Hitchcock on the set with a handcuffed Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat
THE 39 STEPS A
Great Britain (86 mi) 1935 d: Alfred Hitchcock
There are twenty million women in this island and I’ve got to be chained to you.
—Richard Hannay (Robert Donat)
While certainly one of the more entertaining, critically praised, and commercially successful films of the early Hitchcock period, this was a huge hit in Britain and the first Hitchcock movie to make an impact in America, capturing the attention of producer David O. Selznick who eventually brought him to work in America. Coming during Hitchcock’s series of politically themed spy thrillers beginning with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) through The Lady Vanishes (1938), all set in a backdrop of contemporary European politics during the build-up to war, this one served as a model for several of his later romantic espionage thrillers, most notably NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). The film also returns to the theatrical setting of his first feature, The Pleasure Garden (1925), opening with a vaudeville show in an unnamed music hall and closing at the London Palladium, where the film in between serves as a kind of evening feature attraction, linking the working class audience of the first, where beer is served on the side of the auditorium to patrons watching the show, to the more respectable establishment for the middle class. Adapted from a 1915 novel by John Buchan, much of the film’s success must be credited to screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hitchcock’s uncredited wife, Alma Reville, who had a hand in nearly every 30’s Hitchcock script, as the film is a masterwork of compression, literally stuffed full of great characters and memorable sequences, where the protagonist jumps from one close call to another, always moving at an accelerated pace, where one of the special Hitchcock flourishes is a perfectly timed shot of an onrushing locomotive train whistle coinciding with a woman opening her mouth to scream. Not lost on Hitchcock was the success of Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), a story of bickering mismatched lovers on the road, which came away with five Academy Awards, while making a fortune at the box office. Fusing screwball comedy with the spy thriller genre, Richard Hannay, Robert Donat, who won an Academy Award as Best Actor for GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1939), spends about a third of the film handcuffed to the chic, cool, and ultra sophisticated blond Pamela, Madeleine Carroll, who thinks he’s a murderer. Carroll was the highest paid actress in the world in 1938, earning a whopping $250,000. At one time married to Sterling Hayden during the war years, she abandoned her career when her sister was killed during the WWII London Blitz and dedicated her life to helping wounded children and servicemen, where she never regained the same success afterwards.
Hitchcock seems to be paying tribute to cinema history with this homage to Cecil B. DeMille’s THE AFFAIRS OF ANATOL (1921), where the married protagonist rescues no less than three different damsels in distress. Similarly, Hannay’s episodic journey centers around his encounters with three women, where the second woman is modeled after Anatol’s second rescue, a dour Presbyterian farmer’s wife (beautifully played by Shakespearean actress Peggy Ashcroft). These stories are all told from a single point of view, where Hannay’s deadpan (similar to Hitchcock’s own during his legendary speeches) greets the absurdity of each developing situation. DeMille was certainly one the most important filmmakers in the world during Hitchcock’s youth, both working together for Paramount in the 50’s, where each had a personal obsession with perfection and the box office. It was only after DeMille’s cooperative role with the Hollywood blacklisting during the rabidly anti-communist era of witch hunts during McCarthyism that Hitchcock turned against his former idol. The film is a series of densely packed episodes of meticulous detail, each a self-contained story within itself that opens under rather extraordinary circumstances where Hannay is a Canadian visiting London where he is initially seen as one of the patrons in a crowded British music hall, now a virtually obsolete, distinctly British institution that was designed to entertain the urban masses, where the star of the show (supposedly based on a real-life music hall performer known as Datas, according to Hitchcock) is a specialty act with a photographic memory known as Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), where the audience is invited to challenge his superlative powers of recollection. In this manner Hitchcock is able to show a cross section of ordinary people enjoying an evening out at the theater where the established mood is one of jocularity until a fight breaks out at the bar and shots ring out, causing instant panic where customers stream for the exists. In the ensuing chaos, a seemingly frightened woman, Annabella Smith (German actress Lucie Mannheim), takes Hannay’s arm and asks if she can go home with him. “It’s your funeral,” is his flippant answer, not the least bit surprised by her request.
Wrapped under the guise of a casual sexual encounter, this seemingly bold act, especially for the 1930’s when sex would be unthinkable, is initially viewed as completely plausible due to the casual international sophistication of Donat, who is an unusually handsome and debonair leading man, where the film benefits greatly from the authenticity of his performance, seen as the forerunner to Hitchcock’s favorite American leading man, Cary Grant. It turns out Annabella is not the helpless victim she appears to be, but the one that fired the shots, claiming paid foreign assassins trying to kill her were getting too close. Once back in his apartment, Hannay remarks sarcastically, “Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.” Little did he know she is a mysterious counter-spy, warning him that his life is in danger (men are seen standing on the corner watching the entryway) as she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. By morning, Annabella has been stabbed to death by a knife in her back, clutching a map of Scotland with a town circled, where she previously mentioned a professor living there, and “the 39 Steps,” where Hitchcock superimposes his face over the map, so it comes as no surprise when he boards the next train leaving for Scotland, but only after he sneaks out of his apartment (with the killers still outside) disguised as a milkman. In the course of the film, Hannay also pretends to be a motor mechanic, a marcher in a parade, a political speaker, as well as the murderer himself, traveling from London to the highlands of Scotland, mixing with various social groups along the way, each one emphasizing the dangers he continually subjects himself to, seemingly betrayed at every turn, yet somehow he always manages to escape. On the train, when he learns from a newspaper that he’s been charged with murder and the target of a nationwide manhunt, to avoid police who are searching the passengers, he sneaks into a private compartment with a single occupant and kisses the attractive Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), pretending to be her husband, but she immediately turns him into the authorities, eventually escaping by jumping off the train at the Forth Rail Bridge. This is one of the earliest examples in a Hitchcock film where a romance is developed around an ordinary man that is caught up in an extraordinarily complicated spy conspiracy while being charged with a murder he did not commit, forced to go on the run where he must unravel the mystery and stop the foreign spy rings to prove his innocence.
Among the more poignant sequences ever filmed by Hitchcock comes as Hannay has been walking at length through the rolling foothills of Scotland and comes across a small farm where the dirt poor proprietor (John Laurie) offers him a place for the night, as he’s nearly 14 miles away from his intended destination. Though it’s a brief scene, it’s carried by the supreme performance of the farmer’s wife, Margaret, the 27-year old Peggy Ashcroft whose theatrical exploits would extend seventy years, becoming Dame Ashcroft, winning a Best Supporting Actress Award a half century later for A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984). In only her second film, Ashcroft reveals her own tragic circumstances as a puritanically repressed wife of a hard, domineering husband, where we witness her disappointment at being stuck on the farm, where she willingly helps the stranger, even after their eyes see the same newspaper headlines exposing him as a murderer. Her intelligence and selfless generosity belies her own fate, imprisoned by the worst aspects of a bad marriage where her situation appears hopeless, as she is subjugated, treated like property, and eventually beaten by her fanatically jealous and possessive husband who spies on her and suspects her of amorous leanings. Her hushed tones literally haunt this episode, giving Hannay her husband’s best coat and helping him escape out the back door despite the inevitable beating to come. With the police still in pursuit, scouring the Scottish countryside, Hannay arrives in the circled town on the map and heads for the biggest manor, which turns out to be the home of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), a highly respectable man who seems to embody the best of civilized manner, distinguished as a pillar of the community, yet Hannay immediately realizes his mistake when the professor shows that he is missing part of his little finger. With everything leading up to this moment, he has become face to face with the enemy, catching him completely off guard and without a plan, certainly nothing to match the pistol the professor pulls out of his pocket to shoot him, but only after a calm and perfectly reasoned explanation for why this course of action is the only logical thing to do. This jarringly development, the unusual killing of the main character anticipates Hitchcock’s later film Psycho (1960) where Hitchcock kills off Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in the first third of the film. Yet somehow Hannay manages to escape, as the bullet is caught in a hymnal left in the farmer’s coat pocket. The sheriff’s wry remark upon hearing this implausible story, “And this bullet stuck among the hymns, eh? Well, I’m not surprised Mr. Hannay, some of those hymns are terrible hard to get through.”
The sheriff, however, is chums with the professor and doesn’t believe a word of Hannay’s story about his neighbor’s involvement with a spy ring, handcuffs one hand and is about to hand him over to the foreign agents when he jumps through a window and makes his escape, joining into the anonymity of a street march before ducking into a side street door where he’s immediately mistaken for the introductory speaker at a political rally and waved to the podium, giving a rousing impromptu speech in response to a question about the “idle rich,” describing what amounts to an international socialist utopia, “a world from which suspicion, cruelty, and fear have been forever banished,” to thunderous applause. As his speech gains momentum, however, he’s recognized in the audience by Pamela, who gets what she thinks is the police, but it’s the agents posing as the police, insisting that Pamela come down to the station to make an identification, but instead they make a detour to the professor’s house several hours away. By a stroke of luck, a herd of sheep block the road, where the men handcuff Pamela to Hannay as they get out to clear the road, giving them a chance to make their escape, with Hannay forced to drag her along, making their way through the mist to a country inn where they are mistaken for a romantic couple, instead incessantly bickering with each other. She manages to elude the handcuffs in the middle of the night, but overhears the fake policemen on the phone downstairs whose conversation only confirms Hannay’s assertions, where it all eventually leads to the London Palladium, as Hannay alerts Scotland Yard by sending Pamela to London, but their search reveals no missing documents, and instead follow the girl to get to Hannay. With secret agents, Scotland Yard, and the protagonists all converging at the same location, once more featuring the performance of Mr. Memory, Hannay is finally able to figure it out, that the agents are using Mr. Memory to smuggle the secrets out, so he shouts out to the stage, “What are the 39 Steps?” As if by habit, and unphased by the question, Memory methodically provides the answer, “The 39 Steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of…” The professor shoots him before he can finish the sentence, leaping off the balcony, but is instantly apprehended. A dazed and weakened Mr. Memory is able to unleash his precious secrets to Hannay before dying on the spot, as the still handcuffed Hannay reaches for the hand of Pamela as the curtain closes.
In Kenneth Barrow’s book, Mr. Chips: The Life Of Robert Donat (1985), he reveals that Hitchcock was a persistent and sometimes wicked practical joker, recounting Robert Donat’s recollection of his first meeting with Madeleine Carroll on the set of the film:
On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each having one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene ‘Hitch’ lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key of the handcuff was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchanged experiences. When Hitch saw that we were getting along famously, he extracted the ‘missing’ key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, ‘Now that you two know each other we can go ahead.’
While there have been two remakes of this film, in 1959 and again in 2008, both are clumsy attempts that have little of the precision and craftsmanship of Hitchcock, where the film ranks among Hitchcock’s best films, greeted enthusiastically by audiences in England and America. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century. Cinematographer Bernard Knowles and Austrian art director Oscar Werndorff can take much of the credit for the atmospheric look of the film, especially the outdoor Scottish highlands sequences. Hitchcock educated himself in the technical, structural, and aesthetic aspects of cinema, which helped form a distinctive narrative in his earlier silent films, but he also developed his own editing style, constantly learning from his collaborators. Hitchcock was extremely systematic, and was fascinated by the mathematics of editing to create his iconically suspenseful thrillers. While there is little doubt that Hitchcock became more of a professional filmmaker after he made his move to America, his 30’s films may not reach the same level of artistic heights, but they do provide a level of fresh spontaneity and energy that is often missing in his later works.
Note – Hitchcock has a brief cameo just prior to the 7-minute mark, seen in his signature coat and hat passing in front of the bus at a bus stop, tossing away some litter (a white piece of paper, perhaps a crumpled cigarette box) just as Hannay and Annabella are making their escape from the music hall commotion. Also, in recognition of his contribution, Hitchcock gave screenwriter Charles Bennett his own Hitchcock-style cameo, coming directly on the heels of the director’s own cameo, both seen as passerby’s near the bus, where Hitchcock was passerby #1 while Bennett was #2.