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Hitchcock's The 39 Steps

Updated on September 22, 2011
"Hitch" the genius
"Hitch" the genius
A spy thriller and romance that roams about London and the Scottish highlands
A spy thriller and romance that roams about London and the Scottish highlands
The hero always escaping
The hero always escaping
Locked together by fate
Locked together by fate
Pamela trying to escape falling in love with Hanay
Pamela trying to escape falling in love with Hanay

British film director, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, had a disturbing childhood, but by some fantastic twist, his early suffering was transformed into creative genius. When Hitchcock was a little boy growing up in Leytonstone, London, his father sent him, on occasion, to the local police station with a note saying that he should be shut away in jail for ten minutes as punishment for whatever crime little Alfred had committed against his father. The boy would sit there behind the bars, waiting and looking up whenever a police officer walked by, towering, shoes clicking ominously. And the minutes would tick away like eternities. Maybe the officers would say cruel things in jest, and eventually the heavy bars would creak open, and the boy would finally be let free.

In one of his first, and best, films, The 39 Steps, this traumatic experience is reflected through dramatic visuals and thematic ingenuity. There is a barred grate, which upon closer inspection, is actually the ticket taker at a London music hall. Then, with skewed continuity, the camera hones in close on a pair of men’s trousers walking from the ticket booth, the footsteps clicking, and we are now in the audience at the music hall behind the trousers and trench coat that we followed in; and the show begins with “Mr. Memory”. The trench coat turns out to be Robert Donat, who plays Richard Hanay, the hero of the movie. He sits in the middle of the audience, alone in a crowd. It is interesting to ponder how Hitchcock managed to direct all of these people at once; they are rather unruly - from another era - yet, so genuine and so British. It would seem that the director hand-picked these people off the streets of London. And, for the time-being, everybody is having a wonderful time.

Soon, however, there is trouble and our hero, Hanay, is out on the street in front of the music hall, but he’s been discovered by a beautiful, enigmatic woman. Donat was very enchanting in his own way without really acting directly to the camera, as say, Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant would in later Hitchcock films. This film has a nice pace; slow, and then speeding up as the tension builds. There are elegant, Noir themes from shadowy, chiaroscuro halls and white, billowing curtains to jaunty hats and turned up collars. The beautiful woman, Annabella, is a mysterious foreigner who alludes to some counter-espionage duties, of which Hanay is skeptical. Eventually, there is a murder, and Hanay is the prime suspect, though he is innocent. Here begins the famous Hitchcock plot of the innocent man who must run from the police, and not only prove his innocence but find the real killers too. That Hitchcock does this with such immediacy, is a testament to those unfair, long-suffering minutes in the jail cell of his childhood. His heros, at any cost, will wrangle out of being locked behind bars. Hanay, in a scene of truly gifted timing, in terms of dialogue and tension, must get out of the lobby of his apartment building, which is decorated with elaborate bars, without being spotted by the real killers. His conversation with the milkman is a delight!

What follows is a long journey by train across magnificent bridges and over long, languorous Scottish hills. The train scenes are nothing short of magnificent: the grandiosity of the sleek, gray 20th Century locomotive, the misty smoke roiling into the station platform, the tall, black hats of the British bobbies, who are, incidentally, hunting for Hanay. I love the Scottish accents; as when Hanay is hiding behind a huge structure of the bridge, standing precariously above the glassy water miles below, an unsuspecting Scottish policeman, tired of searching for the murderer in the cold fog, yells to his buddy, “Ahh can ‘nah stond oot hairr any loongerr.” Hitchcock mingles the various peoples who make up the Island Race against a backdrop of grandeur, with monolithic, architectural structures.

Hanay manages to evade the bobbies, narrowly, and with no help from a beautiful blond named Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who sternly points him out to the police. And even after scaling the Scottish moors and hiding under old, stone bridges in the green and misty hills, eluding the police once again, as well as the killers, Hanay runs into Pamela, as they are fated to be hand-cuffed together by their own would-be assassins. He says to her, “there are twenty-one million people on this island, and I have to run into to you.” (sound familiar? – Casablanca would be made twelve years later by another director). But Hanay and Pamela warm up to each other; I love the scenes in the bedroom of the little inn, where, lying on the bed – by necessity more than choice – Hanay jokingly explains to Pamela the origins of his life-of-crime. With his trilling, British accent, it is really funny! And Hitchcock lovingly portrays the Scottish innkeepers with colloquial accents of antiquity, the wife saying to her husband: “ya fool-ya, d’ya want ta give awey a yoong coople?”

The movie ends at the London Palladium, where poor old Mr. Memory must solve the crime. He does, though unwittingly, and Hanay and Pamela hold hands without the force of being cuffed. The film was made in 1935, and Hitchcock makes a compelling statement concerning the connections between the English and the Germans as well as the Scottish and Canadians - connections that were formed over centuries, and also as a result of the more recent First World War, which took place before the movie was filmed - but was a precursor to the war that was to take place imminently.

The movie was based on a book with the same title by John Buchan. An ambitious, intellectual Scotsman, he worked for The Times in the front lines during WWI and also for the War Office and for Intelligence. After the war, he spent his time as a prolific writer of articles, novels that were very popular, biographies and a history of the war. Hitchcock strays somewhat from Buchan’s original story, but the core remains absolutely recognizable, with welcome embellishes for the sake of artistic license. The book is a worthwhile read, especially if you like spy stories. I was pleasantly drawn-in by the easy-flowing narrative and then hooked by the end of the first chapter!


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    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, Chris! This is my favorite Hitch movie ever - it's so nice to know when another fan enjoys my hub! Thank you & thank you... :)

    • Scarface1300 profile image

      Scarface1300 6 years ago

      Very informative and structured account of a fantastic Hitchcock film which along with the likes of Vertigo, Nth by Nth,west and of course the ultimate Hitchcock masterpiece Psycho convey to make a rather Great Hubpage.... Thanks for this I Loved it........Chris

      Voted Up and Up and Up...

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for sharing and for the nice compliment:)

    • profile image

      Hitchcock 6 years ago

      I love this movie, one of my favorite movies of all time. Thanks for posting such a great hub.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Steve, I'm pretty sure I haven't seen The Lady Vanishes. Will have to look into that one. The 39 Steps is great! And yes, a "template" - and a brilliant one at that! Thanks very much for the vote up:)

      WDH, Do see The 39 Steps! It may tie together all of Hitchcock's thrilling films for you. Thanks so much for the compliment and the vote up!:)

    • profile image

      WDH 6 years ago

      This is one of the few Hitchcock movies that I have never seen, very well written. Great job voted up.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      The Lady Vanishes is my favourite from Hitch's British output but The 39 Steps is the film that really made him famous and not just in Britain. The innocent man on the run, it was the template for many of his classic thrillers.

      Voted Up.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, Cogerson ~ I am glad this review inspired you to see the film again. It is a little-know, classic gem. I hope people will always fall in love with it as I do every time I watch it! Thanks for the nice comment and the vote-up:)

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 6 years ago from Virginia

      Awesome read on one of Hitchcock's better movies, although here in the states it is not one really mentioned as much as his other classics like North by Northwest, Psycho, and others. After reading your wonderful review I realize that I need to watch this classic movie again...thanks for sharing....voted up.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, Ben, for the encouraging words! I'm glad you enjoyed this - I know you will love the movie. It is one of my very fav Hitchcock film:) Write On ~

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Your analysis of 39 Steps seems spot on to me, although way above my ability to follow on a first watch through. I enjoy your descriptions...chiaroscuro halls for instance...the movie seems to be filled with noir as you say, and also many vignettes cloistered scenes of interiors and blurred out interiors. I'm going to have to watch it a few times though, to learn the characters better, thanks for the recommendation Tracy.



    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, eilander. I'm glad you liked the hub. I have not seen "The Birds", as the trailers alone have always terrified me. I'ts the only Hithccock film, other than this other scary one whose name escapes me now, that I have no need to see. But I'll watch all the others many times over!

    • eilander1542011 profile image

      eilander1542011 7 years ago from Everywhere

      Alfred Hitchcock is a genius in his own right and deserves every bit of underlying praise that you gave him in this hub. I still remember my first Hitchcock film; "The Birds", I saw it when I was maybe ten years old and instantly fell in love with it. I find Alfred Hitchcock to be the absolute master of suspense, no one does it better than he.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      earnestshub, Thank you so much! I appreciate the accolades:) This film can be viewed again and again, as it is a wonderful classic. Hitchcock was a master, and he found a British star to fill the role of Hanay. I can't think of another actor to portray his character.

      Lyond, Thanks for stopping by. I don't believe I know anyone who has read the book, except you and I!! You should definitely see the film ~ a pleasure to view at least once a year:)

    • Lymond profile image

      Lymond 7 years ago from UK

      Wow, such a detailed flowing commentary. I've read the book many times but never seen the film. I almost feel I don't need to now.

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 7 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      I saw this wonderful movie, but a very long time ago.

      After reading your beautifully crafted informative hub I will see Hitchcock's "The 39 steps" again, but with fresh eyes.

      You have entertained and informed me, I am going to see that others read it too.

      You're writing ability is exceptional.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks for stopping by and reading! Sorry I missed the play ~ will have to look into that. You will have to let me know what you think of the movie.

    • Kendall H. profile image

      Kendall H. 7 years ago from Northern CA

      I saw the 39 steps play in San Francisco a few months ago and loved it! Now I must see the film after reading your hub. Thanks!

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, Shinkicker! It's one of my favorites too ~ a film-lovers feast. Glad you stopped by.

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 7 years ago from Scotland

      Hi Tracy

      It's one of my favourite Hitchcock films. Great late-night viewing.

      Thanks for the Hub

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks for the compliment. It is always worth it to watch Hitchock again!

    • justmesuzanne profile image

      justmesuzanne 8 years ago from Texas

      Nicely done! I tend to think I have seen all of Hitchcock's films because I saw them when they were new; however, I was very, very young at the time, and they were usually shown at drive-in movies where I was not actually in the car watching the film. I was on the playground! I should probably watch them all again! :)

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks. You will love it! I have seen the film several times and will see it again and again. Let me know what you think when you see it.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 8 years ago from south Florida

      I have seen a number of later Hitchcock movies but not this one, "The 39 Steps." Your summary of the film, tracykarl, is so compelling I'm going to have to look for it now.

      Thank you for an interesting read.


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