The 39 Steps (1935)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a woman is killed in front of him, Richard Hannay is blamed so must travel across country to find out why she was murdered…

Orson Welles once called The 39 Steps a masterpiece. High praise indeed from the man who co-wrote, produced and directed Citizen Kane, the film most often called the finest ever made. And he’s far from alone in loving Alfred Hitchcock’s flamboyantly brilliant movie. Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne, who won on Oscar for 1974’s Chinatown, once said that ‘all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.’ These men weren’t wrong. It’s a giddy thrill ride full of action, intrigue, comedy, stunts, sex, oddball characters, cross-country travel and set pieces, which still feels fresh and relevant today. And that’s because, more than eight decades later, people are still making this kind of entertainment. The James Bond series, caper films, superhero franchises… They all owe a huge debt to The 39 Steps.

Towne elaborated on his point to The New Yorker in 2012: ‘Most “pure” movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock, are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged. The 39 Steps is one of the few, if not the only one, that does both at the same time. [Hitchcock] puts you into this paranoid fantasy of being accused of murder *and* being shackled to a beautiful girl – of escaping from all kinds of harm, and at the same time trying to save your country.’ (The full article can be read here.)

The man who’s accused of murder and is later shackled to a beautiful girl is a Canadian living in London called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat). After attending a music-hall show, he takes an enigmatic woman (Lucie Mannheim) home for supper and maybe more. However, soon after she reveals that she’s a professional spy and her life is in danger, she’s stabbed by an unseen assailant and dies in Hannay’s arms. This kicks off a roller-coaster of a plot. Hannay is of course accused of the murder so must evade both the assassins and the authorities as he investigates what the woman was involved in. Following a map she had in her possession, he heads for Scotland.

Along the way, he encounters one of Hitchcock’s enigmatic blondes – the innocent Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) – then takes part in a dangerous escape from a train while it crosses the Forth Bridge. He has a run-in with a grumpy crofter (played by Dad’s Army’s John Laurie), meets the villain of the piece (a sly Godfrey Tearle), is forced to impersonate a politician at a hustings meeting, and is eventually reunited with Pamela – the pair of them handcuffed together by the bad guys. It’s breathless, exciting and a *lot* of fun.

It’s also often daring for 1935. Hannay and Pamela blag their way into a hotel, posing as a married couple, but they’re still handcuffed together. They’re also wet through after their escape across the countryside, so Pamela takes off her damp stockings with Hannay sat ever-so close to her. A movie with a bubbling sexual chemistry between the male and female leads was not a new idea in 1935, of course. But the fact that Pamela doesn’t exist in the source material – John Buchan’s 1915 novel – is very telling. Hitchcock knew that he had to up the ante. And the will-they-won’t-they pairing of a dashing hero with a smart, sophisticated woman would become a vital element of this type of movie.

Another influence of the film is, obviously, the fact that the story has been filmed three further times. A 1959 version starred Kenneth More and was clearly a remake of Hitch’s version rather than another adaptation of the novel. Robert Powell and John Mills then appeared in a 1978 movie that stuck more closely to the Buchan original. The latter got its own a TV spin-off series in 1988, then in 2008 the BBC adapted the story with Rupert Penry-Jones in the lead role.

Actually, while we’re on the topic, several Hitchcock films have inspired remakes, sequels and other versions of the original source material. Hitch himself remade one of his own movies, giving 1934’s British film The Man Who Knew Too Much a Hollywood revamp 22 years later. Dial M for Murder (1954) has been loosely remade several times – for example, as A Perfect Murder in 1998 starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. The Lady Vanishes (1938) was remade in 1979, starring Elliot Gould and Cybil Shepherd, then again for television in 2013. Since Hitch’s film version of Jamaica Inn (1939), the original novel has been adapted for television twice – in 1983 and 2014.

Rear Window (1954) has been remade a few times, sometimes rather loosely. A TV movie in 1998 starred Christopher Reeve in the role of the housebound voyeur. (The 2007 movie Disturbia also had a similar storyline, though a court case decided that no copyright infringement had taken place.) The Birds (1963) got a belated, made-for-TV sequel called The Birds II: Land’s End in 1984. It was directed by Rick Rosenthal, who then took his name off the project, and starred Tippi Hedren (though not as her character from the first film). 

But the Hitchcock movie with the biggest family tree of spin-offs is 1960’s Psycho. It firstly had two cinematic sequels in the 1980s, both of which saw Anthony Perkins reprise the role of Norman Bates. In the not-bad Psycho II (1983), Norman is released from prison and attempts to get on with his life; Vera Miles also returned from the original film. The story was continued in the less good and more crass Psycho III (1986). There was then a prequel TV movie called Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), which cast ET’s Henry Thomas as a teenage Norman. (Perkins played the role in some modern-day framing scenes.) Regrettably, the 1960 movie was then remade in 1998 – almost shot-for-shot, for reasons that passeth understanding. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the result was a depressingly empty exercise.

Hitchcock’s movie has also been the seed of inspiration for two unrelated TV shows called Bates Motel. The first, in 1987, was a one-off drama set in a different continuity from the Perkins films. The second, which ran for five seasons between 2013-2017, was a marvellously macabre reboot that began its story with Norman and his still-alive mother taking over the establishment.

But, as we’ve discussed, the influence of The 39 Steps extended far further than the same story being told again. It acted as the blueprint for the modern thriller to such a degree that even Hitchcock and his collaborators were working in its wake. In the 1950s, when tasked with writing the Alfred Hitchcock film to end all Alfred Hitchcock films, Ernest Lehman came up with a script called North by Northwest – a giddy thrill ride full of action, intrigue, comedy, stunts, sex, oddball characters, cross-country travel and set pieces. It was more or less a remake of The 39 Steps.

10 men walking past a number 25 bus out of 10

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