The 39 Steps (1935): Classic Hitchcock – One Man Against The World

by Paul Batters

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Richard Hannay: Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.
Annabella Smith: That’s exactly what it is. 

Cinema has seen some incredible directors – many of whom have had the term auteur added to their profile. There is no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most influential auteurs – a director whose films remain as masterpieces. The ‘Master Of Suspense’ has been so influential that a number of film historians have given his films their own status as a genre; hence the ‘Hitchcock thriller’.

It becomes difficult to consider the quintessential Hitchcock film and and no less easier to compose a list of ‘must-see’ films. Which should be first viewed? After all, Hitchcock’s work spans an incredible period from the silent era into the 1970s, from British cinema into Hollywood, from black and white to full colour.

However, the film that sees the classic tropes and themes of the Hitchcock film first fully realised, is his 1935 British film The 39 Steps.

The story was drawn from the spy/adventure novel by John Buchan but the final script would look nothing like the book, seeing wholesale changes that suited Hitchcock’s vision, including elements of screwball, expanding Madeleine Carroll’s character into a starring role and introducing the classic Hitchcock plot device – the McGuffin. The film is also one of the first of a number of films that would examine a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s films – the innocent man on the run and against the world. It is this aspect of the film that this essay will focus on.

The superbly cast Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting England, who is introduced to us as a member of a London music hall audience, watching the incredible powers of Mr Memory (Wylie Watson). Here, Hitchcock establishes the everyman hero, a character with which the audience can identify. Most importantly, the character of Richard Hannay becomes the vehicle by which we experience the story and Hitchcock establishes a character in which our faith is wholly placed. His innocence is beyond question and we identify with him, because of his individuality whilst still being outside the class system (despite the obvious accent) being declared a ‘gentleman’ in spite of his being Canadian. Additionally, as the film progresses, we never find anything about Hannay’s background and he remains a ‘mystery’ aside from what is learned as the story initially unfolds; he’s a Canadian visiting England, unmarried and not connected to anyone. 

Thus, through some subtle yet crucial masterstrokes, Hitchcock shapes the innocent man, who world is about to turn inside out and find himself pitted against the world around him. But it is also the panache and charisma of Robert Donat, that we want to identify with; much like Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s later films, again playing the innocent man on the run.

Mr Memory’s performance and the theme music accompanying his entrance is on the surface a seemingly just an introduction to the story. But it will be a crucial keystone to the structure of the mystery and as William Rothman points out in ‘Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze”’ ‘the poignancy of the film’s ending … requires that we be distracted from recollecting Mr Memory until Hannay himself remembers him’. As we, along with Hannay, enjoy the performance, it soon becomes interrupted by a fight but an even more frightening moment occurs when a gunshot sends everyone into a panic and out into the street. During the chaos, a woman becomes intertwined with Hannay in the crowd and when they reach the safety of the street, she asks to come home with him. The interaction is highly suggestive and Hannay seems happy to bring her home, quipping with incredible irony, ‘Well, it’s your funeral’. Unbeknownst to either of them, it will prove a dark and ominous statement.

The woman, who calls herself ‘Annabella Smith’ (Lucie Mannheim) is willing to exchange sexual favours for safety and upon returning to Hannay’s flat, her initial sensual overtones turn to nervousness at every noise. Whilst Hannay humours her and her ‘delusion’, to the point of cooking her something to eat as she begins telling her situation – of a government secret being taken out of the country by a spy, part of a group called the 39 Steps, and given to a foreign power.

Hannay plays along but the story becomes a reality and Annabella’s burden becomes his when she stumbles into his room with a knife in her back. And so the story begins, where Hannay is suddenly thrown into a nightmare. As William Hare illustrates in ‘Hitchcock And The Master of Suspense’, Hannay has two objectives; one, to stay alive in a rising tide of ruthless efforts to kill him because of what he came to know through sheer accident, and two, to learn all he can about the forces out to get him and resolve the mystery by turning the tables on his pursuers. Therein lies the predicament of the innocent man on the run, facing a world that does not believe his story and where there is no one to turn to for help.

What follows is a tense journey as Hannay uses the only clue he has – a map with a circle around the town of Alt-na-Shellach, a village in the Scottish Highlands, where he must track down the man who Annabella was speaking of before she was murdered. Hannay knows nothing of the man, except that he is missing the tip of his smallest finger.

The journey is fraught with tension and excitement, as well as some well-placed humour, as he travels by train to Scotland before traversing the moors. Hannay’s isolation and loneliness is perfectly captured by the camera in these sequences – the wide-open spaces leave him exposed with nowhere to hide, creating a sense of open-space claustrophobia. Always open to attack, Hannay from the moment his nightmare begins finds himself constantly solving problems on the fly. Every situation he faces has been placed as some sort of trap, which if not traversed will seal his doom. What makes it interesting is the solution that Hannay has to come up with. Very quickly, he realises that the truth won’t save him – Hannay needs to ‘play a role’ and invent some story to avoid capture by the authorities or his villainous pursuers. When fleeing his apartment, his truthful revelation to the milkman doing his rounds whilst asking for help is scoffed at. However, he quickly realises that like Annabella, he will need to assume identities in order to survive and he quickly invents a lascivious tale, which the milkman accepts as the truth. Hannay learns one of the key lessons to his survival.

His train journey also meets with desperate measures and fast thinking. By the time he reaches Scotland, the police are checking the train and his attempts to seek help from the beautiful Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) come to nothing. She gives him up but Hannay manages to escape in a dramatic and death-defying manner to make his way across the Moors.

Whilst not wishing to outline the story and spoil the fun for first time viewers, it is worth mentioning some important steps in the story. On his journey to Scotland, he stays overnight with a farmer (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft), whom mistakes for the farmer’s daughter – naturally evoking the farmer’s malcontent. As occurs in more than a few moments in the film, Hitchcock is certainly playing with the concept of marriage. In another fashion, the young wife is like Hannay trapped in a loveless and isolated marriage to a miserable man and the short but strong interaction between her and Hannay is one that is innocent yet certainly punctuated by feelings of romance and lost opportunities for the young wife. She is also the only one that accepts Hannay’s truth and goes out of the way to help him as best she can. Her seemingly limited help of giving her husband’s coat will later prove life saving for Hannay.

Hannay finally encounters the man he needs to see, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) – a respected man in the area who gives him refuge. But as in all things Hitchcock, he is, as the Professor describes himself, ‘not all I seem’. Hannay realises he is trapped and responds grimly to the Professor’s apology for ‘leading him down the garden path’ to which Hannay says ‘it’s certainly the wrong garden’. If the Hitchcock thriller is anything, it is not a simple and straightforward thriller and like Hannay, the audience has been led down the garden path as well.

Hannay’s journey is far from over but he has found out far more than he bargained for and an eventual escape leads him into of all things, a political meeting. Being mistaken for the guest speaker, Hannay delivers what is an impassioned and memorable speech calling for a better world. More so, he elicits from the audience the universal feeling of isolation when he emphatically declares, ‘ and I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel’. An audience just out of the worse years of the Great Depression would certainly have been touched by these words. The dour crowd is energised and despite again playing a role for survival, Hannay’s call for a better world is certainly tinged with the reality of his situation and an underlying concern from Hitchcock regarding the world of 1935, which had seen the rise of fascism, the Nazis and the tensions leading to World War Two.

Here, Hannay is stunned when during his speech, Pamela walks in and she is equally stunned to see him. Again, she refuses to believe his story and the Professor’s men posing as detectives take them both for questioning. However, here the story takes a turn into screwball, at least primarily in the relationship between Hannay and Pamela. Pamela’s cold distrust and wariness turns into irritation then grudging acceptance of his innocence and finally – love. The dialogue and timing between them is perfect and the chemistry between the two magnificent. Donat’s charisma and charm melds with Carroll’s exquisite beauty and talent for comedy, for a duo that finally works towards the goal of unfurling the mystery.

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Much has been written about Madeleine Carroll fitting and/or forming the cool ice-blonde woman that figured in most of Hitchcock’s films from here on. Like those other women, as pointed out by Roger Ebert, Pamela too would go through humiliation and suffering. When the faux detectives take the two, they are handcuffed together and Pamela is dragged around by Hannay in his escape, half-drowned in cold water and bullied by Hannay, who pretends to be the murderer she believes him to be. However, their arrival at an inn and the scene that follows combines all the classic elements of screwball a la It Happened One Night, whilst remaining totally original, perfectly crafted and relevant to the story and an absolute treasure to watch. Later when she discovers the truth, the musical accompaniment and warmth of her smile, ties together for Pamela everything that Hannay has gone through. Hitchcock was canny enough to prepare the two for their screen relationship by cuffing them together during their first meeting and pretending to lose the key. As the hours drew out, both Donat and Carroll not only got past initial politeness and mild irritation but also used the opportunity to get to know each other. Hitchcock certainly drew on their experience and used this on the screen to masterful effect.

Pamela plays a fundamental role in Hannay’s experience from our gaze as the audience. Before her personal revelation that Hannay is an innocent man speaking the truth about a dangerous spy, she believes him dangerous and like Hannay, we are incredulous that he is not believed. He literally bristles with frustration for us and all his protestations fall on deaf ears. She does eventually thaw (evocation of the ice blonde) and our joy in her acceptance and warmth to him becomes twofold; we enjoy seeing her acceptance, not as an audience wanting the two to come together but also through our identification with Hannay that he is final believed. The innocent man pursued and persecuted has an ally but there is hope in the fabric of how this story has been weaved.

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What draws us to Hannay, aside from the outstanding performance he gives us and our identification with him, is that he possesses an incredible spontaneity, which serves him amazingly well in his double/combined quest of survival by absolving himself and revealing the villains. As William Hare correctly states, he pieces everything together on the spur of the moment, with an amazing ‘creative intelligence’. Hannay, of course, is constantly haunted by Annabella’s words of which some come to full realisation as his understanding unfolds along the way. Daniel Srebnicki’s 2004 essay points out that Hannay’s incessant whistling of Mr Memory’s theme music not only annoys Pamela but Hannay as well, whose frustration turns to abject joy when the full discovery of the truth is made in the finale. It is the perfect link and full coming of circle from the first scene in the film. Yet even then, Hannay needs to push the limit, testing the situation with the crucial and fundamental question to reveal the truth and seek full vindication. ‘Solving the riddle’ is not enough as far more is at stake.

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The 39 Steps is Hitchcock at his finest prior to his career shifting full gear into Hollywood. It is a film where the audience enjoys the freedom of ‘filling in the blanks’ as Hare puts it and we enjoy some of the masterful tools that Hitchcock gainfully used for the first time such as the McGuffin, the ice blonde woman, the chase for freedom and vindication and particularly the innocent man against world. James Naremore believes that Hannay is a character placed in all kinds of public situations where he has to put on an act – this Donat is acting within the acting on screen (no mean feat!). Furthermore, the tone veers from screwball to melodramatic danger to perverse anxiety, without missing a beat or losing itself in any way. It is held together by Hitchcock’s brilliance but also by brilliant performances, tight pacing and a fine-tuned script. Donat as the innocent Hannay caught in a web of intrigue is perhaps one of cinema’s finest performances. Charles Laughton would call Donat one of the most brilliant actors he had ever seen and his incredible naturalness in the role is such a joy to behold. Naremore adds that ‘dark humour mingles with sexual innuendo and utopian romance, and the movement between these modes is often treated like a dialectical montage’. Indeed, it could only be so by the design of cinematic tools of the trade, used by masters of their craft. Interestingly, according to biographer J. C Trewin, Donat would declare his time on the set of The 39 Steps as some of the happiest moments of his career.

Perhaps Richard Hannay could be described as the patron saint of the innocent man on the run, at least in the Hitchcock universe. Certainly it would become a powerful and central theme that Hitchcock would re-visit albeit with a different actor e.g. Cary Grant, who also had charisma and screen presence and a persona whom audiences were happy to identify with. We can all find ourselves in the persona of Richard Hannay, finding ourselves in life situations that challenge us to make it through, find our way and come out the end as survivors. No wonder films like The 39 Steps and the themes they examine, never lose their impact.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2018

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.