The 39 Steps (1935)

There’s something peculiar about The 39 Steps. From the clever changes in direction to the witty writing, there’s a lot to like about this adaptation of John Buchan’s mystery novel. It introduces some recurring elements of Hitchcock’s later work, but they don’t always play out as expect. These elements make it a bit of an odd duck when combined with a couple of other inexplicable creative choices.

Hannay (Robert Donat) is a run of the mill Canadian who thinks he’s gotten incredibly luck when a beautiful woman named Ms. Smith (Lucie Mannheim) throws herself in his arms. But when he discovers that she’s a spy and she divulges hints of a terrible secret about to leave the country before an untimely death, he’s placed in a strange game that leads him on a venture to Scotland.

The film is filled with a number of twists and what makes them fun is how they play against type. For instance, Hannay tries to pose as the husband of a woman in a train as cover from the cops and she simply turns him in instead of playing along. If one watched Hitchcock’s filmography backwards, The 39 Steps almost plays as a spoof of North by Northwest.

These misdirections feed into the film’s dark humor as Hannay finds himself in some bleak situations. When a woman named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) finds herself handcuffed to who she thinks is a murderer, instead of continually pleading his innocence, he pretends he actually is a murder. Hannay seems unable to catch a break and just starts playing with his situation in good humor.

The film makes a few strange storytelling decisions. It front-loads the story with a lot of vague exposition around Ms. Smith and then proceeds to repeat them soon after with unnecessary flashbacks. Also, the action feels a bit too staged. There are several scenes on the stage, but also some of the chases and action sequences are shot in a bit of a stilted style. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me that the film was adapted into a play in 2005. I can see this story working better on stage than it does on film. I initially thought the film was based on a play instead of a novel.

The 39 Steps gains more dimensions in retrospect. From the way it plays against later Hitchcock films to the theatrical elements that eventually led to the film being adapted into a stage play, The 39 Steps is a film that historicity gives it a curious revitalization. The film itself is a bit of a mess in places, it lacks the technical craft of a great Hitchcock film, but it’s good humor and clever twists make it a memorable mystery film.

© 2014 James Blake Ewing