannay escaping on a train and another where he dodges enemies on the moors while handcuffed to a reluctant Pamela. Camera, editing, and sound are all used excellently to create atmosphere and build suspense–there’s a great bit, for example, where the sound of someone screaming at the sight of a dead body is smash cut into the sound of a train whistle.

The movie also begins and ends with two fantastic sequences set in music halls / theatres, which are also completely absent in the book. But it’s in the latter of these that the movie’s biggest misstep takes place–and that’s with how the villain is eventually undone (a bigger contrivance than even Richard meeting Pamela twice in two completely different situations, or being saved from a bullet by a hymnal he was carrying in his pocket). At the film’s climax, Hannay figures out that the villains’ plot involves a memory expert who uses his skills for entertainment is memorizing classified technical plans. He gets Mr. Memory (as that is how he is referred to) to expose himself by throwing out a question during the man’s show: “What are the 39 Steps?” The man then inexplicably begins to answer, publicly from the stage and fully accurately. It’s lightly implied that he does this by subconscious reflex, but that’s not the case at any other point where he is demonstrating his abilities. And to make it even more convenient, Mr. Memory is then gunned down by treasonous criminal behind the whole plot, who does so in full view of an audience full of people and is easily captured for his troubles. It’s hard to imagine what Mr. Memory was going to say that would have been more damning.

In spite of this storytelling convenience, there is no disputing that The 39 Steps is a masterpiece. Robert Donat has a dapper look about him that I at first thought was too refined for the lead in a rugged spy thriller like this, but he quickly demonstrates a sort of quick-witted ease in the face of danger which makes him well-suited for the story. And I’m unfamiliar with Madeleine Carroll, even though she was the world’s highest-paid actress in 1938, but she’s wonderful.

She’s beautiful and icy blond in the classic Hitchcockian way, but with plenty of warmth and personality which helps to hold up her end of the movie. The rest of the film is filled out with a variety of interesting characters who are all well played–I especially like the friendly innkeeper played by Hilda Trevelyan, and the farming couple played by John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? It’s so good–a well constructed thriller which is fun more than scary, grounded with good performances and a strong sense of environment and atmosphere.

See here for the Master List.

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