Hitchcock Presents His First Masterpiece … The 39 Steps (1935)
The 39 Steps (1935) is an espionage thriller and Hitchcock’s first film masterpiece. It contains espionage tropes that are still with us today and creates some enduring suspense. It is a period piece, but I was curious if this movie still works today. I think most of it does. It is not as unique as it used to be because every single thriller on Earth has copied from it.
The movie begins by presenting Mr. Memory, an on-stage production meant to answer any and all questions posed by the audience. This is not an unusual sight, as Mr. Memory appears to be the latest sideshow stage act, but as the movie shows, he really does seem to have a remarkable mind for remembering facts. Robert Donat, who plays Richard, is in the audience and tries to stump Mr. Memory, but he cannot.
This is a very old film. It is only remarkable as the first great film Hitchcock ever produced. It is not Hitchcock’s first film, but the elements seen in The 39 Steps really are pretty good and carried on by other, notable films later on. I would have to say that North by Northwest (1959) is probably the one that comes to my mind that borrows the most from The 39 Steps. Elements of an innocent man on the run, a case of mistaken identity, and the blonde accompanist, are largely in both films. Many people cannot stand older movies like this and I can’t understand that attitude because it is historical, not just a decent thriller.
The title of the film refers to something pursued like a MacGuffin, a dying phrase of information meant to be mysterious. What are the 39 steps? What does it mean? What is going on? Annabella explains to Richard that people are after her because she has uncovered some military secrets, though she doesn’t reveal what the 39 steps are. This mystery is part of the intrigue, and Annabella ends up dead because of what she knows, whatever that is.
Richard tries to track down Annabella’s contact while he hides out in the Scottish highlands. Most of the performances are good and even the Scottish people seemed realistic. The movie has all of the espionage elements that we take for granted today, such as the police chasing an innocent man, a desperate man who tries everything to hide, and man/woman love/hate partnership. Travel is very common in this film and the movie doesn’t stay in one place for so long.
The movie has many twists and shocks. The first, and probably the most famous, is when Richard is shot, a long fade out teasing us with his possible death. Later, it is revealed that he survived by a convenience. “The book that stopped a bullet” is now a cliche, but The 39 Steps did it first. There are other conveniences in this movie that help Richard escape, such as when he ducked into a marching band and pretended to be part of the company. Harrison Ford did that in The Fugitive (1993), so that’s not too bad, I guess. Richard and Pamela end up handcuffed together, which is another film trope, because she can’t stand him. This is an overused device, and can be seen in Tomorrow Never Dies, Midnight Run, and others.
All in all, this 80 minute movie is pretty decent for those who like Hitchcock, thrilers, or movies in general. It has been remade several times, and even produced into a stage play. It might be interesting to track down the other versions and the stage play, so maybe I’ll do that sometime. It is worth noting that in each adaptation, The 39 Steps are revealed to be different things, and even the original novel varies from the movie and play versions. What are the 39 steps? Well you’ll have to watch this movie to find out!