The 39 Steps-1935
Starring-Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Scott’s Review #1,212
Reviewed December 26, 2021
Before Alfred Hitchcock conquered American audiences in the 1950s and 1960s he made a slew of British films many of which are overlooked gems. The 39 Steps (1935) is a film nestled among that category, providing thrilling escapism and a spy-tinged subject matter that has an everyman on the run.
The plot pattern is very familiar because Hitchcock would use it later in his American films like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and The Wrong Man (1956) to name only two.
Rather than any sort of carbon copy The 39 Steps instead is a pure delight for any fan of Hitchcock because the viewer can see facets and ideas the director would later bestow on his other films. There is enough originality though to please anyone looking for a good thrill.
It is very loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
The story centers on Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian civilian on holiday in London. He unintentionally becomes involved in preventing an organization of spies nicknamed “The 39 Steps” from stealing British military secrets.
After being mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Richard flees to Scotland and becomes tangled up with an attractive woman named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name.
It’s a simple story but one that immediately compels the viewer to root for Richard since we know he is innocent. Perhaps he can find a bit of romance along the way with Pamela and stop the bad guys in the process. So there is little ambiguity with how the story is supposed to wind up.
The fun is getting there.
Assuming this isn’t one’s first time watching a Hitchcock film and nearing a hundred years since The 39 Steps was made I sincerely doubt it, there are oodles of sequences to enjoy. If one asks “does this scene seem familiar?” it is because many of them are.
The London music hall theatre and the London Palladium brim with recognition especially after a catchy tune that Richard cannot forget come into play. It’s too easy not to think of Doris Day’s hit “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”, featured as a key element of The Man Who Knew Too Much, or even the London setting itself.
To switch for a moment to another Hitchcock masterpiece, North by Northwest (1959), the frequent dashing across the lands by foot or by locomotion comes into play in a big way in The 39 Steps.
I loathe spending too much time with comparisons because The 39 Steps delivers some goods on its own merits. The action that takes place in the Scottish Highlands is fantastic and a treat for anyone who has been to the lovely and picturesque area. And the daring trip that Richard takes aboard the Flying Scotsman expresses train to Scotland is compelling adventure personified.
The chemistry between Richard and Pamela is decent but not great. It’s not the focal point of the film so I didn’t necessarily mind that. The clear intent was for her to first fear him but then have the characters fall in love. We never really get there but it seems the intent.
The main villain is Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) who Richard tries to prevent from sending secrets out of the country.
Sure, there are better quality Alfred Hitchcock films to bask in once he got his groove decades later and one can assuredly boast that Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) are superior films. But The 39 Steps (1935) is a blueprint of what brilliance the director had in his head at this time and it’s a pure treat to witness.