Alfred Hitchock
The 39 Steps

Robert Donat in The 39 Steps.
(© Gaumont British Film Corporation of America, Ltd. MCMXXXV.
© The Criterion Collection. All rights reserved.)

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During an interview conducted by Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said, "What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out." This comment is particularly appropriate in connection with The 39 Steps (1935), for in this movie, Hitchcock stripped out anything that interfered with the movie's pace. He readily sacrificed credibility in favor of a headstrong rush of exciting sequences (with magnificent results). Hitchcock would adopt a similar approach in North by Northwest (1959), and consequently, the movies are frequently compared.

Both movies give us innocent men who find themselves accused of murder; these men are chased by the police and soon find themselves embroiled in spy efforts to get secret information out of the country. In addition, at the center of both stories, the charming leading men (Robert Donat in The 39 Steps and Cary Grant in North by Northwest) become involved with women (Madeleine Carroll and Eva Marie Saint, respectively) that they encounter as they flee across the countryside (from London to the Scottish moors and from New York City to Mount Rushmore).

However, such comparisons don't do justice to The 39 Steps. They tend to suggest it represents an early walk-though by Hitchcock of material he would later explore more successfully in the latter film. But The 39 Steps is an extraordinary movie in its own right. It's filled with amazing sequences that Hitchcock structured like short stories. Hitchcock told Truffaut, "I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself."

This approach becomes clearest in the Crofter's cottage sequence: while on the run from the police for a murder he didn't commit, Richard Hannay (Donat) stays overnight at the cottage of a farmer. During that brief stay, we witness the wife's disappointment at life on the farm when she talks about city life in Glasgow. We witness the husband's pent up anger as he peers through the cottage window and sees his wife and Hannay talking in hushed tones. (She realizes Hannay is on the lam and wants to help him.) The Crofter's eyes fill with violence as he sees his wife's obvious attraction to Hannay. And we experience the hopelessness of her situation as the police arrive and she rushes Hannay out the back door, leaving her alone with a husband who will soon beat her.

The Crofter's sequence is one of the best dramatic sequences ever filmed by Hitchcock. All the more remarkable, this amazing sequence doesn't overpower the rest of the movie because every few minutes Hitchcock delivers another stunning sequence--such as the scene where Hannay rushes into a building to avoid the police and the crowd inside assumes he's the politician scheduled to make a speech; or the scene where Hannay attends a music hall performance by a little man named "Mr. Memory" who can answer any question the audience throws at him; or the scene where Hannay forces a woman (who has become handcuffed to him!) to stay with him overnight at an inn. The "rapidity of transitions" (Hitchcock's words) from one scene to the next might strain credulity, but the individual episodes themselves are so engaging that it's easy to give yourself completely to the movie's narrative.

For several years, The 39 Steps has only been available in video transfers from worn, burnout prints, but now the Criterion Collection has come to the rescue with a gorgeous new transfer with digitally restored image and sound. This is the best that The 39 Steps has looked in years. In addition, this new DVD release contains a wealth of extras, such as an audio essay by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, the complete 1937 Lux Radio Theatre presentation of The 39 Steps with Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the leading roles, a Hitchcock documentary, excerpts from the original press book, and production design drawings. These extras will keep Hitchcock fans busy for several hours.

The audio essay by Marian Keane is frequently insightful. She gives a close reading of the movie that unfolds as we watch each scene. She doesn't provide much background information on the production or the actors. Her interest is almost exclusively on interpreting the images provided by Hitchcock. For my taste, however, she's a bit too eager to assign sexual symbolism. For example, during the Crofter's scene, she quickly labels the Crofter as impotent. However, there are many other possible reasons that a young wife and an older husband might be unhappy together that have nothing to do with impotence whatsoever.

In general, though, her essay is helpful. For example, she convincingly talks about how the banter between Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) begins to sound like romantic comedy once they are handcuffed together and must cooperate in their actions. Here, her discussion of a "phallic gun" is effective, for Pamela is indeed afraid that Hannay might be holding a pistol (and therefore she does what he says). However, she's also afraid of the virulence that Hannay represents. Pamela is still smarting from their initial encounter: Hannay forced a kiss upon her. Clutching her close to his chest and fighting off her struggles with his embrace, Hannay successfully fooled the police into believing they were seeing lovers in action, not a wanted man on the lam. So the police pass by without asking Hannay and Pamela any questions.

Her resentment of this intrusion stays with her until late in the movie, when the plot brings them back together and literally manacles them hand to hand. Eventually her anger begins to soften, and as it does, their conversation begins to sound like the banter of lovers. (But then unfortunately Ms. Keane spoils her argument by insisting that the candle in Hannay and Pamela's inn room should be seen as phallic: it burns down through the night, representing the reduced threat to Pamela posed by Hannay. Phallic symbolism: you can see it everywhere if you're looking for it.)

The 39 Steps is arguably Hitchcock's best British film. It's full of fascinating compositions as Hitchcock uses his camera with expressionistic gusto. More so than in his other British films, Hitchcock's work in The 39 Steps is influenced by the great German and Russian filmmakers. His camera angles down and it angles up. It cuts off faces and frames action in unusual ways, as when Hitchcock gives us a camera shot through the back of a chair. The wooden bars make the participants in the Crofter's cottage look as if they're in prison (which is indeed appropriate). The movie's most surprising shot features a cleaning woman finding the body of a murdered woman: as she turns and screams, Hitchcock replaces the woman with a camera shot of the locomotive carrying Hannay. Her scream blends into the train's whistle. And there's a remarkable composition once Hannay and Pamela reach the inn. As they sit on a bench, trying to dry out before a stove, Pamela struggles to remove her stockings. The camera angles down on their legs, not showing their faces, as Hannay's handcuffed hand must follow Pamela's. Briefly his hand falls on her knee. "Here, hold this," says Pamela. And she stuffs a sandwich in his hand!

This is a remarkable movie that effectively balances suspense with comedy and romance. Hitchcock's British movies are generally considered inferior to the American films that would soon follow. Hitchcock himself characterized the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) as the work of a "talented amateur" and the American version (released in 1956) as the work of a "professional." But The 39 Steps suggests that such descriptions aren't completely fair. The 39 Steps ranks among Hitchcock's very best films.


The 39 Steps is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new transfer with digitally restored image and sound. The DVD contains several special features: an audio essay by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane; the complete 1937 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, featuring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino; The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock, a Janus Films documentary detailing the director's British period; excerpts from the original 1935 press book; and original production design drawings. Suggested retail price: $39.95.