by Matt Levine
Alfred Hitchcock’s nearly unquestioned reputation as “the Master of Suspense”—not to mention his broader acclaim, by film lovers ranging from François Truffaut to Pauline Kael, as one of the masters of cinema—began to solidify around the time of The 39 Steps (1935). Made near the peak of the director’s British career—he would go on to make four more films in the UK (including 1938’s The Lady Vanishes) before being invited to Hollywood by David Selznick in 1939--The 39 Steps is practically a blueprint for Hitchcock’s later stylistic, narrative, and thematic obsessions. The story of a debonair, wrongly-accused man embroiled in a murder-espionage plot with a coolly erotic blonde, The 39 Steps presages elements (if not entire plotlines) of Young and Innocent (1937), Saboteur (1942), The Wrong Man (1956), and North by Northwest (1959), among others. But, as is often the case in Hitchcock’s films, the narrative foundation doesn’t matter as much as the precise formal construction and witty visual metaphors. The director’s mastery over the jigsaw-puzzle of moviemaking was becoming supremely confident by the mid-1930s, as evidenced by The 39 Steps’ sublime and exhilarating aesthetic.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Michael Balcon
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, John Buchan (novel)
Cinematographer: Bernard Knowles
Editor: D.N. Twist
Music: Jack Beaver, Louis Levy
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson
US Theatrical Release: August 1, 1935
US Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (restored DCP)
Hitchcock’s fondness for having isolated body parts or objects stand in for human characters (think of Madeleine’s spiraling hair in Vertigo) is cleverly employed to begin The 39 Steps: a series of medium close-ups follow hands and feet as a man buys a ticket to a packed concert hall in London. Most movies begin with establishing shots of either locales or characters to usher us gently into the story; Hitchcock emphatically dislocates us, fracturing the human body into bits and pieces in the way only cinema can accomplish. The man turns out to be Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian on leave in England, whose silky diction, wolfish smirk, and pencil-mustache convey unrivaled suavity (he’s the prototype for Hitchcock’s future favorite leading man, Cary Grant). At a performance by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), who claims to be able to instantaneously memorize any arcane fact he reads, gunshots ring out. In the ensuing pandemonium, Richard helps a beautiful, mysterious woman who calls herself “Mrs. Smith” (Lucie Mannheim) to safety. With looser censorship constraints than in Hollywood, Hitchcock is able to wink at the audience as they first meet; almost immediately, Mrs. Smith purrs to Richard, “Can I come home with you?” Hitchcock is able to exploit British cinema’s more relaxed guidelines even more salaciously later in the film, as the camera watches for a good half-minute while Madeleine Carroll removes her stockings and garter—shamelessly taking advantage of the opportunity to ogle a beautiful pair of legs.
Mrs. Smith speaks in a vague German-Russian accent yet alleges that she “belongs to no country”; she is, rather, a “freelance spy,” hired to prevent a member of “the 39 Steps” from leaking vital British military secrets out of the country. Hannay doesn’t buy Smith’s potboiler narrative (even blatantly saying it sounds like a trashy spy novel), but chivalrously puts her up in his bed for the night. (Hitchcock didn’t have completely free reign in risqué subject matter—Hannay agrees to sleep in an extra room.) Made during a fraught interwar period in the United Kingdom, The 39 Steps could have easily been a story of righteous Brits versus dastardly Nazi spies; indeed, Hitler had aggravated a number of European countries in early 1935 by accelerating Germany’s rearmament program and instilling mandatory conscription. Instead, the vilest villains in The 39 Steps are British and Scottish, especially nefarious in their treason; the persecuted Mrs. Smith is actually one of the movie’s more likeable characters.
Hannay soon has reason to believe Smith’s convoluted story: she stumbles into his room and collapses onto his bed, a knife protruding from her back. The two men who have been waiting by a lamppost outside, with supposedly deadly designs on Mrs. Smith, take on a more sinister air as Hannay begins to accept the truth of her story. Earlier in the film, she had warned Hannay not to answer his phone as it may have been rigged with a bomb by her pursuers; after her death, this warning torments Hannay as his phone rings incessantly, a potentially lethal call which may be orchestrated by the mysterious man in the phone booth downstairs. It’s a brilliantly simple scene with powerful use of sound design: less than a decade into the existence of synchronous soundtracks, Hitchcock utilizes the sonic as well as visual aspects of cinema to terrorize the audience. Fritz Lang is often seen as one of Hitchcock’s foremost influences, which can clearly be seen (or heard) here: if the first scene in Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) becomes unbearably suspenseful thanks to the relentless sound of a chugging electric generator, Hitchcock here uses a similarly spare soundtrack, comprised only of a shrill and endless telephone ring, to suggest the omnipresence of death. His brilliant use of sound effects relatively early in the existence of sound cinema recurs soon after: as Hannay’s landlady discovers the corpse of Mrs. Smith in his apartment, her silent scream suddenly segues into the shrieking whistle of a train, one of the most famous sound bridges in the history of movies.
With nothing but Smith’s allusions to the 39 Steps and a map of the Scottish countryside to go on, Hannay decides to finish her job, tracking down a scientist in northern Scotland in order to prevent the top-secret government information from being leaked. Why? Boredom, maybe—Hannay is such a cavalier hero, so flippant and seemingly propelled by nothing more than forward momentum, that he seems to undertake this deadly game as a lark. That might be construed as a criticism, but it definitely is not: Hitchcock once said that his favorite aspect of The 39 Steps was how quickly it moved, its explosive plot twists and action setpieces which achieved a breathtaking kinetic energy. Indeed, The 39 Steps remains one of Hitchcock’s most purely exciting concoctions, a rush of action and suspense in which thrilling entertainment matters more than narrative logic. In other words, it plays the same game that North by Northwest does twenty-four years later—and arguably outperforms it.
So Hannay hops a train to Scotland with the British police hot on his trail. In one train car, two salesmen discuss women’s undergarments, retrieving their luggage to show off the latest models of bras and panties. Hitchcock soon cuts to the punchline: a priest looks on from another corner of the compartment, eyeing the underwear with a mix of disapproval and lust. It’s an amusing diversion that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot; clearly, this comedic aside is simply Hitchcock’s desire to inject a bit of his mordant humor, undercutting a sense of British (and later American) propriety.
Indeed, for how exhilarating The 39 Steps is, what often goes unnoticed is its strong sense of humor—this remains one of the director’s funniest films. When Hannay is arrested by the police, only to have the paddy wagon detained by an army of sheep in the middle of the road, he quips, “Oh, it’s a whole flock of detectives!” In another scene, he attempts to escape police capture by stumbling onstage at a political rally—only to whip up the constituents into a patriotic fervor by his empty rhetoric. The crowd would surely vote for him by the end of his speech, despite the fact that he’s quickly led away in handcuffs. An influence on both the auction scene in North by Northwest and Holly Martins’ “escape” into a dreary lecture on literature in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), the political rally in The 39 Steps demonstrates just how deftly Hitchcock could balance humor and suspense.
This balance becomes especially deft when Hannay is shackled to a prim-and-proper do-gooder named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). They first meet when he breaks into her compartment on the train and aggressively kisses her—all as a desperate ploy to escape from the police. Unsurprisingly, she immediately gives him up when the gendarmes arrive, leading to a famous train-escape scene that, through its flawless, fast-paced editing, proves just how much the cinematic craft had evolved over the last two decades. Fate brings them intimately back together later in the film, when a pair of duplicitous agents handcuff them together to prevent their escape. It doesn’t take a professional screenwriter to guess that their initial disdain for each other will be broken down by their natural charisma and their exciting, death-defying predicament, but this is one of the first and best iterations of such a setup (for my money, it’s more effortlessly charming than Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night a year earlier). Their joined-at-the-hip sexual chemistry also enables a sublime final shot in The 39 Steps: as Richard and Pamela silently observe the carnage of the web of espionage that surrounds them, they sweetly hold hands—though his is still attached to a dangling manacle. Hitchcock provides a happy ending by suggesting that the two will forge their own voluntary union—but he also wryly indicates that a sexual relationship is its own kind of incarceration.
Hitchcock was fond of saying, “Other directors make slices of life; I make slices of cake.” Despite the commentary on human morality and the psychoanalytic subtext that runs throughout his work, it’s a beautiful self-description—one which both embraces and validates the seemingly skin-deep allure of some of his films. Though it’s overflowing with witty compositions and a hypnotic narrative energy, The 39 Steps wouldn’t seem to have the enigmatic complexity of something like Notorious (1946) or Vertigo (1958). And yet, it’s one of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films, ranked by the British Film Institute as the fourth-best British film of the twentieth century. Its moments of visual ingenuity are practically countless: a flawless edit between a rear-projected scene in the back of a car and an ensuing on-location shot of an actual automobile driving in Scotland, for example (the 1935 equivalent of Alfonso Cuarón’s one-shot car scene in Children of Men); or nighttime footage of London in 1935, striking in its documentary realism. The film’s narrative is just as ingeniously constructed, especially when the main character seems to be killed about halfway through—only to have the movie agonizingly cut to a seemingly unrelated scene. Such flawless and commanding construction suggests entertainment as its own art form, a composition designed to evoke maximum audience response; it’s an art form at which Hitchcock excelled with few rivals, and an art form which receives one of its most breathtaking expressions in The 39 Steps.