“The 39 Steps” - Alfred Hitchcock (1935)

Of all the great films that Alfred Hitchcock directed over his fifty-some year career, there is one that stands our for me as the ultimate embodiment of his cinematic-narrative craftsmanship: his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Like many of his works, this film tells the story of an ordinary man who, by chance circumstances, is thrust into a dark, confusing world and finds himself being targeted by both unknown assailants and the law-enforcement authorities. 

This kind of story might be dismissed by some people as simply escapist entertainment.  But the way Hitchcock tells it, the story serves as a deep metaphor for man’s existential isolation and fear of obscure threats that appear out of nowhere.  So to my mind, some of these films of his, similar to films noir, strike a disturbing chord that can resonate deep within us.  There is a philosophical point to all of this, because in Hitchcock’s stories, the protagonist persists in believing, despite the deck being stacked against him, that there is a way out.  Action must be taken.

In addition to this basic situation of the existentially isolated and threatened, man, however, Hitchcock often told this story by means of segmented mini-narratives that were sequentially and thematically linked to the overall plight of the protagonist.  In each of these mini-narratives, the protagonist appeared to be trapped and had to find some way to escape his pursuers and continue his quest to uncover the truth that would ultimately save him. Thus each of the mini-narratives had a specific goal and an outcome.  This linked mini-narrative narrative technique was used by Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Saboteur (1942), and North by Northwest (1959), but its most perfect expression was with The 39 Steps, which consisted of seven such sequentially-linked, but self-contained, mini-narratives.

The production of The 39 Steps came right after Hitchcock’s commercially successful The Man Who Knew Too Much, and consequently his production house, Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, rewarded him with a 50% increase for his next production budget. Much of this increase, though, went into paying for the two well-known international stars recruited for the lead roles, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, which was deemed a necessary marketing maneuver to ensure a film’s success at the box office.

Hitchcock chose for his story on this occasion something which had for some time interested him, John Buchan’s 1915 spy novel, The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set in a World War I atmosphere.  He then worked with Buchan to update the story to a non-wartime mid-1930s setting and to create a film script with substantial changes to the plot, all of which I believe considerably enhanced the story (for example all three principal women in the film were additions to the original tale told in the novel).

In addition to Hitchcock’s alterations in the general story structure, however, there are four further aspects of his cinematic storytelling in this film worth noting.
  • Hitchcock heightened the disturbing feeling of existential loneliness and fear of annihilation with expressionistic touches, such as by invoking the primitive fear of falling from a great height.  Just as he did with such shots in Saboteur, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, there is a shot in this film of the protagonist looking downward from a great height and momentarily being frozen by the acrophobic feeling that one is inches away from self-destruction.
  • Related to this fear of self-annihilation is the idea of personal identity – just who are we, and who are those people with whom we interact?  Throughout The 39 Steps, the protagonist finds himself compelled to take on false identities in order to survive.  At the same time he is often interacting with others who are similarly dissembling about who they are.  In the following account, I will highlight some of those false identities by “FI”.
  • Pushing back in the other direction against those forces of enervating terror that make the protagonist want to hide and look for cover in a Hitchcock film is the energetic resourcefulness of the protagonist.  His plucky attitude keeps the energy at a high level.
  • The extraordinary pace of the film is also maintained by Hitchcock’s elliptical omissions of some action details that must have taken place for the protagonist to get to his next place. Of course, we expect some omissions, such as when characters are asleep, but the omitted actions I am talking about are sometimes significant – and the viewer engaged in diegetic story construction must fill in the details in his or her own mind on the fly.  I will identify in the following account some of these missing action sequences by “MA”.
The story of the film is told in seven sequential mini-narratives.  Note that all narratives are characterized by a few basic elements, I will summarize these according to the following scheme:
  • Protagonist(s)
  • Goal(s) – this may not be known at first, but it is the protagonist’s desired end of the narrative.
  • Adversary – something that blocks attainment of the goal.  This can be a natural element, such as a river, or it can be adversarial agents
  • Supporter(s) – instruments or other agents that support the protagonists
  • Gain – something important gained (or lost).  Usually this is new information that has been gained from these events,
  • Outcome – the resulting condition of the protagonist.
In the following, I will describe these elements for each of the seven mini-narratives (although since the protagonist is always the same, his name is omitted in those summaries).

1.  The London Music Hall (19 minutes)
In the opening sequence, Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), a Canadian visitor to London, attends a music hall performance showing the amazing memory feats of “Mr. Memory”.  Mr. Memory’s stage performance is characteristically signaled by a little onscreen orchestral tune, which will later serve as a leitmotif for a key aspect of the story.

The music hall performance is disrupted by the sound of gunshots, and the crowd stampedes for the exits.  In the midst of the crowded melee, Hannay shelters a beautiful woman to the street, after which she invites herself to visit his apartment.  There is some flirtatious byplay at first, but when they reach the apartment, the woman, who calls herself “Annabella Smith” (Lucie Mannheim), tells Hannay that she is an international spy and concerned about something known as the “39 steps”.  Although she has a foreign accent, she assures Hannay that she is working on behalf of his country (she means England) and that she is trying to prevent an important government secret document from being smuggled out of the country and into the hands of a foreign enemy.

Ms. Smith says that she is being stalked by enemy foreign agents and that her life is in danger – that is why she chose to hide out in Hannay’s apartment for the night.  She warns him that her arch foe working for the foreign power is a deceptive gentleman who is hard to a recognize but who can be identified by the fact that he is missing the end of his little finger. She also asks Hannay for a map of Scotland, because she must go there the next day to see someone.  Then they go to sleep in separate beds. 

Before dawn, however, Hannay is awakened by a noise and sees that Ms. Smith has been stabbed to death.  Her dying words were that they will go after him next.  Hannay realizes that his life is in danger and that he must now escape.  He notices that Ms. Smith had circled a village named “Alt-na-Shellach” on his map of Scotland. So the answers to what he is now involved in may perhaps be found there. Then he looks out onto the street from his window and sees what must be the foreign agents waiting for him to come out. He does manage to get away, though, by disguising himself with the coat and delivery cap of a helpful milkman (FI1).
Mini-narrative 1 summary
Goal: save his life from the foreign agents
Adversaries: two foreign agents
Supporters: milkman
Gain: information – (a) there is a vital secret associated with the 39 Steps that might get passed to a foreign power, (b) there is a dangerous man who is missing part of his little finger, and (c) there is something important in Alt-na-Shellach, Scotland.
Outcome: Ms. Smith has been murdered, but Hannay has escaped, for the moment, from the foreign agents.
2.  The Train to Scotland (7½ minutes)
Hannay is shown buying a train ticket on the Flying Scot to Scotland, and he evidently got there just ahead of the two pursuing foreign agents (MA1). Once underway, Hannay looks at a morning newspaper belonging to a fellow traveler that shows that Hannay is already wanted by the police for Annabella Smith’s murder. He then sees that the police are checking each train compartment, so he ducks into another compartment whose sole occupant is a pretty woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and pretends to be her amorous lover by forcefully kissing her (FI2).  When the police pass by the compartment, Hannay tries to explain his problem to Pamela, but she doesn’t believe him and turns him over to the police when they pass by again.  Hannah flees the train compartment with the police in hot pursuit and somehow manages to escape from the train as it is passing over the famous Forth Bridge [1].
Mini-narrative 2 summary
Goal: escape the police and reach Scotland
Adversaries: the police and Pamela
Supporters: none
Gain: information – he now knows that the police are after him, too.
Outcome: he has escaped from the police.
3.  The Crofter’s Farm (10½ minutes)
We next see Hannay walking down a road and coming to a small farm (croft) (MA2: how he got down from the bridge).  He tells the crofter that his name is Hammond (FI3), that he is looking for work, and that he would like to stay for the night. The middle-aged crofter, John (John Leslie) is stern and stingy, while his suppressed young wife, Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft) is sensitive and empathetic. 

In the ensuing brief but memorable sequence, Hitchcock shows how he could sensitively handle human feelings (as he also did in Notorious (1946)), by focusing on the tentative, but innocent, interaction between Hannay and Margaret.  Unlike the more worldly wise Pamela in the previous sequence, Margaret’s open-hearted nature leads her to believe in Hannay’s innocence.  She gives him her husband’s overcoat and helps him evade both the police and her reward-seeking husband’s efforts to have him captured.  Hannay has also learned the directions to Alt-na-Shellach, which is 14 miles away.
Mini-narrative 3 summary
Goal: escape the police and the crofter
Adversaries: the police and John, the crofter
Supporters: Margaret
Gain: new overcoat and directions to Alt-na-Shellach
Outcome: he has escaped from the police.
4.  Alt-na-Shellach (7½ minutes)
Hannay is next shown reaching his destination, a large estate at Alt-na-Shellach, where a wealthy “professor” is supposed to live.  How he evaded John the crofter and the police over the fourteen-mile journey to get there is not clearly shown (MA3).  He gains entry by identifying himself as a friend of Annabella Smith, assuming that the resident professor was her colleague, but he soon learns that Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) is missing half of his right-pinky and so must be Annabella’s evil nemesis.  Professor Jordan ushers Hannay to a small room, takes out his gun, and shoots Hannay dead, as the camera fades to black.
Mini-narrative 4 summary
Goal: to gain information (a) to help thwart foreign agents from stealing government secrets and (b) to clear his name.
Adversaries: Professor Jordan, who is the boss of the foreign agents.
Supporters: none
Gain: information – Alt-na-Shellach is the headquarters of the foreign spy operation
Outcome: Hannay is dead
5.  In the Neighboring Town (13½ minutes)
We next see Hannay speaking to the sheriff of a nearby town.  It turns out that Hannay was not killed by Jordan’s gunshot, thanks to Crofter John’s hymnal that had been in the overcoat pocket.  Hannay had then managed to escape the professor’s estate and reach the sheriff’s office in a nearby town, although this is not shown (MA4).  Hannay tells the sheriff about the spy ring, but he is not believed.  The sheriff immediately orders Hannay’s arrest.  While the police are putting handcuffs on Hannay, he somehow manages to escape from their clutches (MA5) and burst through the front window and out onto the street.

While on the street, Hannay tries to disappear by falling in with a noisy parade and then getting himself roped into making an extemporaneous speech at a local political gathering (FI4).  He almost pulls it off, but Pamela, the girl he had kissed on the train, shows up and recognizes him.  She has him arrested and has him turned over to two plainclothes policemen.

It turns out, however, that the two plainclothes officers are actually the two foreign agents pretending to be police (FI5), and they quickly spirit Hannay and Pamela away in their car.  For security, they handcuff Hannay and Pamela together.  As they all travel down a country road, however, their car is stopped by a herd of sheep in the road, and Hannay uses the occasion to make another escape, even while still handcuffed to Pamela. 
Mini-narrative 5 summary
Goal: escape the police and the foreign agents
Adversaries: the police, Pamela, and the foreign agents.
Supporters: none
Gain: information – local sheriff supports Professor Jordan
Outcome: Hannay, with P as his prisoner, escapes
6.  Hannay and Pamela Together (17½ minutes)
Hannay again tries to plead his case to Pamela, but she still doesn’t believe his spy story.  So in order to enforce her obedience, he confesses that he is a ruthless, serial killer (FI6).  They then make it to a remote inn (how they got there is not shown – MA6), and Hannay secures a room for the night by passing himself and Pamela off as lovers on the run (FI7).

The two foreign agent show up at the inn in pursuit of Hannay and ask to use the phone. Pamela overhears the phone conversation between the foreign agents and Jordan’s wife, which enables her to realize that Hannay’s story was right all along.  Before the foreign agents can snoop further around the inn, however, the kindly and romantic hotel mistress comes out and shoos them away.

With the new information about Hannay, Pamela becomes his ally, and she reports to him that the overheard conversation also revealed that Professor Jordan was going to attend an event at the London Palladium and then leave the country with the “secret”.  So now Hannay and Pamela proceed to rush back to London (MA7).
Mini-narrative 6 summary
Goal: escape the foreign agents
Adversaries: the foreign agents.
Supporters: Pamela and the hotel mistress
Gain: information – Jordan is going to be at the London Palladium that night.
Outcome: Hannay and P, now allies, are free to go to London.
7.  London Palladium (9½ minutes)
The final scenes in London are wonderfully intense.  Pamela visits the Scotland Yard office and tells them about the foreign spies and the threat to the country.  But the government authorities assure her that none of their secret documents are missing.  The police then decide to trail her in the hopes of catching Hannay, who is still wanted for murder.

Pamela then rushes over to the Palladium, where all the principals have converged.  Hannay is there. So, too, are Professor Jordan, Scotland Yard police, and even Mr. Memory. Just as the police are in the act of arresting Hannay, it dawns on him when he hears the Mr. Memory leitmotif tune, just what the ingenious spy strategy was for sneaking secret documents out of the country.  From audience floor, he calls out to Mr. Memory, “What are the 39 Steps?”.  This leads to the melodramatic climax.
Mini-narrative 7 summary
Goal: stop Professor Jordan from sneaking a government secret out of the country and also escape the police
Adversaries: Professor Jordan and the police
Supporters: Pamela
Gain: information – the mystery behind the “39 Steps”
Outcome: the nation is saved
There are a number of scenes in The 39 Steps that stand out in my memory long after viewing the film.  The brief, poignant scene with Margaret at the croft is one.  Another one is Hannay’s desperate attempts to survive by giving a political speech without knowing what to say.  But perhaps the most evocative scene is the ending in the Palladium, with the musical hall comedians performing, the orchestral music blaring, and the chorus-line girls dancing all creating a cacophonous atmospheric background for the final dramatic revelations.   With the final death and the truth revealed, the "curtain" comes down immediately and the film ends.

Alfred Hitchcock was once asked by Francois Truffaut whether  The 39 Steps was his favorite film [2].  His reply was,
“Yes. Pretty much. What I liked about it were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity. . . . . The rapidity of the switches, that’s the great thing about it.  If I did “The 39 Steps” again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.”
In The 39 Steps it was a formula that was executed to perfection.

  1. It is here that Hannay looks down while hiding behind a bridge girder and has a vertiginous view of the waters far below.
  2. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson, “Conversations About Great Films: The 39 Steps, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (25 January 2005), http://csac.buffalo.edu/39steps.pdf.

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