United Kingdom, 1935
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
With Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Lucie Mannheim (Annabella Smith), Peggy Ashcroft (the crofter’s wife), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), John Laurie (the crofter), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory)
In London, a beautiful and mysterious woman asks a Canadian traveler to shelter her as she worries for her safety. At his apartment, she candidly explains she is a spy and even evokes her current assignment. She is later shockingly stabbed and before passing away warns her host to flee and gives him a map of Scotland. He readily decides to go over there to finish her job and makes sense of this mess. He struggles to escape from the police and from some suspicious men but is eventually confronted by the spymaster who holds the information the slain spy was looking for. His life is threatened but he manages to escape unscathed. Refusing to believe his story, Scottish police arrest him; he flees once again but is caught, along with an innocent lady, by the spymaster’s acolytes. The mismatched couple born out of the circumstances fights to get along but eventually cross together the Borders and successfully thwart in London that dangerous plot against the UK.
The plot starts and ends on the stage of a music hall; but the light entertainment such a place promises and cinema can be is masterfully made the backdrop of a tragedy and the number that is played each time, in a dizzying echo, gives the story its twin climaxes, first setting in motion the plot and then giving the solution to the puzzle while granting its hero well-deserved reprieve and reward.
The first climax is quietly, light-heartedly, introduced, as the camera follows a man entering the theater and then observes the audience offhandedly reacting to the showman just appearing on the stage, a so-called Mr. Memory. It takes some time before the camera focuses on the lead character, Richard Hannay (the man the camera earlier followed, funnily shooting only on his legs); soon after, this entertaining anecdotal sequence is upended by a close-up on a gun firing two bullets. As he rushes to the exit he bumps against a woman; she is Annabella Smith, the spy who is going to change for ever his dull tourist life into an incredible adventure. The move from banal, remarkably realistic, pictures of entertainment to puzzling thriller is as sudden as it is bold and brilliant. It nicely encapsulates the plot’s strength and attractiveness: this is about how a perfect stranger (and deeply so, as he was not born in the country) gets entangled in a business far bigger and riskier than whatever he could have imagined (Alfred Hitchcock would use time and again this plot idea).
The second climax occurs at the end of Hannay’s hectic quest for truth; the suspense is greater than ever and the terms quite simple: can he prevent Professor Jordan from getting away with the secret? But coming back to a music hall seems a bizarre idea – until Jordan waves at Mr. Memory, implying the artist has always been involved – a clever twist in the narration: he is no longer a pleasant feature but a key player. This time, there is a good reason why Hannay should ask a question: the attention is no longer on giving him prominence but on getting truth out. Once again, two bullets are fired but they are useless for the gun owner: the bad guy can’t escape. The camera moves in ever bolder and surprising ways (with spectacular long shots) and using the music hall stage as the final battleground smartly emphasizes the purpose of the sequence: exposing the facts to the public.
The final shot dwells on the commotion that ensues the fainting of Mr. Memory (his wounded body exhausted by the effort of speaking) from a distance long enough to capture the lower parts of the bodies of Hannay and his unwilling runaway companion, Pamela (this mirrors the beginning: the actors are only showed in part, leaving the audience to guess what could be on their faces); they don’t move but slowly their arms no longer stick to their body; they tentatively reach for one another till the hands clasp. This is the other conclusion of the movie, the other big fact exposed: their love.
Maybe this odd, unexpected falling in love was the real point of the story. For all his quiet, slightly blasé attitude of a foreigner touring the former colonial power, Hannay proves to be an eye-catching male specimen. First, Annabella does not hesitate to throw herself in his arms and later to tell it all in a chat which has slight overtones of a seduction game and unfolds in a very intimate, family-like situation (he fixes her a meal while smoking his cigarettes; only their wearing coats betrays something unnatural). Later, as he wanders in the Scottish landscape, he convinces a crofter to put him up for the night. He makes a near-fatal blunder: his eyes catch a headline in the local weekly referring to Annabella’s killing and his face suddenly worries even as he desperately tries to read the item under the puzzled stare of his host. The crofter’s wife readily gathers he is in trouble and, after politely accepted his presence, rushes to his help; in the morn, he can escape again the police thanks to her enthusiastic empathy for his case. And finally, there is Pamela.
In fact they met earlier, in the express train from London to Scotland; he was trying to avoid an identity check and just came in her compartment and kissed her. The provocative gesture scandalized her and did not fool the policemen. Hannay meets her again as he has just run away from a police station after his encounter with Professor Jordan; both are picked up by a duo of serious guys who seemed from one side but turned out to be from the other. Escaping them compels Hannay and an angry Pamela to get by together, bonded by handcuffs hard to get rid of. She is not as charmed by Hannay as the other female characters, to say the least – and she has no reason to be, given the circumstances. She would relent during a comical, eventful night in an inn, an episode with a highly enjoyable witty edge and made at a leisurely pace; the awakening of the sentiments take up quite a fair share of an otherwise taut and short running time (86 minutes). It feels as the director has long been reckoning to shoot a duel between two different characters highlighting their charms and their mettle, nudging aside the spy game. Pamela’s case is deeply ironic and slightly disturbing, as her feelings bloom only after she was somehow assaulted and undoubtedly shackled; she is first a slave to love even before true love arises. On the other hand the episode underlines the skills and the seduction of Hannay, who goes through the trial in a relaxed manner and remains a lucky guy.
“The 39 Steps” is is not only about clever symmetries, careful shooting, ironic twists and intelligent characterization. It is first and foremost a hectic action movie, masterfully creating suspense and relishing making unforgettable camerawork stunts. The train ride is a perfect culmination of these skills: the way the camera sways from an increasingly worried Hannay to the two salesmen sitting opposite to him, chatting over trifles and then over that murder in London, showing merry faces that are suffused with an unsettling ambiguity; and of course Hannay’s escape after he kissed Pamela, which leads him to hide behind a pillar in a steel bridge, the camera showing alternatively his physical skill fooling the police and the real danger jeopardizing his life (the gap between his perching post and the roiling river running so far lower). The film stands as a stunning work of entertainment that gives the audience every thrill they can hope to watch in a movie theater (with a consummate talent for shooting spectacular events, great characters and an attractive, if not always logical, tale (after all, it remains a mystery to understand how Annabella could have been stabbed or how Professor Jordan could have used Mr. Memory in his complicated, far-fetched mission…)