By Amy Tetreault
The 39 Steps – dir. Alfred Hitchcock – 1935
It began with the 1915 spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, written by John Buchan. Then came the 1935 Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps, loosely based on Buchan’s novel. And then came more film versions, including one that’s “in production,” according to IMDB. Oh, and don’t forget about “The 39 Steps” Broadway show. It’s described as a mixture of Hitchcock, a juicy spy novel and Monty Python.
And although I haven’t seen the Broadshow show . . .
And I haven’t read Buchan’s original novel . . .
And I haven’t seen all the remakes . . .
I’m gonna go ahead and say that Hitchcock’s version is the my favorite. And not just because of the great camera angles, witty dialogue, and fascinating characters.
My favorite part of a Hitchcock film is watching how all the various stories are interwoven, especially when they involve couples. The 39 Steps isn’t just about Hannay and his wild goose chase, but also the cast of characters he meets along the way. I particularly love the minor accounts of the Scottish farming couple (also known as “crofters”) and the innkeepers. You get a lot of bang for your buck in The 39 Steps.
Perhaps the most famous subplot in Hitchcock’s film involves the old crofter, his wife and Hannay. The mini-story focuses on a religious and callous husband with his much younger and unhappier wife, throwing Hannay into the mix to illuminate the tension. Hitchcock manages to capture this tension on film with his brilliant camera angles. We all know and love the quick shot of each character separated by bars as Hitchcock films between the chair rungs. It’s clever and effective and daring. Most directors nowadays wouldn’t dare take a chance like Hitchcock.
Aside from the director himself, I also love the actors in these scenes. John Laurie as the crofter uses his eyes to tell his story, darting back and forth between Hannay and his wife. Peggy Ashcroft as the crofter’s wife is courageous and bold as she hurries Hannay away from the incoming intruders, but wordlessly sorrowful as she realizes that her life is reduced to a joyless day to day regime in the small farmhouse with her harsh husband. Even now, as the film is over and the main plotline is settled, I find myself wondering about that poor woman. In a different and more humorously entertaining story, Hannay (with his blonde heroine Pamela) stumbles upon two innkeepers. At this point, Hannay is holding Pamela hostage and yet the innkeepers only see love between the two. They are sweet and doting and a stark contrast to the previous couple, literally doing everything in their power not to “out a young couple”. Virtually every moment during the inn scenes are perfect: the tension as Pamela tries to warn the innkeeper she is being held hostage, the physical comedy of Hannay absently holding Pamela’s sandwich as she takes off her stockings, the climax as Pamela learns Hannay is telling the truth, the cunning wife innkeeper kicking the two men out of her inn for “drinking after hours,” etc.
But perhaps one of the most underrated, and hilarious, moments is their exchange before bed:
Pamela: How did you start?
Hannay: Oh, quite a small way like most of us. Pilfering pennies from other childrens’ lockers at school. Then a little pocket-picking and a spot of car-pinching, and smash-and-grab and sordid, plain burglary. Killed my first man when I was nineteen. (He yawns) In years to come, you’ll be able to take your grandchildren to Mme. Tussaud’s and point me out.
Pamela: Which section?
Hannay: Oh, it’s early to say.
Robert Donat as Hannay delivers his lines quickly and flawlessly. Madeleine Carroll as Pamela shoots back her own with all that 1940’s vixen charm that today’s leading ladies lack. Their chemistry is never stronger and cements the partnership that will deliver the perfect ending.
Without all of these couples, the secret of the 39 steps would never have been saved, and yet Hitchcock creates a classic spy film that manages to successfully include both love and comedy without coming off like a cheesy Vin Diesel movie.
Why can’t they make films like this nowadays? Or books. Or Broadway shows.