The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps


Reviewed by: Daniel Hooper

One of the finer examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films, it is nice to see that The 39 Steps is getting the re-release treatment so soon after The Lady Vanishes. The 39 Steps can be seen as a prototype for Hitchcock’s Hollywood classics Notorious and North By Northwest, creating a template for his quintessential wrong man accused espionage stories; it also introduced images and ideas which recur through out Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

The wrong man accused here is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a self-confessed bachelor like a lot of Hitchcock’s leading men. After meeting the mysterious Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) at a low brow London show, he learns that she is mercenary spy on the run from other spies and hears of her secret charge, The 39 Steps (a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin), before she is killed. Hannay is put in frame as her killer and goes on the run to elucidate what she meant by The 39 Steps, the only thing that may clear his name. It's a trek that will take him from London to Scotland and back again.

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En route Hannay meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a woman he takes hostage who refuses to believe him until she overhears a conversation by his pursuers. Madeleine Carroll is an early example of the Hitchcock blonde, while Robert Donat is the man in need of a woman, making for an entertaining couple and a dynamic not dissimilar to James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Together they travel to the packed London Palladium for the wonderful climax, a truly classic Hitchcock scene.

History has been kind to Hitchcock’s film, something which is a testament to the director’s immense talents, and it is remarkable how well The 39 Steps holds up. A chase sequence on the Flying Scotsman looks remarkable even today, while shots of the recently departed Annabella imparting wisdom overlapping a map of where Hannay has to travel illustrate how ahead of his time Hitchcock was. There are moments which haven’t dated so well, like the Scottish accents which should have been left on the London stage and the extremely quick dialogue delivery which sounds a bit odd.

Though The 39 Steps may lack the sheen of his later Hollywood films, it is just as entertaining as anything he made on American soil. For those interested in the early works of a cinematic genius this is a good place to start looking.

Reviewed on: 08 Apr 2008
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A well-intentioned gentleman finds himself in trouble after getting involved in counter-espionage.
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Charles Bennett, based on the book by John Buchan.

Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson

Year: 1935

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: UK


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