Tone, in novels and films, has always been a make-or-break affair: In a work with thousands of parts, the wrong word in the wrong place, or the wrong image at the wrong time, can unravel the emotive state the storyteller is trying to induce in the audience. Balancing two different tones together in one work is an even greater challenge, especially when the thrilling and suspenseful is being mixed with the carefree and jokey. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps attempts just that, and succeeds for reasons that are well worth examining.
The plot lets us know immediately that the film will be primarily a thriller: Our guy Hannay is on the run from the authorities, accused of a crime he didn’t commit and the only man capable of preventing a catastrophe. A series of narrow escapes ratchets up the intensity a bit, but that’s not what confirms the movie as something we’re willing to take seriously.
Instead, what really makes The 39 Steps compelling as a mortal struggle is the villain. A villain can be a kind of centerpiece for a movie if evil enough, and where protagonists will usually be everymen, vague enough in their characteristics that the audience can easily identify with them, villains can be unique and memorable for their particulars. The Silence of the Lambs is remembered for Hannibal Lecter, not Clarice Starling.
The 39 Steps’ great evil-doer, a professor, is not as immediately diabolical as Anthony Hopkins’ serial killer. While Lecter has only the thinnest veneer of politesse, so transparent that it reads like a mockery of conventional manners, the professor wraps his loathsomeness in concern for propriety that seems genuine, more akin to the measured approach of Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds’ “Jew Hunter” Nazi, than the contained rage of Hannibal Lecter. The tension between the professor’s gentle tone and his cold-blooded nature is pushed practically to its limit here, reaching its greatest height when the professor asks, almost pleading, “Oh, Mr. Hannay, why have you come here? Why have you forced me into this difficult position?” Of all the potential readings, actor Godfrey Tearle gives the line perhaps the most genteel one, as if he is only hesitantly pointing out what a terrible faux pas Hannay has committed by showing up. What a bother! The professor’s voice is completely free of the malice you expect from someone pulling out a gun.
The menace is so unnerving precisely because it’s mismatched with the affect. The import of what the professor is doing doesn’t register on his face because, you imagine, he is capable of killing with about as much thought as you’d throw out a napkin. He would condemn thousands to death by telegram, then go downstairs for a pleasant supper with the family. The only person that may be creepier is the professor’s wife. When she walks in on them and sees the drawn gun, she doesn’t bat an eye, and Hitchcock has told us quickly and cleanly just how unremarkable deadly violence is in this house.
On top of the threat, however, Hitchcock has thrown in a great deal of lighthearted romp. You might think that Hannay, fleeing for his life, would be too preoccupied to flirt with the pretty wife of the grumpy Scot putting him up for the night, but you’d be wrong. Some scant hours after his closest brush with death, and only a moment in screen time, Hannay is laughing heartily with the sheriff, and later in the film, our hero is chipper enough to joke with the man he’s just been caught impersonating. The second half of the film has Hannay handcuffed to Pamela, who, like the professor, seems more put out by the darned inconvenience of the whole thing than by the horrible consequences. Hannay bickers with her in such a way that their inevitable liaison seems inevitable to any modern consumer of rom-coms. It’s almost enough to make the movie a jaunty adventure.
So how do these two tones — treacherous thrills and fun frolic — get reconciled? There is a hint early on in the movie when a pair of men in the women’s undergarment industry, sitting across from Hannay on a train, run through a litany of double entendres. The word play is pleasant enough, but it all turns into a sad comment on how oblivious the businessmen are to the suffering of the fellow right beside them. There they are, prattling on, for their own benefit and for ours, indifferent to the hopeless plight that has suddenly become Hannay’s life. Later, when Hannay is forced to address a crowd to keep up a ruse he has used to escape the cops, again we feel just how clueless the audience is to the pitiless dangers just beneath their noses; the scene plays both funny and tragic. At another point, just before Hannay confronts the professor, a tense few minutes are spent at a party where a woman casually tosses out the phrase “forgive the orgy” (read into this what you will) with young insouciance. The sheriff is there, too, and as they watch the police out on the moors from the remove of the manor, the party breaks into jokes about catching that murderer and who’s going to get stabbed next. It’s a great example of Hitchcock’s principle of showing the audience the bomb before setting it off, but it’s also awfully sad for making you realize how remote Hannay has now become from ordinary life.
And so this humor, even Hannay’s own joking around, actually has a bit of the gallows in it, a kind of fatalism that says to the audience, “You and I know just how futile this all is.” Hitchcock makes The 39 Steps both cheery and macabre, and there aren’t many things harder to do in cinema.