The 39 Steps feels like it must be an early Hitchcock work, particularly for anyone familiar with works produced decades later. After all, this is nearly 30 years before Psycho and 20 years before Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. But no! Far from being one of his first, this is actually the 19th feature Hitchcock directed. After cutting his teeth on the earliest of talkies during the transition from silent films, one might say the film marks instead the beginnings of his long peak as one of the greatest directors of all time.
The film is a spy/adventure thriller (loosely) based on a novel by John Buchan. (Indeed, Buchan visited the set during filming and was asked afterwards what he thought of the movie. Reportedly, he replied that he thought it wonderful, but was very curious to learn how it would end.) Robert Donat, brought across the Atlantic for his star power, plays Richard Hannay. The character is a Canadian visiting England. The story opens with him amusing himself by attending a variety show in a London music hall of an evening. After watching a performance of a “Mr. Memory” (a man who has memorized trivia to be able to answer any stumper of a question the audience might ask) the night breaks up when shots ring out and everyone in the building rushes out.
Hannay aids a woman who is caught in the press of bodies during the rush, and once outside she boldly invites herself to go home with him. Hannay doesn’t seem lasciviously tempted, but rather a happy-go-lucky and decent fellow who is willing to accept the adventures that present themselves. Since this is an adventure yarn, he finds himself in a real pippin.
The woman reveals that she fired the shots to cause the panic so she could escape. She claims to be a freelance secret agent on the trail of secrets stolen from the British government by the shadowy 39 Steps, a nefarious spy ring run by an unspecified foreign power (read: Germany). She had hoped to get away, but was followed to Hannay’s flat and now she must slip away before they can successfully do her in.
Because it’s an adventure film, Hannay wakes up later that night to find her clutching a map of Scotland and gasping cryptic clues while breather her last due to the knife sticking out of her back. Hannay decides for reasons of dubious validity that he will be blamed if he calls the police, and that he will be murdered next if he does nothing. Clearly, the only thing to do is step in and bring down the 39 Steps himself!
Look, I know. Really I do. Once you’re past this point, however, the real fun begins. Hitchcock sparkles in getting witty and very funny dialogue and scenes mixed in with the real sense of danger and suspense he imbues into his movies. The hijinks are practically non-stop and much of Hitchcock’s appeal, I believe, comes from how well he is able to make characters, major and minor, seem like quite normal, ordinary people caught up in strange circumstances.
Some of the best bits of this film arise primarily, not from Donat in the lead, but his interactions with bit parts and players. My particular favorites are the milkman near the beginning, the very religious Scottish farmer and his young wife, and the innkeeper and his wife.
Hitchcock would make another few films in England before decamping for the New World, but this is one of his first efforts where his skill shines forth throughout. There are public domain copies floating around, but beware: their quality is uniformly terrible. While you might still get a good sense of the visual talent Hitchcock had, bad audio will keep you from getting the most of the clever dialogue and smart plotting.
While it’s not his best, it’s not my favorite of his, not his best known, nor even the most well-crafted, that’s a testament to Hitchcock’s greatness rather than a knock on the film. It’s still a clear 5-star film in my book.