At their worst, 1930s movies can be static. The adjustment to the sound era made camerawork less fluid, as the noisy equipment needed to be soundproofed. This was a teething problem, but one which made the worst movies seem more like stage plays shot in front of a film crew.
Thank goodness this was only a short phase, and soon we had directors such as Alfred Hitchcock who knew how to make movies with fast pace and rapid transitions. The British movie director would eventually move to America, but even the films that he made at home were remarkable, and showed great promise. The best of these were The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps.
The 39 Steps helped to cement Hitchcock’s international reputation after the earlier success of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Sometimes seen as a dry run for movies such as North by Northwest, The 39 Steps is in fact a great film in itself, one which showcased Hitchcock’s versatility as a director.
It may be a man-on-the-run thriller, but The 39 Steps managed to combine action, thrills, humour and pathos in one story. The director was able to make the transitions smoothly, and the story contains an extraordinary variety of incident in its short running time. Hitchcock also made good use of the landscape, as the action moves from the crowded streets of London to the misty moors and beautiful waterfalls of Scotland.
No wonder that Hitchcock named The 39 Steps as one of his personal favourites of his own movies. Others appreciated it too. Orson Welles called it a masterpiece. One or two characters in J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye praise the film. Many regard it as the best of the four adaptations of John Buchan’s novel.
One surprising admirer of the film was Buchan himself. Almost every detail from his original book was jettisoned in Hitchcock’s film version, the least faithful version of the novel. Nonetheless Buchan is said to have enjoyed it. At a private viewing, the director asked Buchan what he thought of it so far. In a curious remark for the author of the book, Buchan replied, “Fascinating! I wonder how it will end.”
The storyline is one that would become familiar in later Hitchcock movies – that of the innocent man on the run. A visiting Canadian called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) meets a mysterious woman who goes by the name of Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) while he is attending a performance at a music hall. Annabella asks to go back to Hannay’s apartment.
It turns out that she is a spy, and when she is murdered Hannay is forced to flee from both her murderers and the law. He travels to Scotland to find a mysterious man with part of his little finger missing who, Hannay hopes, will help to clear his name, and explain the meaning of The 39 Steps.
As so often in Hitchcock, The 39 Steps are a MacGuffin, a plot device that moves the story along, but is not important in itself. I wonder how many viewers recollect what The 39 Steps were after their first viewing of the film. For that matter, how many regular viewers of the movie remember, or even care? Hannay himself is bemused when Annabella mentions it to him. “What’s that?” he asks; “A pub?”
Along the way, Hitchcock throws in a rich gallery of setpieces. Some are essential to the plot, and many are not. Since the plot itself is not essential, it hardly matters either way. The story is necessary to move the film along, but most plot points could easily be substituted for something else, and it would not matter. What is important is the feel of a scene, and how the characters deal with each situation as it is presented.
The main purpose of every scene is to provide fun for the audience, regardless of its relevance to the story. Two businessmen sit on a train discussing underwear, whilst an elderly man is sneaks a peek at their products. The film is topped and tailed by a visit to a music hall to see Mr Memory (Wylie Watson) an entertainer who has committed an extraordinary number of facts to his head. On both occasions his act is interrupted by a gunshot.
There are moments of Hitchcockian black humour. After Annabella Smith’s murder, Hannay find a map showing where she planned to go. It is a small Scottish village, but I cannot help noticing that it is near to a place called Killin. A hymn book saves Hannay’s life when he is shot, leading to jokes about how it should have been called ‘Hymns That Have Helped Me’.
Some of Hitchcock’s familiar motifs are present. This is the first Hitchcock movie that deals entirely with an innocent man on the run. (The hero of The Lodger briefly flees the police, but only towards the end of the film.) In another scene, the hero is apparently killed half-way through the film, a plot device that would recur in varying forms in North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho (in the last two films it was the heroine, rather than the hero).
There is an icy blonde, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) who is hostile at first, but suddenly melts when she falls in love with the hero. For a long time, she is unable to escape from Richard Hannay because they are handcuffed together, which allows for one or two sexy moments, when Pamela is obliged to remove her stockings while still cuffed to Hannay.
Hitchcock also applies one of his familiar dramatic juxtapositions. As a cleaner finds Annabella’s body, she opens her mouth to scream, and the scene cuts to the loud whistle of the train bearing Hannay away.
One of the more unusual scenes in the film occurs when Hannay reaches Scotland. The weary fugitive asks a local crofter (John Laurie) if he can stay with him for the night. In a re-enactment of Richard Wagner’s opera, Die Walküre, Hannay discovers that the crofter has a young, pretty wife (Peggy Ashcroft).
The scene is irrelevant to the storyline, and yet enriches the film by adding a rare note of poignancy. The crofter’s wife is a pathetic figure, a lonely city-born girl married to a pious, canting tyrant. She is obviously attracted to the handsome and well-mannered Hannay and helps him to escape, all the time under the eyes of her jealous and grim-visaged husband.
The 39 Steps is a cheerful movie, but it contains the ingredients of a far darker tale. An innocent man is thrown into a nightmare world of espionage, spies and murder through no fault of his own. His life and freedom are threatened, and it will take determination, resourcefulness and a little luck to clear his name.
In North by Northwest, the hero is able to thrive and survive in this dangerous environment because of his personality. Roger O Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a salesman who is used to manipulation, mendacity and ruthlessness in the course of his job, and these are the very qualities he needs to navigate his way round a world of double-crossing and duplicity. In the case of The 39 Steps, I would argue that what keeps Richard Hannay alive is not his personality, but his apparent lack of one.
In a world of spies, identity is an uncertain thing. Annabella Smith is an elusive figure. She has a foreign accent, but does not admit to being a citizen of any country – only the one that pays better. It seems doubtful that Annabella Smith is her real name. When she mentions the enemy spy who is planning to take British secrets out of the country, she makes it clear that he too has various names.
Later when Hannay meets the enemy spy, it takes him a while to realise his mistake. Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) seems like a trustworthy figure. He is a wealthy citizen, who is respected by the local law officers. He has a wife and children, and is surrounded by friendly guests when Hannay arrives at the house. However he also has half of his little finger missing, a physical trait that identifies him as the enemy agent.
It seems that spies and traitors are chameleons who change identities to fit in with the environment around them, and curiously this is something that Hannay seems well-equipped to do. From the beginning of the film, Hannay’s identity is ambiguous. He is an outsider. He is not from Britain, or even America (a country that British audiences are used to seeing in movies). He is from Canada, a country about which people know much less.
At the opening of the movie, Hannay is attending a music hall performance, but it is unclear why he is there. He sounds like far too cultured a man to enjoy a rowdy low-brow entertainment show in the kind of dive where stage acts sometimes end in a brawl.
After a gunshot causes panic, a mysterious woman (Annabella Smith) asks Hannay, “May I come home with you?” Hannay replies blandly (and correctly as it turns out), “Well it’s your funeral”. Is he expecting to have sex with her? It seems a lukewarm reply if he is, and he does not make a pass at her. Why does he agree to her coming home with him then?
Hannay’s apartment is even more puzzling. While the other residents have their names on a plaque, Hannay’s home is identified by a sheet of cardboard with his name on it. His rooms have no curtains, and the furniture is covered in cloths, hardly suggesting a place that is lived in. Has he just arrived, or is he just leaving? The apartment is like Hannay himself, a bare and unfurnished place that looks uninhabited, and reveals nothing about its owner.
After Annabella is murdered, Hannay has a hard time proving his innocence due to his elusive identity. Somehow nobody trusts him when he is telling the truth, and everybody believes him when he tells a lie.
A milkman laughs off Hannay’s story about being watched by two men who plan to murder him, but he is happy to accept Hannay’s fib that he has been visiting a married woman, and is trying to elude her husband and brother. Pamela ignores Hannay’s pleas of innocence, and happily turns him over to the police, but when he pretends to be a dangerous serial killer, she swallows this story without question.
Sheriff Watson (Frank Cellier) appears to listen to Hannay’s story about Professor Jordan’s espionage activities, but it turns out that the Sheriff was stalling for time until more police officers arrived. On the other hand, an innkeeper and his wife readily accept Hannay’s claim that he and Pamela are newly-weds (“They are so terrible in love with each other.”), and add a few fictions of their own, speculating that the couple must have eloped.
Hannay has no problem in adopting new identities when it suits him. He is a milkman, a newly-wed husband, and a serial killer when the occasion demands. In one scene, he is mistaken for a politician, and forced to make a speech without preparation. In characteristic fashion, Hannay expresses no political views that would allow us to identify him as having a personality. Instead he talks in generalities, although his speech contains veiled allusions to his own predicament: “I’ve known what it is to feel lonely and helpless, and have the whole world against me. Those are things that no man or woman ought to feel.”
The ability of Hannay to adapt his personality to each situation is reflected in other ways. He changes his name at will. He is Mr Hammond to the crofter, and he and Pamela are Mr and Mrs Henry Hopkinson of the Hollyhocks, Hammersmith when they are posing as a married couple. Hannay even changes his clothes, another symbol of identity. He escapes from Annabella’s murderers disguised as a milkman, and he eludes the police on the moors by taking the crofter’s darker coat.
At the end, it is another mark of identity that finally vindicates Hannay, that of memory. Mr Memory (another character who is not using his real name) turns out to be the key to understanding the role of The 39 Steps. Perhaps it is appropriate that Hannay’s innocence is established not by people starting to believe what he says, but by good fortune and the discovery of sufficient evidence to prove his innocence.
Thus ends a quintessential thriller that never makes a serious mis-step throughout. The 39 Steps not only showed Hitchcock’s great promise in later years, but is a movie good enough to be counted as a great British adventure story, even if Hitchcock had never made another film.
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