To balance this level of fine storytelling, intricate narrative and delicate performance all enwrapped in a full-on chase thriller shows a level of skill that Alfred Hitchcock had never so fully realised in his past films: ‘The 39 Steps’ is his first full-on, undeniable classic.
Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay (a Canadian, although the accent travels around a little – as do others in the film), on the run for a murder he didn’t commit (yay!) and travelling all over the shop to locate a mysterious half-a-finger-missing crime kingpin and ultimately the identity or meaning of ‘The 39 Steps’, finally finding the answer with the superb figure of ‘Mr. Memory’, a music hall entertainer who knows everything and is compelled to tell the truth. On his travels, Hannay comes into contact with a variety of either friendly or hostile individuals. The whole thing is exciting, enthralling and completely entertaining. It’s a road movie before the term existed.
Following a fight breaking out in the musical hall, Hannay whisks back a mysterious woman to his place (Annabella – last name probably Smith, played by Lucie Mannheim). He feels she is slightly odd, asking him to turn a mirror to the wall and not to answer the telephone as she thinks it is for her. It’s an extended scene, drinks followed by food followed by the chaotic attack that results in her demise and his odyssey beginning. This sequence of scenes goes on a while and is very suggestive – she clearly a spy of some sort, Hannay seeming to be a Bond-guy picked up fairly randomly for illicit flirty purposes. He’s a bit coy and doesn’t even remove his overcoat in the scene, obviously playing hard to get. Her death scene, appearing through his bedroom door with the words ‘clear out Hannay, they’ll get you next!’ and then falling to her death on his bed, a knife thrust between her shoulder blades, is pretty cheesy – not a high point in movie death-acting.
But it does the job and spurs Hannay on to leg it – taking a map of Scotland from her dead hand and disguising himself as a milkman to evade the two spy-killers lurking over the road. I wonder if he left an extra pint?
There’s a humorous scene when Hannay is on his escaping train involving two underwear salesmen discussing the very latest in corsetry and bras – before realizing that a priest is also in the carriage. Naughty, but nice.
Donat is superb throughout – he gives a refined performance, one that shows the steely side as well as the tender. He is a man thrown into circumstances beyond his control, trying to work it all out as he goes along. He is utterly believable. There is a beautiful scene where Hannay seeks refuge for a night with a crofter and his wife (the crofter John played by the always great John Laurie [the best thing in the otherwise risible ‘Juno and the Paycock’], the wife Margaret played by Peggy Ashcroft – her accent buying a zone-hopping travelcard into a variety of geographical locations). While the three of them are eating dinner the amount of unspoken communication between them is wonderfully done, Hannay sensing marital tension, the crofter’s wife realising he is in dire trouble and needing help, the crofter himself picking up on all of this and reacting with jealous anger as he spies his shy but wanton wife glancing with intent at the attractive stranger.
She eventually helps Hannay escape as her husband is all too willing to sell him out to the authorities – Lord knows what her fate would be in her marriage to this crazy-eyed fire and brimstone crofter.
A truly lovely scene is where Hannay is forced to appear onstage as a mistaken identity guest political speaker. Donat again manages to convey at once a sense of caught-by-surprise confusion in tandem with a well-acted off the (hand)cuff speech that rouses the crowd into applause and cheers.
I can’t really hear a hint of a Canadian accent here, he just seems to be well spoken BBC English. This brief moment of quietude is broken when he spots Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) – and the chase is on once again.
Pamela, whom Hannay launches a large snog upon on his escape-train in order to throw the cops off their search, is very cool and a classic icy blonde. Later, unwillingly chained to the fugitive Hannay, there’s a very real sexual tension and frisson between them. They pose as a married couple in an overnight inn and face the bizarre conundrum of having to get a night’s sleep whilst manacled together. It’s a beautifully done scene and both actors convincingly portray their hesitation and attraction really well. She (amazingly) manages to slip her hand from the manacles and extricate herself from the slumbering, knackered Hannay (he’s had a bit of a time of it by this point) and sneak from their room – before overhearing a telephone call from the baddies that convinces her he is telling the truth. She then sneaks her way back into the room, unwittingly (oh yes, duvet thieves) pulling the blanket from him as she settles down on the sofa.
Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) – a great invention, actually based on a real life guy called Datas who committed fifty new facts to memory every day – bookends the film, the opening scenes establishing his unique talent and at the end the fatal consequences of total recall. You feel for the poor guy, saddled with this blessing and curse – his life destroyed by Hannay yelling ‘where are the 39 steps?’
Hitch can’t resist the old undercranked camera giving some obviously sped up running policemen at about 37 minutes in – as they chase the equally fast moving Hannay across the highlands.
It’s a bit of a stretch that, when on the run in Scotland, Hannay just so happens to seek refuge in the looming home of the main bad guy – his stunted finger revealing his true identity.
To be honest, I kind of forgave it this as it sweeps you along so well – each scene really does giving birth to the next. Godfrey Tearle* as Professor Jordan (the stunted little fingered man) is smooth, calculating and impressive – offering a revolver to Hannay to commit suicide rather than face either the villains or the cops. It’s bizarre that the Professor’s wife pops in to ask if Hannay is staying for lunch and doesn’t comment a jot on her husband proferring a gun to their guest – must happen all the time in spy circles. The reveal of the missing little finger is a good shock moment and a nice device.
The ultimate payoff will become known as a classic Hitchcockian ‘MacGuffin’ – an intentionally vague plot device that drives the action whilst, at the same time, not being truly definable**.
Honestly? Next time you think there’s nothing on the telly, take a moment and dial up ‘The 39 Steps’ for an elegant and genuinely marvellous experience. Yes –it’s black and white. Yes – it’s really old. But…
There’s no need to recommend ‘The 39 Steps’, it’s your filmic duty to watch it: http://www.archive.org/details/the39steps_ipod
They…have…a….helicopter: in 1935! Well, it’s actually an autogiro – but very good to suddenly bring this sort of technology into a chase movie.
‘I’m glad it’s off my mind at last’ – Mr. Memory’s dying words are poignant and moving – this poor, fragile, cursed and talented man.
Hitchcock pops up @ about 6 mins in as Hannay leaves the music hall with Annabella. Pay attention, it’s one of the most fleeting personal appearances.
*Godfrey Tearle went on to appear in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’ (1942). There is a renowned deleted scene from this movie in which Tearle, as the seasoned veteran airforce man, tells a younger crew member: ‘you don’t know what it’s like to be old’. Powell has written that the concept of old/young-innocence/experience was actually suggested by David Lean (then in his editor phase) who (when chopping the scene from the film), mentioned that the premise of the conversation was worthy of a movie in its own right. And who pops up in said masterpiece ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943)? John Laurie, God love him.
**see that glowing briefcase in ‘Pulp Fiction’.