Review of “The 39 Steps” (1935)

trailer from YouTube

This week’s offering for Saturday pizza and bad movie turned out to be a pretty good movie. The pizza wasn’t half bad, either.

Plot:

Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London, stops by a music hall. One of the acts is Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), who claims to have an enormous number of facts committed to memory. While he’s taking questions from a raucous audience, a fight breaks out. Neither the bouncers nor the police can quell it. A shot rings out, and the crowd charges for the door.

Hannay finds himself pressed against a comely young woman. Once they’re in the street, she asks him to take her home.

How… forward.

“Well, it’s your funeral,” he tells her.

At Hannay’s apartment, the woman won’t stand by a window or allow Hannay to answer his phone when it rings. She claims that she is trying to prevent a secret of great importance to England from being sent abroad. He doesn’t believe her until, at her urging, he looks out to see two men standing by a streetlight, watching.

“Have you ever heard of the thirty-nine steps?” she asks. She never explains, only continues with more crazy talk about spies, whose chief is missing the tip of his little finger. She also mentions leaving for Scotland, as “there’s a man I must visit next if anything is to be done.”

Later, Hannay’s sleep is abruptly interrupted by his guest staggering into his room. She warns him he’s in danger, then falls across his lap. She’s isn’t drunk. There’s a knife in her back. She’s clutching a map of Scotland, with the name of a village circled.

He flees. The rest of the movie is a series of pursuits, safe places turning into traps, and friendly people revealing themselves to be foes. It all makes sense in the end.

Thoughts:

The first image that greets the viewer is the British Board of Film Censors certification, assuring one and all that the following film has been passed for public exhibition to adult audiences—so shoo the kiddies from the room. Actually, the violence and sexual innuendo are tamer than video games and evening movies those kiddies have already seen. The notification is quaint.

Hannay takes the train—the Flying Scotsman—north. In his compartment, two men (Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno), who sell women’s lingerie, have brought samples. They open suitcases and display these to each other. A third man (an uncredited Quinton McPherson), whom they belatedly realize is a clergyman, earns an apology when he leaves their compartment. One of the two salesmen buys a newspaper, where Hannay reads that a Canadian is wanted for murdering a woman in London.

The humor, interwoven with Hannay’s dread and the viewer’s knowledge of the genuine danger he’s in, makes for delightful suspense. It only gets worse.

To get away from the police on the train, he slips into a compartment with a woman (Madeleine Carrol) sitting by herself, minding her own business, and starts kissing and manhandling her. So, the cops don’t intrude on a couple making out? He seems amazed when she tells the cops, “He’s the one you’re looking for.”

The attitude toward women, not uncommon in films of the era, is that the fairer sex needs to be fought and subdued—not necessarily abused, but won over with a little force.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the viewer is invested in Hannay’s quest. Hannay is a sympathetic character, falsely accused, pursued by those who want to kill him. Add in the idea that the welfare of England is at stake. Granted, this is before the Blitz, so no one is dropping bombs on London yet. Nevertheless, Hannay must get to the man in Scotland—

The camera work is instantly recognizable as Hitchcock’s. No plane buzzes Hannay in a cornfield, nor does Hannay hang off Mt. Rushmore, but he does find himself in dangerous and uncomfortable situations. The camera often shows what Hannay sees.

There is a cameo of Hitchcock early in the film. As Hannay and the doomed woman he meets from the music hall board a bus, two men walk between them and the camera. One screenwriter Charles Bennett. The other is Hitchcock, throwing away some trash.

Had I seen this film back in the day, I might say there’s something to look forward to from that young director.

This can be found on YouTube: The 39 Steps 1935 1080p – YouTube

Title: The 39 Steps (1935)

Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock

Writing Credits
John Buchan…(adapted from the novel by)
Charles Bennett…(adaptation)
Ian Hay…(dialogue)

Cast (in credits order) verified
Robert Donat…Hannay
Madeleine Carrol…Pamela
Lucie Mannheim…Miss Smith
Godfrey Tearle…Professor Jordan
Peggy Ashcroft… Crofter’s Wife
John Laurie…Crofter

Released: August 1, 1935
Length: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: