The Red House (1947): A Classic Of American Gothic

by Paul Batters

‘Did you ever run away from the scream? You can’t. It will follow you through the woods. It will follow you all of your life’. Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson)

Cinema is filled with films that are celebrated and considered as timeless classics. Many are deserving of such celebration, yet there are many (at least in the opinion of this reviewer) which are not so deserving. More to the point, there are too many films that stand in the shadows and go unnoticed or unheralded. These unhidden classics need to be brought out into the light and celebrated. They are not always conventional and may even be unpolished and raw, yet that gives them an authenticity and value that makes them classics. Delmer Daves The Red House (1947) is one of those ‘hidden classics’ that deserves to be honoured.

The Red House has been described as noir although it is perhaps closer to the mark being described as a ‘horror film. Yet my contention is that this cinematic gem is a classic of American Gothic. The film’s strength lies in its unique approach to the conventions of the Gothic genre, conveyed through brilliant cinematography and delivered by a solid cast, underpinned by Miklos Rozsa’s musical score. Ultimately, it is a thriller where the audience is torn between the possibilities of the supernatural and the powers of suggestion. This Lewtonesque approach melds beautifully with the storyline and, like the protagonists in the story, we are led through winding trails in the woods trying to discover what the truth is.

Dawes transforms George Agnew Chamberlain’s 1943 novel of the same into a tale which perfectly traverses rural Americana with traditional Gothic tropes, in a fresh and interesting way avoiding cliches that would often turn up in far more celebrated Gothic films. Dawes establishes this in the opening scene, where the narrator describes an idyllic American farming community, where the farmers raise ‘good apples’ in ‘fine soil’ – a beautiful metaphor for the young people, who are a ‘healthy lot…where the girls don’t come prettier anyplace’. The wholesomeness of this salt-of-the-earth farming community, however, also contains a deeper secret. The mystery is already suggested by the ominous presence of Ox-Head Woods, where civilisation has yet to penetrate, with its deep, dark woods criss-crossed by broken trails leading to nowhere. Immediately, the audience is placed on a trail which will symbolically lead into a darker mystery.

The Morgan farm is described as having ‘the allure of a walled-castle…which few have entered’ accessed only by one road. Even in a rural America of farms, warm sun and the film’s focus on youth, the link to classic Gothic themes is beautifully linked. The symbolism of the Morgan farm as secluded and distant from the rest of society, suggests secrets, family trauma, tragedy and hidden tales. Here live Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson) with their adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). They are ‘self-sufficient’ with little need to interact with the outside world, ‘content with how things are’ and no need for outsiders to ‘spoil things’. Pete has a wooden leg from an old accident which also reveals a sub-plot involving Ellen and her unfulfilled love for the valley doctor who helped Pete when he lost it. Meg loves her adopted parents and she doesn’t question how she came to be adopted. She loves Nath (Leo McCallister) who much to Meg’s dismay is going steady with Tibby (Julie London). Dawes will take this seemingly simple orientation immediately into darker Gothic thematic concerns and build tension with a deft hand. 

Dawes also touches on subjects which the Code must have shuddered at and yet incredibly still find their way onto the screen. Teenage sexuality and relationships are both more than overtly looked at and indeed become a central theme connected to the storyline.  From the opening scene on the school bus, Nath is told by Tibby to bring his swimming trunks to their ‘swimming date’ so they can ‘change at the reservoir, just the two of us’. Next to them, the shy, innocent and pretty Meg sits disappointed but silent, knowing full-well what is being suggested. It becomes clear that Meg loves Nath but it is a love from afar and she says nothing as she treasures their friendship. 

But Meg’s love and affection for Nath reveals something darker in Pete Morgan that the audience recognises goes beyond the normal concerns of a father or guardian. When Meg begs Pete to give Nath a job on the farm, Pete gives in to Meg because he could ‘never turn her down’. All seems friendly enough after a hard day’s work as Nath sits with the Morgans for supper but as he’s about to leave for home, Nath mentions taking a shortcut through the Ox-Head Woods. Suddenly, Pete’s manner changes and he argues with Nath that it would be foolish to take that shortcut. Nath ignores Pete’s pleading which becomes more frantic. As Nath steps out into the night, the howling wind and darkness barely drowns out Pete’s near-mad rantings of the ‘screams in the night’ from the ‘red house’. The complexity of Pete’s deep psychological pathology emerge in waves of panic and near-madness, revealing his fears as he calls out ‘did you ever run away from a scream?’ As Nath disappears into the night, across the wind-swept fields, Pete goes back inside looking near-mad, eyes wide as he mutters away to his sister and himself. Ellen knowingly looks on but Meg is confused as well as afraid. Here, Dawes takes a brilliant turn into the fine line between supernatural and human fear, as Nath becomes scared and disoriented in the Ox-Head Woods. Is there some supernatural force conjured up the wind? Or is his own primeval fears fuelled by Pete’s rantings? Are the screams coming from some terrible presence in the woods? Or the result of the wind in the trees accentuated by a highly charged imagination? What does the red house have to do with all of this? At any rate, terror overcomes Nath, who makes his way back to the farm. Pete seems to regather his wits and dominance, his fears and concerns abated by Nath’s return and his secret therefore safe for the meantime.

Nath is the boy Meg loves and he will become the agent of change for not only Meg but the Morgan household. Like a lord who dominates his estate and sits all-powerful in his castle without question, Pete sees Nath as the great outside threat to his power and hold over Meg. Nath is a young boy becoming a young man, wanting to assert himself. Pete blames Nath for Meg’s change but as Ellen points out to her brother, Meg is growing up and has a right to her own life. She will begin to ask questions which emerge after the first fateful night, and as any teenager on the cusp of adulthood, will seek her own autonomy. This will also push Pete over the edge, as she disobeys his demands that she not ask questions. Nath and Meg will both seek out the red house, seeking answers to deeper questions which for Meg will reveal far deeper truths than she anticipated. In their quest, they will grow even closer together. Pete uses all manner of means to pull Meg closer to him and drive Nath apart from her, from giving gifts to Meg and even threatening her, as well as doing what he can to encourage Nath and Tibby’s romance. Pete will go so far as use Teller (Rory Calhoun), the local no-account school drop-out to inflict violence and keep Nath (and Meg) out of the Ox-Head Woods. It seems that Pete will stop at nothing to hold onto Meg.

Pete’s jealousy will not only border on the incestuous but almost cross it, enough for the kind Ellen Morgan to ask Meg if Pete has ever touched her. Pete’s now tender grip on reality will see him calling Meg another name which Meg seems to recognise but is unsure where to place. In one disturbing and alarming scene, the audience watches Pete standing at the lake’s edge on a small pier watching Meg swimming. As she approaches with an innocent smile to the edge, Pete stands suggestively over her, looking at her strangely and calling her ‘Jeanie’. Meg is obviously scared and disturbed, as she is also vulnerable in her swimsuit. Later, as Meg is in her bed at night, Pete will come into the room and stand at the doorway calling her Jeannie. Again, the dark secret and mystery that underpins Pete’s growing madness is a long-repressed truth which is too big to be hidden for much longer. The red house becomes the powerful focal point for that truth and Nath and Meg’s search for it will enrage Pete.

The terrible secret is not one which only haunts Pete, as Ellen has sacrificed her own happiness to try and protect the people she loves and cares for. The rumours and gossip about the ‘mysterious Morgans’ perhaps also asks the question about the relationship between brother and sister, and if something more is going on. Long-suffering Ellen tries everything to convince Pete that he needs to let Meg live her life and save him from his madness but it is all to no avail, as Pete descends further and deeper into the chasm. The lesson that Ellen tries imparting, that everyone has their Ox-Head Woods, falls on deaf ears. The darker Gothic overtones of seclusion, growing madness and the oppressed sexuality channelled into darker outlets all emerge in The Red House. 

The climax is still powerful high drama, even if the audience has put most of the puzzle’s pieces together. The red house itself becomes more than a symbolic focus for Pete’s madness or Meg’s search for truth. In the red house itself, all will finally be revealed as history is repeated in the ruins of the old house and the mystery finally see its denouement. 

The cast of The Red House is solid and the younger cast who hold a fair amount of the screen time do a commendable job. Leo McCallister does well as the farm boy and he has some solid mo ments on the screen. Allene Roberts, in her film debut, is particularly interesting as Meg, who is reminiscent of the kind of roles sometimes taken by Cathy O’Donnell or Teresa Wright. Conveying an ‘innocent beauty’, with her slightly breathless voice, Roberts carries the role with an unexpected strength. Julie London, also in her film debut, is incredibly sensual as Nate’s girlfriend and smoulders with her suggestive glances and claims that she is ‘already a woman’ after excitement and adventure beyond the valley. Whilst initially looking down her nose at Teller, she is also excited by him. The earliest screen encounter when Tibby gets off the school bus shows Teller waiting for her, looking like a proto-50s rocker with his tough stance and long rifle pointing at her, with obvious Freudian overtone. Teller smiles lecherously telling Tibby that he’s ‘learned plenty of things they don’t teach in school’ which scares her but also entices her, betrayed by her backward glance at him. Eventually, Teller’s prophecy that when Tibby ‘decide(s) on a man, you come to me’, will prove correct and see Nath rejected by Tibby. Rory Calhoun takes on a minor role as a plot device to drive the story and does enough with it as the bad boy who will lead Tibby into trouble. 

Of course, Robinson and Anderson are the veterans who bring their superb skills to the fore. Dame Judith Anderson supports the story with her usual depth and gives room for everyone else to deliver their performance. But for this reviewer, Robinson gives one of his finest performances and is evidence for The Red House as a hidden classic. He never chews the scenery and tempers the character’s descent into madness with well-timed fits and starts that mesh perfectly with the psychological decline of the character as well as the plot. He seems to have a permanent weight on his shoulders befitting Morgan’s tortured soul. He uses not only physical movement beautifully but expresses emotion through facial expression and even voice, lurching between his character’s love for Meg, the desperation to keep his madness in control and the defeat when it overwhelms him completely. 

The Red House is wrongly described by some as a ‘haunted house’ story, but it certainly is one of a man who is haunted; by his past crimes, by the pain of unrequited or ‘stolen’ love and the terrifying and twisted love he feels towards the young girl in his care. In essence, it is a pure Gothic tale of secrets which would tear all down around them if revealed, as well as free those bound by them. In the climax of the film, Pete himself asks that he could be free of the screams as his ‘castle’ collapses around him. It will mean final peace for his tortured spirit. But it will also mean that Meg finds her questions answered and she takes a step into a future no longer determined by Pete or the terrible secret which has them all prisoners of the past. 

The Red House has suffered from the unavailability of a decent print for years, as well as its presence in the public domain meaning cheap VHS and DVD releases or compilations with B-features. As it is in the public domain, it has also been available online as well. As a result, it is easy to dismiss it as a B-feature and one to be overlooked. Yet it deserves far greater attention. It was a ‘sleeper hit’ upon its release and received solid notice. Dawes’s direction is tight, even if there is a little fat that could use some trimming, and its unique as an American rural Gothic tale. More to the point, The Red House is an American hidden classic which deserves its’ place in the pantheon of films from the classic era. 

This article is an entry in the Hidden Classics Blogathon run by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please click onto the link to read other wonderful entries!

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.

Dirty Harry (1971): Clint Eastwood As The Iconic Cop

by Paul Batters


‘Now you know why they call me Dirty Harry…every dirty job that comes along’  Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood)

The depiction of the police on film is one that courts controversy and can rarely placate all and sundry in an audience. Certainly, the depiction of law enforcement has changed dramatically since the days of Breen Code but societal values and perceptions have also played an important role. Until the 1960s, the police on film were rarely depicted in a negative light and if there was corruption, it was only one or two bad apples not the police institution itself.

Yet the 1960s saw wholesale changes, with the collapse of the studio system, the new wave of film-makers and the obliteration of the Code. But perhaps most importantly, the 1960s was a time of change, challenging the status quo, Civil Rights, the anti-war movement and the birth and growth of the counter-cultural movement. For the first time, popular culture challenged traditional power and authority and the revelations of the time (Nixon, Watergate, assassinations of leaders, the Vietnam War) meant that people would never trust power and authority in the way they always had ever again.

But it was also a time of conservative backlash and a strong response to the perceived collapse of law and order. Nixon was elected to power, as Noel Murray points out, and reactionary politics was in the culture – think All In The Family and the film Joe (1970). Both spoke to the same platform that Nixon claimed; the silent majority who were tired of dirty hippies, long-hairs and smart-ass university types telling them how to live and what direction the country should go in.

Which is why Dirty Harry is both an anomaly and an understandable statement of its time.


Roger Ebert’s own review back in 1971 opened with a fascinating overview of criticism of the film being labelled ‘fascist’. He opines that the term had been overused and ‘best confined to a literal meaning’ rather than being used to label anything that is undesirable. In the context of the late 1960s/early 1970s, this is a fairly astute viewpoint, particularly as Ebert goes on to declare that the use of the term ‘fascist’ to describe Dirty Harry is actually quite justifiable. And there’s plenty of evidence in the film to fuel this criticism.

Directed by Don Siegel and released in 1971, Dirty Harry would be one of the highest grossing films of 1971. It would also assure Clint Eastwood as one of the top stars in Hollywood, with his directorial debut in Play Misty For Me already in the can and only just being released a couple of months earlier, also playing its’ part in assuring Eastwood’s currency in Hollywood. Emmanuel Levy points out that it outraged many liberals when it was released and you can see why.

Clint Eastwood plays Harry Callahan, a San Francisco cop who is after a dangerous psychopath named Scorpio (Andy Robinson). With an obvious nod to the real-life Zodiac killer, Scorpio taunts the SFPD that he will kill more unless his demands are met. From the get-go, the audience discovers that Callahan is not your average cop. Despite his dedication to the job, he has little regard for the authorities despite being a cop working to stamp his authority on the street. His first interaction with the Mayor (John Vernon) is both humorous and brazen in its feelings towards those in higher office. Indeed, it sets the tone for the zeitgeist of the times; a lack of respect or trust in authority. But it also establishes how Callahan deals with perps – and his ‘policy’ is direct and to the point:

Callahan runs his own show and the audience also discovers that he gets into trouble for crossing over the line. Yet his calm demeanour, perfect one-liners and fondness for his .44 Magnum create a persona that would permeate into many future roles for Eastwood. His character’s proclivity to use all three is discovered early in the film, when he deals with an attempted armed bank robbery.

His lack of desire to work with a new rookie partner, Inspector Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), further suggests the ‘lone wolf’ who prefers to work alone without limitations and thus more effectively by his reckoning. Callahan cannot help but gently mock his new partner’s university education, further reflecting the right-wing ideology that critics suggested permeated throughout the film. But he has no choice, as ordered by his direct superior Lt. Bressler (Harry Guardino), and they embark on the search for Scorpio. Chico also discovers early on why Harry has the reputation that he does.

Initially, there’s a humorous ‘wrong number’ when they track the wrong guy and Chico jokes now he knows why he’s called ‘Dirty’ Harry. Even Eastwood is stumped for a retort.But things get serious and tragic when a 10 year old African-American boy is shot in the face by Scorpio, meeting his earlier evil prophecy in his letter to the SFPD that he will shoot a ‘Catholic priest or a n…..”. As  Callahan correctly surmises, the next victim could very well be a priest as Scorpio ‘may think he owes himself a padre’ and they set up an operation to get their man during a late night Novena at a Catholic Church. The operation does not go to plan and a cop going undercover as the priest gets killed. Not only does the killings heighten the sense of tension and terror but the desire for Callahan to finally get Scorpio. It’s a perfect emotional manipulation of the audience by Siegel and has become part and parcel of ‘law and order’ films ever since.

The use of dark humour and Callahan’s seemingly casual demeanour in dealing with problems is perhaps a facade for his coping mechanism. Take in point the ‘suicide scene’ where he has to deal with a jumper that is first mistaken for Scorpio. Whilst he handles the jumper with casual indifference, it’s a ply to get him down but his face is tired and his voice loaded with cynicism, betraying the truth behind the facade. Later, when he is speaking to Chico’s wife, she asks ‘why do you do it?’ and Callahan can only respond that he really doesn’t know.  The two moments link as evidence that Harry Callahan is a man who is tired and jaded with the whole of society and the damned institutions that run it.

Finally, Scorpio abducts a teenage girl and threatens all manner of horrors if his demands are not met. To show his intent, he includes in a package sent with a letter of his demands, the girl’s panties, a lock of hair and a tooth pulled out with pliers. Callahan believes she’s probably dead but agrees to be the bagman taking a bag filled with money to Scorpio, in the hope that the girl will be saved. What follows is a cat and mouse game where Scorpio sends Callahan all over town, from phone box to phone box until the final confrontation in the city park at night. Of course on the way there, there’s a dash of homophobic reference thrown in for good measure when Callahan comes across ‘Alice’ who will ‘do anything for a dare’.

The masked Scorpio meets with  Callahan, who forces him to disarm and give him the bag of money, after which Scorpio brutally beats him. But Chico has been following and after a gunfight, Scorpio gives an animalistic and terrifying howl as Callahan plunges a hidden switchblade deep into Scorpio’s thigh. Scorpio gets away but is injured, as is Chico in the exchange of gunfire.

The following scene is perhaps the most infamous in the film, where Callahan tracks Scorpio down to a football stadium. The arrogant Scorpio is now a simpering coward, begging for mercy but Callahan will not relent. Repeating over and over in tears ‘I have rights, I want a lawyer…’, Callahan demands to know where the girl is and begins to torture Scorpio by standing on his badly injured leg as he points his gun at him. The camera, obviously placed on a helicopter, hovers back into the blackness as Scorpio’s howls fade out as well into the backdrop of the city at night. It’s a jarring and terrifying scene  and one of the most memorable.

It feels like the story has come to an end. As the sun rises, a tired and hurting Callahan watched from afar as the missing girl’s dead naked body is pulled out from a grave. The sombre music reflects everyone’s mood and it’s also a Pyrrhic victory for Harry Callahan.

Here the shift to audience outrage takes form as Callahan is informed that Scorpio will walk because his rights have been violated, including key Amendments in the Constitution, as well as the Miranda and Escobedo rulings. It touched a raw nerve with audiences in an America torn by civil strife and riots, as well as the fear and terror of urban decay and the proliferation of the serial killer (in all manner of forms – here manifested in all those forms by Scorpio). In the D.A’s office, Callahan’s incredulity and anger mirrors an audience who, like Callahan are also ‘all broken up about (Scorpio’s) rights’. Callahan declares that ‘the law’s crazy’ and also assures that he will stay on Scorpio’s tail (no pun intended by this reviewer).

Callahan starts following Scorpio, whose wearing of a twisted peace sign as a belt buckle as he stares at kids in a playground, is highly suggestive of a constant underlying tone in the film; that America’s failings are a result of bleeding heart liberals whose progressive ideas are causing its’ societal and political woes. Now if only the police could do their job without being held back by ridiculous laws seems to be the sentiment.

The eventual showdown will results after Scorpio hijacks a school bus and takes the children hostage. It is a terrifyingly cruel scene as Scorpio manically terrorises the children on the bus. Somehow, Callahan is on the ready and as the bus goes under an overpass, he leaps onto the bus and makes chase after the bus comes to a halt.

WARNING! Be prepared for spoilers!

As Callahan chases Scorpio through a processing mill, the psychopathic killer comes across a boy fishing at a nearby pond and uses him as a human shield. It seems there’s nothing Callahan can do. But with all the flash and cool that he possesses, Callahan wounds Scorpio with a lightning fast shot, freeing the boy who runs away and leaving the two to face each other. It’s what the audience has been waiting for, with the coup de grace yet to come.

Callahan repeats with controlled aggression, the now famous line he used at the start of the film with the failed bank robber. This time – Scorpio will test his luck and Callahan blasts him to kingdom come.

In the background, a faint police siren can be heard and it’s easy to imagine what Callahan is thinking – why do I need to justify my actions against this maniac? His disgust can be felt as he holsters his weapon, looks into the distance and takes out his badge. A moment’s pause sees him throw into the water and then the credits begin to roll. According to Peter van Gelder, Eastwood was not too keen to toss the badge, seeing it as a gesture of abdication. But Siegel made him see that it was more an act of protest and disgust than anything else.

Legendary critics like Ebert called the film ‘morally fascist’, as did Pauline Kael. But Kael adds an important assessment of the film:

“It’s hard to resist, because the most skilful suspense techniques are used on very primitive emotional levels…You have but one desire: to see the maniac get it so it hurts”. 

And there’s the rub. Whatever elements of fascism one wishes to find, it’s impossible to deny that it’s a damn good cop thriller and perhaps one of the best. Noel Murray puts it perfectly:

“Thanks to Siegel’s lean direction and Eastwood’s cooly laconic lead performance, Dirty Harry’s vision of a world gone mad is effective enough to make even a card-carrying ACLU member cheer for Harry’s vengeance”.

Siegel keeps the film tight and any fat has been trimmed off to keep the story moving and the dialogue drives the story without wasting words. As a director, Siegel has an instinct for pacing and it’s what makes the film such a solid thriller as much as a cop film. Interestingly enough, for all the charges of fascism, Siegel declared himself to be very much a left-leaning liberal who just wanted to make a commercially successful cop-thriller. Despite speculation that both Siegel and right-wing Eastwood must have clashed on the film, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Both were aiming to make a successful film and ultimately as Siegel stated, his making a film about a ‘hard-nosed cop doesn’t mean I condone hard-nosed cops’.

Many of the tropes we find in later cop films and even vigilante-type stories such as the Death Wish series find their origins in Dirty Harry, particularly when it comes to the bad guy. Whilst Scorpio is without a doubt based on the real-life Zodiac Killer who plagued California during the same period of time, Scorpio does incorporate characteristics of numerous psycho-types that would terrify anyone. Andy Robinson is perhaps one of the most disturbing creeps ever brought to the screen and time has not diminished his outstanding performance. By all reports, Robinson struggled with key aspects of the performance, particularly in two areas – the use of guns (which he personally hated and needed intensive training with) and the school bus scene. According to Peter van Gelder, Robinson could not stomach the violent cruelty he was supposed to dish out to the children and only relented when Siegel himself started dishing it out, just to get the scene over and done with. If Robinson was struggling with it, there’s a challenge to spot it because it’s one of the most disturbing and manic moments in the film and difficult to watch.


Eastwood was not the first choice for the role but he turned out to be the best. Like the lone gunman or the man with no name, Harry Callahan stands alone in the SFPD and in the pantheon of cops on film. The role would deliver a franchise of successful films, with Sudden Impact (1983) perhaps being the most successful. But the original is still the best and whatever one thinks of the film’s politics, it is impossible to deny it’s one of the greatest cop films ever made.

This article is an entry into the 2019 Cops Blogathon kindly hosted by Dubism. Many thanks for letting me take part! To all readers and visitors, please click on the above link for more great articles!

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.

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

by Paul Batters


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.


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.


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.


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.