The 39 Steps
Among Hitchcock’s most widely revered British-era films, The 39 Steps is both a tour de force in its own right and a template for his future masterpieces. Most of the celebrated Hitchcock trademarks are here, including the “wrong man” theme, the “MacGuffin”, a train journey, the odd mixture of murder and humour, and the gorgeous blonde who may or may not be trustworthy. The shot construction is elegant, the tension palpable, and the bad guys sinister. The only serious complaints that have been lodged against this mostly perfect thriller surround the apparent laziness on the part of all concerned with getting the actors to perform appropriate accents. (This only sort of bugs me, since accents are so often laughably bad in films from this era, but it is true that western Canadians will have trouble finding something of themselves in Robert Donat’s Richard Hannay.) That trifle aside, what we have here is an entertaining, romantic, funny, and tense escapade which, more successfully than any of his films up to that point, demonstrates Hitchcock’s incomparable genius.
The 39 Steps follows Hannay, a Canadian everyman, as he becomes embroiled in a hopelessly complex international political intrigue. We, the only people other than the villains who know the truth, wander with Hannay as he attempts the impossible: cracking the mystery and clearing his name. You may recognize this plot. About every third thriller since 1935 has used this same basic concept—since screenwriters understand that it’s a lot of fun to identify with a guy who might just be you but for the grace of the big guy—and Hitchcock himself essentially re-imagined The 39 Steps as North by Northwest twenty years later. But, where the latter film made use of bigger budgets and wild stunts and major landmarks, the earlier stab at the concept operates on a smaller, more intimate, and (as a result) more realistic scale. Yes, we can sort of identify with NxNW’s Cary Grant for awhile, but eventually a guy will try to hit him with a plane. A plane. This is something that is hard to imagine might happen to you. But, being chased by police while handcuffed to a beautiful woman intent on turning you in? Well, it’s not entirely plausible, but at least it’s a bit less totally absurd. (Okay, the whole bullet vs. bible thing is preposterous, and the autogyro is unlikely. But at least it’s not a plane.)
It is, for me, its human scale that makes The 39 Steps so affecting. As Hitchcock told filmmaker and acolyte Francois Truffaut, “I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.” Indeed, this is a film comprised of setpieces. To my mind, the most effective example of the merit of this construction is found in the lengthy sequence a third of the way into the film at the farmer’s croft. On-the-lam Hannay has stumbled onto this quiet place, and has tried to win a night’s stay out of the middle-aged man and his much younger wife. We sense that she has become bored and dissatisfied with her life on the farm, and that she misses the bustle of Glasgow; she looks to Hannay as a sophisticated diversion. A little fire is kindled between the desperate-to-impress Hannay and the admiring young woman, a point not lost on the increasingly jealous farmer. Having discovered Hannay’s secret, she helps him to escape an approaching search party. But, while Hannay is now free to run some more, we are left with the awful knowledge that, aware of what she has done, the farmer will set about beating his wife. A little fun, a few jokes, a warm and friendly character, and then this bleak conclusion. It is a complete story, a dark note of tragic realism to cast a shadow on the fantasy of high adventure.
But for most viewers, The 39 Steps stands as a classic example of the mingling of romance and intrigue. In one of its most influential conceits, Hannay’s need to convince Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) of his innocence is paralleled by his romantic desire. Indeed, the conflation of the film’s two conclusions—sex and vindication—is established at their first meeting. Bursting into her train compartment and in need of a way to hide his identity, Hannay forces Pamela to kiss him so as to throw off his pursuers. From this moment onward, Hannay must convince her to trust him, to believe in him, and to stop trying to turn him in to the cops at every opportunity, while always between them there is this thickening of the romance in the air. In order to save himself, he must first win her over. In order to sleep with her, he must do said same. The handcuffs which bind them for awhile are the obvious literal manifestation of this twinning of the drive toward sex and freedom, and never more so than when Pamela scandalously removes her stockings while attached to Hannay. Indeed, one way to watch The 39 Steps, from that first kiss (signifying escape) to their final scenes together, is as a carefully constructed riff on Edwardian courtship rituals. Masterful stuff.
(Fun fact: the man who wrote the book upon which the film was based—John Buchan—became Canada’s Governor General, which is the Queen’s representative in the country and technically the acting head of state, though in reality mostly a figurehead. I wonder what he thought of Donat’s accent?)
Since Hitchcock had already made a (not very good) picture called Secret Agent earlier that year, it was decided that his film version of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent would be titled Sabotage. This wouldn’t have been that confusing, but for Hitch’s unfortunate decision a few years later to make a film called Saboteur, thus forever confusing dimwits like me. I am continually prone to mixing up these three very different films; I was once halfway through a conversation (which conversation was becoming increasingly nonsensical for both parties involved) before it was determined that we were talking about totally different movies. Even more bewildering: Sabotage’s alternate titles were, variously, “I Married a Murderer”, “The Woman Alone”, and “The Hidden Power”. Anyway, if you came here to read about Frank Frye et al. (or, for that matter, Ashenden and the General), you’re probably not alone. Sorry.
Like many thrillers of the era, Sabotage opens with a close-up on a dictionary definition which anticipates what’s to come. “Sabotage”, it explains, is the deliberate destruction of buildings or machinery “with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.” There is, of course, some fun irony here, since a thriller’s basic mandate is to perform rather precisely the same function as the saboteur, thus defined. (That this definition also fits closely with today’s concept of “terrorism” does not go unnoticed.) Hitchcock wants to make us uneasy, wants to alarm us. And, in at least one famous instance, he was undoubtedly successful on that score, though he would come to regret it.
Released in 1936, Sabotage shocked audiences with one of the most astoundingly suspenseful sequences that had yet been committed to film. As we watch a child carry a bomb across London, all of us knowing that the thing is set to go off at one o’clock, Hitchcock cuts back and forth between shots of the boy with his terrible package and clock faces as they count out the seconds. As we begin to fear that—my god—he may actually be blown apart, Hitchcock allows the time to pass one o’clock, to go two minutes over the deadline. And then, suddenly, appallingly, just as we have started to sense that the device is faulty, that the boy will make it through after all, it detonates. The kid does not stay in the picture.
Hitch once referred to this extraordinary scene as “a terrible mistake”. “I worked the audience up, and then I let the bomb go off,” he told Dick Cavett in a famous interview from 1972. “I had made the mistake of not relieving them [the audience] at the end of the suspense. In other words, if you put the audience through the mill like that, you must relieve them. The bomb must be found.” And yet, this “mistake” (he even claimed he would undo it if he had the chance) remains for me one of the most important sequences in his oeuvre. It is unaccountable, terrifying, and ultimately empty of deeper meaning. An existential flash, a “like a dog” moment, that explosion is the cry in the dark, the reminder of the inevitability of an abrupt and unwelcome death. If Hitch had relieved us of this painful image and the horror that follows it around for the rest of the film, Sabotage would still have been an excellent little thriller. But, in spite of all of his second guessing, it is this brief and uncharacteristic instance of tension without relief that cements
as one of Hitch’s excellent big thrillers.