Want a Hitchcock film that spells out what makes for a typical Hitchcock film? It’s “The 39 Steps.”
It’s got the innocent man wrongly accused and a MacGuffin, an irrelevant plot device around which all the action is centered.
Hitchcock spends a lot of time introducing us to Mr. Memory, a theater performer who has a perfect sense of memory. In the audience, Richard Hannay meets Annabelle Smith, who turns out to be a spy. She mentions The 39 Steps and is soon after murdered.
Hannay is of course suspected in the murder and the race is on! He flees using a map from the dead spy’s hand and tries to discover who or what The 39 Steps is and what big secret they have that the spy was after.
He meets Pamela along the way, who frequently turns him into the police and eventually finds herself handcuffed to him, an unwilling participant now in his flight and mission.
Sure the plot is thin and the secret plans are not very earth-shattering when they are revealed. But that’s Hitchcock. His films are all about the trip, not the destination. He populates the film with major characters that the novel never had, especially the female spy and Pamela and eliminates the details of what The 39 Steps actually are. There was no Mr. Memory in the novel, either.
It shows what Hitchcock really valued – characters and the chase, and the plot points were tools to be used to bring the audience along, and be discarded along the way.
Robert Donat pulls off the lead role spectacularly, combining the role of fugitive, romantic lead and comedy with seeming effortlessness. He was still a few years away from his Oscar-winning role in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” beating out Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Stewart (Gone With The Wind swept the major Oscars except for the male actor awards).
This was the point in Hitchcock’s career when his British work was becoming successful internationally, especially in America. This hit solidified his future, and it wouldn’t be long before he was persuaded to sign with Hollywood.
Netflix recently announced a new “39 Steps” series starring Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock and Dr. Strange fame. Before that is released, you should give the original another take.
The Highlight Reel
Can’t help but think of “It Happened One Night” references in the scene where the male and female leads have to spend the night in an inn while handcuffed. No hanging bedsheets this time. But the cast was well aware of the similarities during filming.
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