The chase is on – and on – as Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are pursued by cops and spies while pursuing a deadly secret in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS. The “double chase”, first used by Hitch in his silent THE LODGER (1927), playfully keeps the film’s motor running in high gear, and introduces us to two of his soon-to-be famous tropes, the “McGuffin” and the ice blonde. It’s certainly an important film for Hitchcock, as it caught the eye of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who would bring Hitch to America’s shores five years later.
Donat, later an Oscar winner for 1939’s GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, plays Richard Hannay, trapped in circumstances beyond his control. The film begins in one of Hitchcock’s favorite places, a crowded public landmark, in this case a music hall (the marquee reminiscent of the shot of Anna Ondry walking past “A New Comedy” in BLACKMAIL ), as Hannay watches a performance by Mr. Memory (and his fabulous moustache!). The boisterous crowd heckles the entertainer, and soon a brawl breaks out among the drunken patrons. Shots are fired during the chaos, and as the horde disperses, we learn it was a ruse, a diversion created by Annabella Smith (German actress Lucie Mannheim), who tells Richard she’s a freelance spy working for the Brits to protect a secret important to the crown. At Richard’s apartment, she’s killed by a knife in the back, handing him a map of Scotland before dying.
Richard’s forced to take it on the lam, pursued by two spies as well as wanted by the constabulary for murder. His cleaning lady has discovered the body, and her scream segues into a train whistle. Richard’s on board, trying to elude the cops, and ducks into Pamela Shaneakwa’s (Carroll) compartment, only to be fingered by her to the cops. He escapes by climbing atop a very high bridge, another favorite Hitchcock spot. Seeking shelter at the farm of an old Scot (John Laurie, later of the Brit sitcom DAD’S ARMY) and his much younger bride (the future Dame Peggy Ashcroft), he stays the night, and the old coot suspects Richard’s hitting on his wife. The man tries to turn in him for reward money, only to have the lass help him escape (she receives a kiss from the dashing Donat for her efforts!).
Richard makes his way to the home of Professor Jordan, thinking he’s an ally of Annabella, only to find out the man’s leader of the spy gang! He’s almost killed (I won’t tell you how he dodges that bullet, you’ll have to watch the movie!), and lives to tell his tale to the local sheriff, who doesn’t believe him – no one does! Crashing through a window, he loses them in a crowded parade and winds up in the midst of a political rally, spouting a gibberish speech when he’s recognized by none other than Pamela. Two cops escort him out, with Pamela in tow as a witness, and handcuff them together. You guessed it, the cops are really part of the spy plot, and Richard manages to escape once again, this time chained to Pamela, who hates the accused murderer!
THE 39 STEPS has everything you could ask for in a Hitchcock film: action, romance, comedy, spies, and many of his famous signatures. There’s the innocent man involved in extraordinary circumstances, danger in public places, voyeurism (Carroll taking off her stockings, later putting them back on), trains, high places, and an exciting (and unexpected) conclusion that takes us back to Mr. Memory. And yes, the director does one of his patented cameos; again, it’s up to you to find him! The secret of THE 39 STEPS is not as important as how Hitchcock gets to it, and the journey is fun indeed.
Donat and Carroll make a marvelous pair, and the comedy between them is has a decidedly screwball flavor. Madeleine Carroll played “the ice blonde” in Hitchcock’s THE SECRET AGENT the following year, then moved to Hollywood to star in vintage fare like THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, ON THE AVENUE, DeMille’s NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE, and the Bob Hope spy spoof MY FAVORITE BLONDE. At one point she was the highest paid actress in the world, but gave it all up to aid in the war effort after her sister was killed during the Blitz. She died in 1987 at the age of 81.
Hitchcock would make five more films in England before beginning the next phase of his career in America with REBECCA. His British films of the 30’s were but a proving ground for greater things to come. THE 39 STEPS gives the viewer a chance to observe the Master of Suspense honing his unique style and vision, which would serve him well in the decades to come.