The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Richard Hannay is a Canadian visiting London. At the end of a “Mr Memory” show in a music hall, he meets Annabella Smith, who is running away from secret agents. He decides to hide her in his flat, but during the night she is murdered. Fearing he could be accused of the girl’s murder, Hannay goes on the run to break the spy ring.
James: Good god, what a great flick.
Jason: Great, great movie. Very rewarding. First of all, I was struck by how much more mature this movie is than The Man Who Knew Too Much. You get the feeling that Hitch became twice the craftsman for this movie, that he grew in leaps and bounds as a filmmaker. Whereas The Man Who Knew Too Much is a good film suffering from unsure footing and some plot holes, The 39 Steps is incredibly assured. It’s almost perfect, and Hitch is obviously having the time of his life with the playfulness of it.
James: As far as this being a much better film than his previous ventures, there’s really no question about that. I think it’s a giant step. It’s almost as if Hitch was playing with one or two themes and techniques in each of his earlier pictures, then he brought them all home in this one. I think the pacing is better here, the tension, the humor. The story just feels right here all along the way, even if it’s a bit farfetched at times.
Jason: Let’s talk about the structure of it. I noticed that the film starts and ends in a music hall, making for a tightly constructed, circular plot. It gives the story a terrific, almost inevitable quality, and brings an extra satisfaction to the ending. That ending with Mr. Memory feels right.
James: I’ve always loved the circular plot in this film. I’ve seen this film two or three times, and I remember noticing the music halls even in my first viewing. But it’s more than that, since Mr. Memory is also the key at the beginning and at the end.
Jason: Between those two book-ending sequences, the film twists and turns from one situation to the next, completely driven by the predicaments of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat). I love how the plot moves along as the “innocent man” just stumbles from one tight spot to the next. I’ve seen this film twice now, and this time I really paid attention to the various disguises Hannay adopts for his adventures. At different stages, he pretends to be a milkman, a mechanic, a Salvation Army parade participant, a political figure, and a newlywed.
James: This is one of my favorite Hitch films when it comes to how the good guy gets himself out of tight situations. Every scene just happens after the next. He stumbles here, he stumbles there. Just a bunch of connecting events. I like that. And the disguises you mentioned really make this a fun one. In a way, it reminds me of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs . . . each scene thrusts the good guy into a situation he can’t get out of—yet he does, only to fall into another tight spot. I love that stuff. It’s a waterfall of scenes that gets us closer and closer to the ending without slowing down.
Jason: Yes, and I guess that’s, overall, where most of the enjoyment of the film comes from. I read in the Truffaut book that what Hitch most liked about the film was the way the action was just driven by coincidence and chance. He was concerned only with pace, sacrificing credibility in favor of giving the audience one exciting sequence after another. Each little scene is like a short story all by itself. In that way, The 39 Steps is very similar to North by Northwest. In fact, this would have been a good double feature with North by Northwest, which could be considered a remake.
James: Good point, my friend.
Jason: There were a few sequences in The 39 Steps that really struck me as powerful. First, the scene in the farmer’s cottage, where our hero is sleeping for the night, on the run from the coppers. The lady of the house (Peggy Ashcroft) is a sad, pretty woman who longs to return to the city and get away from her abusive husband. She helps our guy escape when the time comes, and there are two moments that will linger with me—the shots of the two of them glancing across the table at each other when she realizes he’s wanted, and the shot of her down-turned face, just after he’s fled again, realizing that her tiny chance to get out of her predicament is gone. Brilliant. I wanted to know more about that woman. She’s such a strong character, and yet she has just a few lines. She really struck a sad chord.
James: For me, the farm scene is the best scene in The 39 Steps. It’s amazing how quickly and how powerfully Hitch conveys her sadness. In only a few moments, we feel for her. She seems strong, yet trapped. And that look when Hannay runs and she stays . . . priceless. I’m not sure, however, what I thought about that later scene . . . that brief one showing the husband apparently beating her. It seemed unnecessary. We already know she’s in trouble. I think it would’ve been better left unshown. Even if it was just Hannay imagining it.
Jason: You’re right, the slap seemed gratuitous. The second scene I really liked was when Hannay stumbled into that political rally and was forced to impersonate a candidate and give a rousing speech. He fakes his way through the whole thing and the crowd loves him. Then he’s back to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), but I confess to not recognizing her from the train. I think there should have been a more concrete reason why she was there.
James: I’m in full agreement. That scene was a much-needed humor interlude, but where did that girl come from? There should’ve been a throwaway line somewhere about what she did for a living.
Jason: A third scene is the one at the evil agent’s party, where we’re looking for a man with part of his pinkie finger missing, and in the shot, Hitch makes sure the dinner guests’ hands are in every frame, handing glasses to people, shaking hands, patting a shoulder, and so on. It’s not something you notice the first time, but on second viewing, there are hands everywhere. Later, Hannay is unaware that he’s stumbled into the home of the evil agent. So he describes the missing fingertip to the man, who says, “Sure it wasn’t this one?” and holds up his finger. I thought that was a fantastic reveal. It leads to a great surprise “death” scene, which Hannay is saved from by a hymnbook in the pocket of the jacket that the farmer’s wife gave him. It’s incredibly cool how all those elements work together.
James: That’s awesome.
Jason: Oh, and there’s a fourth scene: in the bedroom, when Hannay and Pamela are handcuffed together, and she’s taking off her stockings, and he can’t help but feel her up. She hands him a sandwich to keep his roaming hand occupied. Ah, Hitch, you pervert, you. That must have been an incredibly erotic scene for the time. In fact, it’s even erotic today.
James: I laughed at the handcuff scene. Particularly when she flops her sandwich into his hand. Loved it. I like seeing that scene through the eyes of audiences in the ’30s, but also as an admirer of Hitchcock. I love Hitch’s humor in this film. It’s often the subtle sexual innuendos that I like the most. I bet the man would be a great addition to our group of friends.
Jason: That whole scene at the inn is masterful, as far as those two characters go. I felt like I got to know and like those two better than any Hitch characters yet—by far. I was laughing at the scene where Hannay is working at the cuffs with the nail file and talking to her about his life of crime, and she’s eating her sandwich, and he says something that cracks her up and softens her attitude. I mean, that was genius.
James: I too thought those two actors were the best yet, and possibly two of the best ever. They really had chemistry. Man, there are some really well done elements in this one, things that really stand out. The desperate farmer’s wife, the sandwich/stocking scene, and others were just spectacular.
Jason: Robert Donat is probably the best actor/personality yet in a Hitch film. He really carries this movie well. He’s got this naturalistic, almost side-of-his-mouth delivery that works perfectly with Hitch’s humor. He’s so charismatic that you utterly believe he could dupe that political audience. Regarding his character Hannay, I also thought it was interesting how, at the beginning, he says to Annabella Smith (Lucy Mannheim), “Don’t worry about me, I’m nobody.” So right from the start, he’s our Everyman. I gathered that he was supposed to star in a few more Hitch thrillers, but he suffered from chronic asthma and had to bow out. Hitch really liked him. In fact, he was supposed to star in The Lady Vanishes, but couldn’t, and Hitch wasn’t too thrilled with the male star of that one (a stage actor named Michael Redgrave). Donat seems like he has a great, dry sense of humor. I also really liked the woman, Madeleine Carroll, although Margaret Lockwood from The Lady Vanishes is more of an outright turn-on, especially after her early scene in the hotel with her friends bouncing around. Whoo, man!
James: We’ll talk about my lack of thrill with the male actor in The Lady Vanishes when we get to it. Blah! Same with the knockout. Yeah! But I think Donat is one of the better leading men. He’s so subtle.
Jason: Did you catch when Hannay says to Annabella, “Well, it’s your funeral,” and it turns out to be the case? Although, I must admit that I found her death scene to be a bit laughable. I wonder if it was an acknowledgment of the type of “parlor mystery” scene that’s famous in the UK. Hitch loves knives, doesn’t he? That whole scene is a little shaky to me. After the death, we get this slow-drawling double-exposure voice-over from Annabella, basically reiterating the Scotland destination very carefully and setting Hannay on his adventure to prove himself innocent. Did you notice on the map, below his destination, it says “KILLIN” in all caps? That must have been intentional.
James: I did notice the “It’s your funeral” line, but not until after I watched the commentary. Or rather, it didn’t become a big issue until then. I agree that her death scene is a little weak. I think that entire scene could’ve been reworked just slightly to make it more powerful. Then again, the fact that she’s killed off stage makes it so he doesn’t have a clear notion as to what’s going on. He’s thrust into the situation in a different manner than if he had seen her killed. Hmmmm . . .
Jason: Another thing I found interesting: Like The Lady Vanishes, which is coming up in three or four films, the big clue is a tune, and important sequences take place on a train. In a similar way, the big political secret is tied to music and memory.
James: It’s also interesting to remember that The Man Who Knew Too Much ends in a theater/music hall, as well. I wonder if Hitch wanted the biggest climax he could get, and those great halls were it, or if later he just kept saying, “I need bigger.”
Jason: Yeah, that “big ending” was evident as early as Blackmail, with the museum chase, or even The Ring with the big fight, and The Lodger with the chase through London. It will be fun to watch the endings get bigger and more opulent.
James: He always has a “big” ending, and I wonder about the natural progression of that.
Jason: I was watching for the theme of infidelity to rear its head, and it does so only in the dialog, when Hannay lies to the milkman about his rendezvous with a married woman. I liked how the milkman easily believes that story but not the true story of the murder. And the scene aboard the train, with the men talking lingerie and sharing dirty limericks—that was hilarious. Both these things seemed to me as if Hitch was already acknowledging his regular themes in a self-reverential way. Seems like he was already poking fun at himself!
James: I actually didn’t like the scene with the men talking about lingerie. I just couldn’t get in the mind set that it would be risqué. I understood it, but it didn’t work for me being so far removed from the time. As for your comment about Hitch acknowledging his themes in a self-reverential way, I think that’s a bit overboard. Are you saying that Hitch was, in a way, making fun of the fact he always has a gratuitous scene in each of his films? That doesn’t seem right to me.
Jason: All I’m saying is that until now, the lingerie scenes (for example) have been straightforward elements of the plot or throwaway shots that reveal Hitch’s naughty obsession with underwear. In this movie, for the first time, the lingerie scene is overt, with men actually ogling the underwear and making jokes about it. I think Hitch is poking fun at himself that way. He’s just having more fun here.
James: I suppose I can live with that. I wonder if other directors have themes and “hidden” elements that recur over and over in their films.
Jason: Of course they do. Any director worth his salt can’t help but inject his personality and obsessions into his films. I think with the great directors, like Hitch and Scorsese and the Coen brothers, you take one look at the film and you know who directed it, just because of the accumulation of styles, themes, and techniques.
James: I never would’ve noticed all of these things if we weren’t watching so many films in a row and discussing them. Sure, I would catch on, but I wouldn’t realize they were in each film.
Jason: I also listened to the commentary over the film. It was a bit dry, but I got some interesting information from it. The commentator pointed out how Hitch uses high shots, looking down, to announce something ominous or important or fated. She also did a good job of recognizing Hitch’s shot choices, and framing. Very interesting.
James: Actually, the commentary was one of the more drab I’ve listened to. I’m not sure I buy into the whole English 101 style of critique. I mean, do you really think Hitchcock said, “Let’s do a high angle shot to symbolize Hannay’s place in the world” or “His gun symbolizes his sexual dominance.”
Jason: I didn’t mind the tone of the commentary. It definitely was informative. And I really do think Hitch intentionally used the high-angle shot for effect, for a certain meaning. A touch in The 39 Steps that’s talked about in the commentary is the merging of the housekeeper’s scream into the sound of the train whistle. A similar effect is used in The Lady Vanishes. It’s weird to think of effects like these as unprecedented in cinema before this particular use. That’s why I love these types of historian commentaries—they’re good at pointing out landmark techniques.
James: I agree that Hitch might have had a reason for shooting high angle, certainly. But I’m not sure I buy that particular reason. I’m torn on that, actually. When you look at one movie, it’s hard to believe he had a reason for doing it. Well, a reason that was so defined. But when you look at all of his movies, there does seem to be a trend for when he does certain angles. So who knows? Maybe he’s more of a master than I believed.
Jason: The commentary also clued me in on the four “marriages” that reveal the film’s theme. There’s the marriage of the farmer and his wife, the innkeeper and his wife, the foreign agent and his wife, and Hannay and his chained “wife.” All of them are characterized by different degrees of trust.
James: I did notice the couples. I really liked that theme, or the differing levels of trust each shared.
Jason: I guess this is a good time to bring up the MacGuffin. Obviously, the MacGuffin in The 39 Steps is the 39 Steps organization itself, or rather the political secret that the organization is sending across the border. It’s the thing that gets the film going as a sort of spy film/thriller, but the movie really ends up being a romance.
James: I think all of his thrillers could be considered romances. That’s the whole point behind most of the tales: the relationship to the common man and the woman he befriends along the way. The 39 Steps begins when we learn about the 39 Steps, and it’s the driving force of the plot in that he’s caught up in all of the drama because of this mystery. It’s the only thin thread that connects the plot points. If that, even. I mean, he gets drawn into the whole mess, then it’s like he’s swept away with the current. The more I think about it, the less I know about that secret organization. I mean, it’s definitely the least important aspect of the film. Well, not the least, but you get the idea.
Jason: I thought it was interesting how the MacGuffin was talked about in the film. Twice, the foreign agent’s henchmen refer to the political secret in hushed tones: “Has he got the . . . you know . . . ?” That really drove home the significance of the MacGuffin as far as Hitch is concerned, which is to say that he didn’t care what it was as long as it propelled the plot.
James: Do you ever wonder what a Hitch film would be like to those who don’t understand the McGuffin idea? Would that person not like films like this since that part of the plot is brushed under the rug until the climax, where the bad guy usually just spills the beans, a la Scooby Doo? I wonder . . . .
Jason: Yeah, those early audiences were probably filled with idiots, just like today. Ha!
James: As for the more minor details, I remember noticing the dumb cops, the drinking of brandy, the lingerie, and Hitch in this one (his cameo is at the beginning, walking across the screen, littering), but at this point forward, I think these elements will be more obvious.