Unforgivably, this was my first viewing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. I’ve no excuse for such tardiness. My copy of Hitchcock: The British Years has been in the house for several years and I’ve watched just about everything on it. Failing that, there’s even a public domain version that I could watch on the web, for free, any time I wanted to! Perhaps the overly wordy scenes between Hannay and Miss Smith in the first ten minutes put me off persevering with it in the past, but I can now report that the deed has been done. I’ve watched all 83 minutes. I was royally entertained. The rash decision not to sit through it sooner was my loss because it’s a classic.
Some years ago, I read John Buchan’s novel, a boys’ own page-turner that gripped me and never let go throughout 103 breathless pages. The central story aside, much was lost in translation between book and screenplay, though happily Charles Bennett retained the narrative’s scenes of our hero being pursued across the Scottish countryside, the open air claustrophobia as both authorities and enemy agents close in. At a post-screening party held after the film’s premiere, Buchan declared it was actually better than his novel; he had no qualms about the action being shifted from 1914 to the mid-1930s, and why would he? The political situation wasn’t very different. Sinister forces from across the pond were spinning their webs before both world wars, making for a seamless adaptation that retained the novel’s spirit entirely.
Best of all, Hitchcock cranked up the pace in his film. Once Miss Smith dies, a knife in her back as she collapses on Hannay’s bed, The 39 Steps never lets up. Hannay’s learned enough from his guest to know that danger is afoot, that his life could be in as much peril as hers was, and that he needs to make it to a tiny village in Scotland (the only lead left to him). He boards the Flying Scotsman, but soon enough the train is being searched and he has to make a daring escape that involves hanging from his carriage as it hares across the Forth Bridge. From here, he’ll have a series of scrapes in Scotland, team up (unwillingly at first) with a beautiful young woman and find out exactly what the 39 Steps are in time to save himself from arrest.
The 39 Steps is from the early days of talkies, and in its early scenes seems rather staged. Yet this is a façade; as soon as Hannay goes on the run, the editing gets tighter and tighter. There’s barely time to pause for breath as he narrowly avoids doom again and again. A lot of the technical work we may take for granted now, but trick shots like the quick cut from Hannay in a car to its rear, the camera watching it pull away down a Highland B-Road must have been demanding to conjure up in 1935. It’s to everyone’s credit that they work, along with the studio-bound filming on which they recreated the Scottish moors, complete with imported sheep. Maybe their success is down to the film’s dynamics. Before too long, I was rooting hopelessly for Robert Donat’s charismatic Hannay, sharing his worried glances at newspaper headlines that exposed his (wrongful) guilt and hoping Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, to whom he’s handcuffed and therefore becomes a resisting partner/passenger in his escape bid) will end up believing him and allow the sexual chemistry between them to blossom. She does and it does, and getting that resolved turns out to matter more than uncovering the plot and clearing Hannay’s name.
Sub-plots occur throughout that make the script sparkle. The scene where our hero is mistaken for a speaker at a political meeting is hilarious, but the best moment comes when he asks to stay with a crofter and his wife for the night. As the avaricious man (played by Dad’s Army’s John Laurie) says grace over supper, Hannay shares looks with his young wife (Peggy Ashcroft), who realises he’s the ‘suspect’ on the front of the paper but plays along because she’s lonely and takes a shine to him, cue glances and crackling tension between the trio.
The 39 Steps has been called ‘the first Hitchcock picture’ before now, even though that’s blatantly untrue. Possibly it’s earned the credit because it represents the flowering of his talent, the end product to which his previous body of work was building. It introduces the MacGuffin as a plot device (the ‘secret’ is shared with the audience as a throwaway point at the very end of the film, explained by a dying man as chorus girls dance in the background to divert our attention; meanwhile, who the spies are and who they work for is never disclosed) and ushers in the classic Hitchcock narrative, that of an innocent man who is wrongly accused of some evil deed and goes on the run to elude capture and uncover the truth. It’s a winning formula that found its ultimate expression in North by Northwest, but The 39 Steps was the first to hit upon it, and is close to unbeatable. Its position of fourth in the BFI 100 British films of the Twentieth Century is fully justified.