At Last, “The 39 Steps”

28 05 2010

“What I like in The Thirty-Nine Steps are the swift transitions. The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement. It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort.” – Alfred Hitchcock

We’ve come to the end of my “39 Steps Fest,” and so, at last, to “The 39 Steps” itself – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation of John Buchan’s spy novel, which is considered one of the greatest British movies ever made, and the crowning achievement of Hitchcock’s British period. The movie was very successful, and it certainly benefitted from the fact that the book itself was a big hit.

In the book “Hitchcock on Hitchcock,” which I wrote about here, Hitch mentions that he had read the novel when it was new, and that when he finally got the chance to film it, he realized that it would need a lot of work before it could be made into a movie. Hitchcock, with writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay and the always reliable Alma Reville, streamlined the story considerably. In the process, Hitch added female roles and also made Richard Hannay more of an everyman than he was in the novel.

Hitchcock throws us straight into the action, as we open on the London Palladium, where, onstage, Mr. Memory performs, answering questions from the audience, punctuated by his catchphrase, “Am I right, sir?” Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) asks a question that identifies him as Canadian; moments later, violence erupts, shots ring out, and Hannay escapes the hall, pushed up against Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). They repair to his flat, and he learns that she is a spy, being pursued by two men. She gives him a few clues as to her mission – something about “The 39 Steps,” military secrets and a man with part of his finger missing – then goes off to get some rest, while Hannay sleeps on a couch, but in the middle of the night she staggers out of the bedroom, a knife in her back and a map of Scotland in her hand.

Just then the phone rings; the two men are still outside, watching the apartment from a phone booth, but if they’re there, then who just stabbed Annabella? That question is never answered, as Hannay flees the apartment and begins his long flight away from the authorities and, he hopes, toward the evidence that will eventually clear his name, as he becomes a suspect in Annabella’s murder.

By morning, Hannay hops a train, trying to lay low, but he has the misfortune of being in a compartment with two chatty salesmen who are discussing the news of the day, including the murder. Hitchcock revels in their discussion of the murder; one claims he’s not interested, but keeps asking for details anyway, while the other doesn’t even pretend not to care about it.

Hannay abandons the compartment when he sees that the police are on the train; he takes refuge with a young woman, who turns him over to the police. In one of the movie’s most exciting scenes, Hannay escapes the train by climbing behind a column on the Forth Bridge; apparently the police are not used to looking behind things.

Hitchcock preserves some of John Buchan’s colorful Scottish characters as Hannah is pursued by both the police and the two spies from outside his apartment; he is helped by a poor crofter’s wife and given shelter by a doting innkeeper and her oblivious husband. When Hannay gives the police the slip by ducking into a political rally, he is called upon to speak by a man whose barely audible introduction is met with cries of “Speak oot!” from the audience.

Pace is the key to “The 39 Steps.” Things move along so quickly it’s almost hard to keep the action straight. Hannay meets the woman from the train at the political rally, where one of the spies, acting as a police officer, takes both Hannay and the woman, Pamela, into custody, handcuffing them together. When the spies’ car runs into a herd of sheep, Hannay and Pamela escape, although she believes that he is a killer. He half drags her across the moors, and they spend the night at the inn, but then she manages to slip out of her handcuff and heads downstairs, where she hears the spies planning to go back to the Palladium in London. Hannay and Pamela go to the Palladium as well, where Hannay realizes that the secrets the spies have obtained are in the mind of Mr. Memory. When Hannay stands up and asks Mr. Memory, “What are the 39 Steps?” the performer begins to answer, explaining that they are a circle of spies, and is shot.

Besides the frenetic pace of much of the movie and the powerful sequences like the Forth Bridge escape and the political rally, “The 39 Steps” is Hitch’s tribute to the British music hall. The audience is rowdy – they’re amusing themselves almost as much as they’re enjoying the show – and we also get glimpses of other acts, including a three-man song and comedy act and a line of chorus girls who are seen dancing onstage while Mr. Memory lies dying.

Hitchcock especially enjoyed working with Madeleine Carroll, whose role as Pamela grew as filming went on. The director often said that he disliked working with actresses who were too concerned with being ladylike to be real people, and here, as Pamela is stripped of her iciness as she’s dragged along with Hannay, she comes to symbolized Hitchcock’s attitude toward actresses in general.

Although Hitch smoothed out the plot in making “The 39 Steps” into a movie, eliminating several large coincidences, some coincidences remain, such as Pamela’s presence at the political rally where Hannay wanders in. Hitchcock specifically mentions having to eliminate sequences from the novel in which Hannay disguises himself as a Scotsman because they would not believable (although Robert Donat doesn’t sound at all Canadian in the film). And in true MacGuffin fashion, we never learn much about the spy ring itself, only that it exists and that Mr. Memory was the key to their plans.

As I mentioned here, Hitchcock had wanted to make John Buchan’s second Hannay novel, “Greenmantle,” into a movie starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

I was fortunate enough to watch the Criterion Collection disc of “The 39 Steps,” which had a really superb picture. The disc has extras including a half-hour documentary on Hitchcock’s British period produced by Janus Films.

Up next, Peter Lorre returns, along with John Gielgud and Robert Young, in “The Secret Agent,” based on a story by Someset Maugham.


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