The 39 Steps


1h 27m 1935
The 39 Steps

Brief Synopsis

A man falsely suspected of killing a spy races across Scotland handcuffed to the beautiful blonde who turned him in.

Film Details

Genre
Romance
Crime
Mystery
Thriller
Spy
Adaptation
Release Date
Aug 1, 1935
Premiere Information
London opening: Jun 1935
Production Company
Gaumont-British Picture Corp.
Distribution Company
Gaumont-British Picture Corp. of America
Country
Great Britain and United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The 39 Steps by John Buchan (London, 1915).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 27m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7,821ft

Synopsis

On vacation in London, Canadian Richard Hannay becomes embroiled in a spy hunt when a German double-agent, Miss Smith, is murdered in his apartment. He is suspected of the murder, and in his search for the real murderer, he abducts an attractive blonde named Pamela. As the two travel through Britain, Pamela comes to trust Richard, and they slowly fall in love. In the end, Richard uncovers the spy ring and finally proves his innocence.

Film Details

Genre
Romance
Crime
Mystery
Thriller
Spy
Adaptation
Release Date
Aug 1, 1935
Premiere Information
London opening: Jun 1935
Production Company
Gaumont-British Picture Corp.
Distribution Company
Gaumont-British Picture Corp. of America
Country
Great Britain and United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The 39 Steps by John Buchan (London, 1915).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 27m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7,821ft

Articles

The 39 Steps (1935)


Alfred Hitchcock had been a star director in England since his silent film The Lodger (1927) but for the rest of the world, Alfred Hitchcock's fame began with this movie, The 39 Steps (1935). It was as big a hit in America as in England, caught the attention of Hitchcock's future producer David O. Selznick and linked Hitchcock's name forever with light, quickly paced, romantic thrillers.

After years in which Hitchcock had made thrillers only occasionally, Hitchcock had just produced a British hit with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the story of an innocent family that gets involved with spies. For a follow-up Hitchcock and his producer Michael Balcon turned to the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by the suspense author John Buchan. By the time Hitchcock and his scriptwriter Charles Bennett were through the only details remaining from the novel were the chase from London to Scotland and back and the idea that the hero was pursued by the police while he chased the spies.

The resulting screenplay was a marvel of compression. Hitchcock and Bennett broke all the action into a series of set pieces, and then made the transitions between those scenes as rapid as possible. A landlady discovers a woman's body and her scream becomes the whistle of a train speeding the hero away from the scene. In another moment, the handcuffed hero smashes through a window in the police station and quickly joins a parade. Exactly how he managed this feat is never explained but with the film's speed there is never enough time to wonder.

This desire for taut narratives led to the invention of what Hitchcock would dub the "MacGuffin." Based on a Scottish anecdote, the MacGuffin is "the thing the spies are after" that is of vital importance to the characters but of no importance to the audience. Ignoring the point of the pursuit allowed Hitchcock and Bennett to waste less time in explanation and focus more attention on humor, romance and the mounting suspense.

Hitchcock was an inveterate theatre-goer while he was in England and for this film he picked two actors from the English stage. Robert Donat became a major star playing the hero Richard Hannay in this movie while, for the role of a crofter's wife who helps the fugitive hero, Hitchcock chose 27-year old Peggy Ashcroft, later Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Academy Award winner for A Passage to India (1984).

Several women were touted for the female lead before Balcon went to America for British-born Hollywood star Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock worried that she might be too prim and actressy for the role but he managed to break her of that on the day of her first scene. This was one where she was handcuffed to Donat before the two escape from kidnappers. Locking handcuffs around their wrists, Hitchcock led the actors through a rehearsal then claimed an urgent technical matter was calling him away. Unfortunately he had mislaid the key. Donat and Carroll were left locked together until that afternoon when the key, which Hitchcock had placed in the custody of a studio guard, was retrieved and the frustrated couple were separated. By then, of course, both actors were tired and cranky but much better prepared for their roles.

The resulting movie has been hailed as one of the greatest British films ever made and became the inspiration for countless movies ever since, from Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) to recent hits such as The Fugitive (1993) and Double Jeopardy (1999). Every film where an innocent man looks for the evidence to clear himself while the police close in owes a debt to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: Charles Bennett based on the novel by John Buchan
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Art Direction: O. Werndorff
Musical director: Louis Levy
Editing: D.N. Twist
Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter's Wife), John Laurie (Crofter).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.

by Brian Cady
The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps (1935)

Alfred Hitchcock had been a star director in England since his silent film The Lodger (1927) but for the rest of the world, Alfred Hitchcock's fame began with this movie, The 39 Steps (1935). It was as big a hit in America as in England, caught the attention of Hitchcock's future producer David O. Selznick and linked Hitchcock's name forever with light, quickly paced, romantic thrillers. After years in which Hitchcock had made thrillers only occasionally, Hitchcock had just produced a British hit with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the story of an innocent family that gets involved with spies. For a follow-up Hitchcock and his producer Michael Balcon turned to the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by the suspense author John Buchan. By the time Hitchcock and his scriptwriter Charles Bennett were through the only details remaining from the novel were the chase from London to Scotland and back and the idea that the hero was pursued by the police while he chased the spies. The resulting screenplay was a marvel of compression. Hitchcock and Bennett broke all the action into a series of set pieces, and then made the transitions between those scenes as rapid as possible. A landlady discovers a woman's body and her scream becomes the whistle of a train speeding the hero away from the scene. In another moment, the handcuffed hero smashes through a window in the police station and quickly joins a parade. Exactly how he managed this feat is never explained but with the film's speed there is never enough time to wonder. This desire for taut narratives led to the invention of what Hitchcock would dub the "MacGuffin." Based on a Scottish anecdote, the MacGuffin is "the thing the spies are after" that is of vital importance to the characters but of no importance to the audience. Ignoring the point of the pursuit allowed Hitchcock and Bennett to waste less time in explanation and focus more attention on humor, romance and the mounting suspense. Hitchcock was an inveterate theatre-goer while he was in England and for this film he picked two actors from the English stage. Robert Donat became a major star playing the hero Richard Hannay in this movie while, for the role of a crofter's wife who helps the fugitive hero, Hitchcock chose 27-year old Peggy Ashcroft, later Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Academy Award winner for A Passage to India (1984). Several women were touted for the female lead before Balcon went to America for British-born Hollywood star Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock worried that she might be too prim and actressy for the role but he managed to break her of that on the day of her first scene. This was one where she was handcuffed to Donat before the two escape from kidnappers. Locking handcuffs around their wrists, Hitchcock led the actors through a rehearsal then claimed an urgent technical matter was calling him away. Unfortunately he had mislaid the key. Donat and Carroll were left locked together until that afternoon when the key, which Hitchcock had placed in the custody of a studio guard, was retrieved and the frustrated couple were separated. By then, of course, both actors were tired and cranky but much better prepared for their roles. The resulting movie has been hailed as one of the greatest British films ever made and became the inspiration for countless movies ever since, from Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) to recent hits such as The Fugitive (1993) and Double Jeopardy (1999). Every film where an innocent man looks for the evidence to clear himself while the police close in owes a debt to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. Director: Alfred Hitchcock Producer: Michael Balcon Screenplay: Charles Bennett based on the novel by John Buchan Cinematography: Bernard Knowles Art Direction: O. Werndorff Musical director: Louis Levy Editing: D.N. Twist Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter's Wife), John Laurie (Crofter). BW-87m. Closed captioning. by Brian Cady

The 39 Steps - THE 39 STEPS - Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 Thriller on Blu-Ray & DVD


Quick! Name five entertaining English classics from the middle 1930s not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Although a keen search turns up some great films, even the English agree that Hitchcock holds claim to the title. And English critics of the 40s weren't necessarily biased when they said things like, "Hitchcock's best movies are the ones he made before signing with Selznick and crossing the Atlantic." Hitchcock had the London media firmly in his pocket before 1935's The 39 Steps, the picture in which he patented his ideal formula for light thriller entertainment: a spy-chase tale with a wrongly accused man trying to clear his name. Hitchcock had over-achieved with his previous exercise in mayhem and suspense, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Even if elements of that story weren't all in balance, screenwriter Charles Bennett (and others) concocted a series of brilliantly original set-piece scenes that elicited both scares and laughs from the audience. They converge on a carefully prepared suspense sequence at the Albert Hall that, because the soundtrack is dominated by a concert in progress, makes use of expressive silent movie visuals. The tearful vision of the distressed heroine becomes a screen-filling blur, into which intrudes a close-up of an assassin's gun barrel, very much in focus.

Practically the working recipe for unbreakable "Hitchcock" thrillers to come, The 39 Steps combines equal parts spy chase, comic sidebar scenes and sexy romantic material. The source is a book by author John Buchan, but history has awarded the credit for this saucy mix to Hitch, with a Supporting Chef nod to Bennett.

Canadian visitor Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) attends a Music Hall where the amusing Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) performs. Picked up by the exotic, enticing Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), Hannay initially pays little attention to her story of being chased by spies. He changes his tune when she's knifed to death in his apartment, after giving him only one clue: Alt-na-Shellach, the name of a locale in Scotland that is essential to the safeguarding of an important military secret. Realizing that he has been framed for the murder of Annabella, Hannay flees northward on a train. He begs a beautiful fellow traveler Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) to hide him from the authorities, but she immediately turns him in. Hannay effects an escape, reaches his destination and contacts the one man who can help him uncover the nest of spies --- only to discover that this local man is the head of the entire enemy organization. Fleeing once again, Hannay finds himself handcuffed to Pamela, and forced to persuade her that his mission to thwart the spies is genuine.

The 39 Steps even dazzled jaded New York critics and exhibitors, overturning the conviction that English films couldn't touch the exciting, high-budget adventures being turned out by Hollywood. Richard Hannay's highly entertaining race to Scotland introduced to mainstream thrillers ideas of pacing and ellipsis largely forgotten with the advent of sound. Hitchcock doesn't show everything that happens - the murder in Hannay's apartment is a complete mystery -- without pausing for scenes of a police investigation. Instead of a shot of a sunrise to show the passage of time, Hitchcock shows a cleaning woman discovering a dead body. Her scream is replaced by the shriek of a steam engine's whistle, and we leapfrog over more conventional exposition to join Hannay, his flight northward already in progress. Fritz Lang had invented the 'associative audio cut' that motivated instant transitions to otherwise random-looking new scenes. In The 39 Steps Hitchcock earned kudos for providing a stylish shock transition that 1) confirms the status of the unfortunate Annabella; 2) underscores why Hannay is running for his life; and 3) jolts the audience with the charwoman's extreme reaction, aided by the clever audio trick.

The narrative has only a couple of minutes of conventional foot pursuit in the Scottish Highlands, even (as explained by one of Criterion's extras) tossing in a weak effects shot of a pursuing Autogyro, to please literal-minded readers of Buchan's book. Is the airplane a forerunner of the crop duster in North by Northwest, or the SMERSH helicopter in From Russia with Love? Hitchcock prefers to concentrate on Hannay's encounters with various locals, which enable him to poke impish fun at the notion of Scotsmen as mean-spirited and stingy. An incredibly economical visit to the house of John, a crofter (John Laurie) is often singled out for praise. John's welcome is a negotiation for payments. When he sees Hannay and his quiet wife (Peggy Ashcroft, much later a star in David Lean's A Passage to India) exchanging furtive glances he's quick to accuse them. The crisscrossed mis-readings are indicated through just a couple of quick close-ups of eyes.

Hitchcock, we are told, began directing with a sketchy knowledge of sexuality from the female point of view. But by The 39 Steps he had settled on his personal fantasy female: a conservative blonde, icily reserved in public yet scandalously forward in private. He searched for this elusive creature for the rest of his filmmaking career, but succeeded in concocting elaborate fantasy versions of "her" through several gorgeous blonde actresses. Most sources agree that the first model off the assembly line was Steps' gorgeous Madeline Carroll. Her Pamela twice betrays Hannay and is his argumentative equal. They carry on a running argument, even during a midnight kidnapping. Carroll's Pamela spends a soggy night handcuffed to Hannay, out in the wild and together in the intimate confines of a country inn. Like Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint to Cary Grant, Carroll's scolding only looks like more teasing, as when an attempt to remove the handcuffs results in some suggestive contact between Hannay's hand and Pamela's invitingly naked leg. As for Robert Donat, the polished actor manages to be simultaneously desperate and cavalier about his plight while aiming teasing insults at Pamela. She doesn't know whether to bash him in the head while he sleeps, or leap recklessly into his arms. The couple is aided and abetted by a sympathetic innkeeper's wife (Helen Haye), whose protective attitude to lovers on the run always elicits applause from screening audiences.

The story finishes with a clever twist that sends one out admiring The 39 Steps for its fine-tuned pacing and narrative symmetry. And Hitchcock made certain that his personal stamp of humor would be remembered first, even before the engaging performances of his lead actors. From this point forward the "Master of Suspense" would keep his audiences guessing what the next trick up his sleeve would be.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The 39 Steps is a very good restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's long-confirmed classic thriller. The transfer is quite good, although we suspect that the best original elements are long gone; Criterion lists the digital tools used to spiff up their presentation but does not specify the actual source. The film shows some wear yet is the best looking and sounding copy of the show I've ever seen. Much more of the dialogue - all that chatter in the Music Hall! -- is now clearly audible.

Disc producers Susan Arosteguy and Karen Stetler faced up to the challenge of finding "new" extras for a film that has been analyzed and raked over since the beginning of pop film criticism and the Truffaut/Hitchcock book. We're given a commentary by Hitchcock specialist Marian Keane, an English TV docu on the director's pre-war career; an excerpt from a 1966 Hitchcock TV interview and an entertaining visual essay conducted by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff.

From the vault comes a 1937 radio adaptation starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, audio excerpts from François Truffaut's 1962 Hitchcock interviews and a gallery of original designs. Bringing out the film's Scottish flavor is critic/filmmaker David Cairns' insightful liner note essay. Cairns neatly disposes of the "MacGuffin question" and then just as persuasively sketches the similarity of Hitchcock's disconnected, often unexplained thriller plotting to a surreal nightmare. The quote, "I make nightmares", isn't restricted to the director's more frightening films.

For more information about The 39 Steps, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The 39 Steps, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson

The 39 Steps - THE 39 STEPS - Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 Thriller on Blu-Ray & DVD

Quick! Name five entertaining English classics from the middle 1930s not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Although a keen search turns up some great films, even the English agree that Hitchcock holds claim to the title. And English critics of the 40s weren't necessarily biased when they said things like, "Hitchcock's best movies are the ones he made before signing with Selznick and crossing the Atlantic." Hitchcock had the London media firmly in his pocket before 1935's The 39 Steps, the picture in which he patented his ideal formula for light thriller entertainment: a spy-chase tale with a wrongly accused man trying to clear his name. Hitchcock had over-achieved with his previous exercise in mayhem and suspense, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Even if elements of that story weren't all in balance, screenwriter Charles Bennett (and others) concocted a series of brilliantly original set-piece scenes that elicited both scares and laughs from the audience. They converge on a carefully prepared suspense sequence at the Albert Hall that, because the soundtrack is dominated by a concert in progress, makes use of expressive silent movie visuals. The tearful vision of the distressed heroine becomes a screen-filling blur, into which intrudes a close-up of an assassin's gun barrel, very much in focus. Practically the working recipe for unbreakable "Hitchcock" thrillers to come, The 39 Steps combines equal parts spy chase, comic sidebar scenes and sexy romantic material. The source is a book by author John Buchan, but history has awarded the credit for this saucy mix to Hitch, with a Supporting Chef nod to Bennett. Canadian visitor Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) attends a Music Hall where the amusing Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) performs. Picked up by the exotic, enticing Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), Hannay initially pays little attention to her story of being chased by spies. He changes his tune when she's knifed to death in his apartment, after giving him only one clue: Alt-na-Shellach, the name of a locale in Scotland that is essential to the safeguarding of an important military secret. Realizing that he has been framed for the murder of Annabella, Hannay flees northward on a train. He begs a beautiful fellow traveler Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) to hide him from the authorities, but she immediately turns him in. Hannay effects an escape, reaches his destination and contacts the one man who can help him uncover the nest of spies --- only to discover that this local man is the head of the entire enemy organization. Fleeing once again, Hannay finds himself handcuffed to Pamela, and forced to persuade her that his mission to thwart the spies is genuine. The 39 Steps even dazzled jaded New York critics and exhibitors, overturning the conviction that English films couldn't touch the exciting, high-budget adventures being turned out by Hollywood. Richard Hannay's highly entertaining race to Scotland introduced to mainstream thrillers ideas of pacing and ellipsis largely forgotten with the advent of sound. Hitchcock doesn't show everything that happens - the murder in Hannay's apartment is a complete mystery -- without pausing for scenes of a police investigation. Instead of a shot of a sunrise to show the passage of time, Hitchcock shows a cleaning woman discovering a dead body. Her scream is replaced by the shriek of a steam engine's whistle, and we leapfrog over more conventional exposition to join Hannay, his flight northward already in progress. Fritz Lang had invented the 'associative audio cut' that motivated instant transitions to otherwise random-looking new scenes. In The 39 Steps Hitchcock earned kudos for providing a stylish shock transition that 1) confirms the status of the unfortunate Annabella; 2) underscores why Hannay is running for his life; and 3) jolts the audience with the charwoman's extreme reaction, aided by the clever audio trick. The narrative has only a couple of minutes of conventional foot pursuit in the Scottish Highlands, even (as explained by one of Criterion's extras) tossing in a weak effects shot of a pursuing Autogyro, to please literal-minded readers of Buchan's book. Is the airplane a forerunner of the crop duster in North by Northwest, or the SMERSH helicopter in From Russia with Love? Hitchcock prefers to concentrate on Hannay's encounters with various locals, which enable him to poke impish fun at the notion of Scotsmen as mean-spirited and stingy. An incredibly economical visit to the house of John, a crofter (John Laurie) is often singled out for praise. John's welcome is a negotiation for payments. When he sees Hannay and his quiet wife (Peggy Ashcroft, much later a star in David Lean's A Passage to India) exchanging furtive glances he's quick to accuse them. The crisscrossed mis-readings are indicated through just a couple of quick close-ups of eyes. Hitchcock, we are told, began directing with a sketchy knowledge of sexuality from the female point of view. But by The 39 Steps he had settled on his personal fantasy female: a conservative blonde, icily reserved in public yet scandalously forward in private. He searched for this elusive creature for the rest of his filmmaking career, but succeeded in concocting elaborate fantasy versions of "her" through several gorgeous blonde actresses. Most sources agree that the first model off the assembly line was Steps' gorgeous Madeline Carroll. Her Pamela twice betrays Hannay and is his argumentative equal. They carry on a running argument, even during a midnight kidnapping. Carroll's Pamela spends a soggy night handcuffed to Hannay, out in the wild and together in the intimate confines of a country inn. Like Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint to Cary Grant, Carroll's scolding only looks like more teasing, as when an attempt to remove the handcuffs results in some suggestive contact between Hannay's hand and Pamela's invitingly naked leg. As for Robert Donat, the polished actor manages to be simultaneously desperate and cavalier about his plight while aiming teasing insults at Pamela. She doesn't know whether to bash him in the head while he sleeps, or leap recklessly into his arms. The couple is aided and abetted by a sympathetic innkeeper's wife (Helen Haye), whose protective attitude to lovers on the run always elicits applause from screening audiences. The story finishes with a clever twist that sends one out admiring The 39 Steps for its fine-tuned pacing and narrative symmetry. And Hitchcock made certain that his personal stamp of humor would be remembered first, even before the engaging performances of his lead actors. From this point forward the "Master of Suspense" would keep his audiences guessing what the next trick up his sleeve would be. The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The 39 Steps is a very good restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's long-confirmed classic thriller. The transfer is quite good, although we suspect that the best original elements are long gone; Criterion lists the digital tools used to spiff up their presentation but does not specify the actual source. The film shows some wear yet is the best looking and sounding copy of the show I've ever seen. Much more of the dialogue - all that chatter in the Music Hall! -- is now clearly audible. Disc producers Susan Arosteguy and Karen Stetler faced up to the challenge of finding "new" extras for a film that has been analyzed and raked over since the beginning of pop film criticism and the Truffaut/Hitchcock book. We're given a commentary by Hitchcock specialist Marian Keane, an English TV docu on the director's pre-war career; an excerpt from a 1966 Hitchcock TV interview and an entertaining visual essay conducted by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. From the vault comes a 1937 radio adaptation starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, audio excerpts from François Truffaut's 1962 Hitchcock interviews and a gallery of original designs. Bringing out the film's Scottish flavor is critic/filmmaker David Cairns' insightful liner note essay. Cairns neatly disposes of the "MacGuffin question" and then just as persuasively sketches the similarity of Hitchcock's disconnected, often unexplained thriller plotting to a surreal nightmare. The quote, "I make nightmares", isn't restricted to the director's more frightening films. For more information about The 39 Steps, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The 39 Steps, go to TCM Shopping. by Glenn Erickson

Quotes

I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel.
- Richard Hannay
There are 20 million women in this island and I get to be chained to you.
- Richard Hannay
Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?
- Annabella Smith
No. What's that, a pub?
- Richard Hannay
Gentlemen, please! You're not at home!
- Music hall announcer
Hello, what are we stopping for? Oh it's a whole flock of detectives.
- Richard Hannay

Trivia

about 7 minutes in, tossing some litter as Richard and Annabella run from the music hall.

Pamela listening to a conversation from the top of a staircase.

'Madeline Carroll' suffered at the hands of Hitch's quest for realism, right down to the real welts on her wrists from the long days of being handcuffed to Robert Donat.

The 62 imported sheep, upon arriving at the sound stage, immediately went to work on the bracken and bushes that had been brought with them. The infuriated crew had to replace the real plants with ones hastily bought from a local nursery.

Notes

This film was reissued in the United States in July 1938. Modern sources include Producer Michael Balcon, Associate Producer Ivor Montagu and Design Albert Jullion in the production.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Summer June 1935

Re-released in United States November 3, 1999

Re-released in United States on Video September 24, 1996

1999 re-release is distributed by MGM and is a new 35mm print.

Released in USA on video.

British actress Elizabeth Inglis is the mother of American actress Sigourney Weaver.

Released in United States Summer June 1935

Re-released in United States November 3, 1999 (Film Forum; New York City)

Re-released in United States on Video September 24, 1996