A HUNDRED STEPS AHEAD OF ANY PICTURE THIS YEAR!
In 1934, Alfred Hitchcock had turned his first film for Gaumont British, a thriller called The Man Who Knew Too Much, into a hit. But his next endeavor for the studio and producer Michael Balcon would become his first truly great motion picture, an international hit that would transform the director into a household name all over the world. Working on a larger budget, Hitchcock took the elements he had already established in earlier films and painted them on a broader canvas.
Watching “Mr. Memory”
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is in a London music hall theater watching “Mr. Memory”, a performer who can recall an astounding amount of information. Suddenly, shots are fired and Hannay escapes along with a girl he doesn’t know. Her name is Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) and back at his place she tells him that she’s a spy. The shots were fired by assassins looking to kill her since she’s uncovered a plot to steal British military secrets. Annabella tells Hannay about something she calls “The 39 Steps” and a dangerous man who has a deformed finger. Hannay doesn’t believe a word, but when Annabella is stabbed to death later that night by the assassins, he flees dressed up like a milkman.
When the landlord finds Annabella’s corpse, Hannay is wanted for murder. Armed with a map of the Scottish Highlands where Annabella had marked an area around Killin, Hannay boards a northbound train, looking to clear his name…
The novel’s basic idea is retained
If you ever read John Buchan’s novel and are interested in what the movie adaptation looks like, you should know that it differs in almost every way from the source material. As in many other films by Hitchcock, a basic idea has been retained and almost everything else has been replaced by the director’s typical touches. As always (and that’s true for the novel as well), there’s an innocent man on the run.
When Richard Hannay is introduced in the film he has no background or context whatsoever, he’s just there and instantly drawn into the mysterious Annabella’s spy intrigues. She’s played by Mannheim who isn’t terribly good, unfortunately, but Donat is perfect as our hero; we take a liking to him right away. He has a sense of humor and handles himself well whenever he ends up in dangerous situations. That happens a lot, and after a while Hannay finds a companion in Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a woman he meets on the train to Scotland and later again when he becomes handcuffed to her. Their joint escape from the “39 Steps” henchmen offers many lighthearted moments and banter between the stars who dislike each other intensely at first. Donat and Carroll are a terrific couple and embody many of the qualities Hitchcock would come to prefer in his leads – a wise-cracking, handsome man and a cool, (preferably) blond woman who has an aura of mystery but can take care of herself.
As a thriller, the film is exceptionally well-paced, with several spectacular scenes. One is in Scotland and features an escape from a train on the iconic Forth Bridge; cinematographer Bernard Knowles also conveys the rugged isolation of the vast moors quite well. Interestingly, another famous scene features an autogyro chasing Hannay, a rotorcraft used before helicopters became more common. And then there’s the finale, which takes place at the music hall in London again, with “Mr. Memory”, and Hannay finally recognizing a melody that becomes the key to everything.
Really, it’s an utterly preposterous story, but so riveting and entertaining that one simply accepts it. The comedy is what makes us in the audience take the film for what it is – a superb tongue-in-cheek adventure.
The 39 Steps 1935-Britain. 87 min. B/W. Produced by Michael Balcon. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay. Novel: John Buchan. Cinematography: Bernard Knowles. Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie.
Trivia: Remade in 1959, 1978 and as a TV movie in 2008. Later a Broadway play.
Last word: “What I liked about ’39 Steps’ were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity. Donat leaping out of the window of the police station with half of a handcuff on, and immediately walking into a Salvation Army Band, darting down an alley-way and into a room. ‘Thank God you’ve come, Mr. So-and-so,’ they say, and put him onto a platform. A girl comes along with two men, takes him in a car to the police station, but not really to the police station – they are two spies. You know, the rapidity of the switches, that’s the great thing about it. If I did ‘The 39 Steps’ again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.” (Hitchcock, interview with Peter Bogdanovich)