Hitch on the Hump: The Thirty Nine Steps (1935)
Welcome folks. I want to invite you all to take a look at a brand new feature here at the Lair. Every week (or possibly every other depending on how busy I am), I’m going to be exploring the works of that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in a little something I’m going to call Hitch on the Hump. While I’ve been a great admirer of the films of Hitch’s that I have seen, compared with the size of his catalog, I’ve seen very few. So this series is an attempt to rectify that situation. I’m going to watch the films in no particular order, just watching them as they strike me. Eventually, I would like to have reviews spanning the whole of Hitch’s film catalog. So with all that said, let’s get on with it. Tonight I’m starting with Hitchcock’s tale of intrigue from 1935, The Thirty Nine Steps.
Like many Hitchcock films, it s the tale of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is visiting England from Canada when he goes to see the Mr. Memory show. Shots ring out in the theater, and Hannay is joined by the mysterious Annabella Smith as they leave the theater. She asks to come back to his apartment, and once there, she tells him that she is a spy and there are men out to kill her. Richard agrees to let her hide in his flat overnight, but when he awakes in the morning, he finds her stabbed to death. Thinking the police would think him the killer, Richard goes on the run, and with only vague clues about the “Thirty Nine Steps” and a man missing part of his pinky finger, he intends to break up the spy ring and prove his innocence.
The Thirty Nine Steps was based on a novel by British novelist and former Governor General of Canada, James Buchan. Written in 1915, it was the first “shocker” written by Buchan and introduced the heroic character Richard Hannay who would appear in five more of his novels. Buchan wrote the novel while he was laid up in bed with an ulcerous condition, and Hitchcock has stated that Buchan was “strong influence before I undertook The Thirty Nine Steps.” Hitchcock has entertained bringing the second Hannay book, Greenmantle, to the screen, but chose The Thirty Nine Steps because it was a smaller subject because Hitch admired “the understatement of highly dramatic ideas” in Buchan‘s prose.
This sense of understatement is what drives Hitch’s film version of The Thirty Nine Steps. While Richard Hannay is caught up in espionage and intrigue, it is all played out in a very reserved way. This allows for the suspense to be driven by all the little things that not only the character, but the audience, notices. This goes back to Alfred’s notion of how suspense must be built into a film, “whenever possible the public must be informed.” In this way The Thirty Nine Steps brings the viewer into the story by giving us all the experiences that Richard Hannay has. All the little looks and dangers he encounters, we also experience firsthand.
The suave affable nature brought to the character by Robert Donat makes him all the more compelling to watch. He deals with his situation not only with calm, collected wit, but with a great amount of humor as well. Donat had come to fame a few years earlier playing the lover of Ann Boleyn in the Charles Laughton classic The Private Life of Henry VIII. With his matinee idol good looks, he went on to Hollywood and starred in The Count of Monte Cristo, but unhappy with life in California he returned to England rather than take the title role in Captain Blood eventually filled by Errol Flynn. Perhaps his most renowned role would come some four years after The Thirty Nine Steps when he took on the titular role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips which would win him an Oscar. Donat’s turn as Richard Hannay is not only totally entertaining, but it is too bad that he didn’t get another chance to return as the character.
One of the greatest features of Donet’s character, and the movie at large, was the use of humor to punctuate the suspense. My favorite example of this is when Hannay is shot point blank by the man with the missing pinky. It is soon revealed that the bullet was stopped by a Hymnal left in the coat Hannay is wearing. When he goes to the police (who naturally don’t believe his tale) to make a complaint, the captain quips, “It’s no wonder it stopped a bullet some of those hymns are dreadful hard to get through.” Humor like this runs throughout the film, and even broadens to include some physical comedy when Hannay finds himself handcuffed to Pamela, a pretty blonde who rats him out twice over the course of the film. The humor was not relegated to onscreen though as Hitchcock handcuffed his two leads and pretended to lose the key for the better part of a day.
This brings me to a fine moment to discuss the women of the film. For starters there is Lucie Mannheim who plays Annabella, the woman who gets Hannay in the mess to start with. She is the very picture of a woman under duress, and though her role is relatively short, it had quite the impact on the film by being the catalyst for everything that comes after. Mannheim herself was the one time grande dame of the Berlin Theater before she was expelled by the Nazis. She would live to the ripe old age of 78 and worked in film until 1970, a mere seven years before her death.
Secondly, you have Peggy Ashcroft, the Oscar winning actress for her role in A Passage to India (1984), as the young wife of a farmer whose house Hannay finds shelter in. The scenes she shares with Donet are the very picture of what Hitchcock set out to achieve in this film. They are understated, and almost all you need know transpires without the need for dialog. Her role is also brief, but provides one of the most memorable scenes in the picture. As Hannay sites down with the farmer and his wife for dinner, Hannay and the wife both glance at a paper reporting the murder of Annabella. With simple looks between them, she instantly understands who he is. Unfortunately for him, the farmer catches those looks and he thinks the city slicker is out for his wife. It’s taken me some three sentences to describe what transpires in less than thirty seconds of film, but such is the magic that Hitch wove in this film.
Finally, the most important lady in the film is Pamela, the blonde who just can’t wait to give Hannay up to the nearest copper she sees. She’s quite the striking looking lady, and it’s no wonder she headlined the Bob Hope film My Favorite Blonde. There is quite the lovely, and I’m sure risqué for the time, scene where she must remove her stockings while handcuffed to Robert Donat, and anyone who likes a pair of shapely legs will surely enjoy this little cinematic moment. Apart from being quite pretty, she also turns in an excellent performance as the thorn in Hannay’s side. While she eventually comes to believe his innocence and the spy stories, the scenes where she is horrified to be in the company of a murderer are very enjoyable with her emotions playing subtly across her face.
The Thirty Nine Steps also marks the first pairing of Hitchcock with cinematographer Bernard Knowles, who later would become a director in his own right with works that include The Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour. Hitchcock has been quoted as saying, “Some films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” If that’s true, than the visuals in this film is definitely the icing on the cake. While the film ranges in mood from the shadowy noir to the almost pastoral, the most impressive thing about the camerawork is the sense of rapidity that it brings to the film. The action sequences are perfectly shot to heighten the tension and there is not a single frame that is wasted. As Hitchcock noted about this film, “You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.” I’m pretty sure this is a lesson that modern filmmakers should take note of. So many recent films are filled with extraneous fluff that neither enhances the picture nor drives the story along.
The Thirty Nine Steps is really a template still followed in films, and in many ways would be repeated in theme by Hitchcock in films such as North by Northwest and Sabotage. While the film has been remade a few times following, no other version has come close to the magic that Hitchcock achieved in the original. By allowing the viewer to come along so closely on the hero’s journey, Hitch dispenses with shock or surprise to drive the film, but instead let’s his audience feel what it might be like to be wrongly accused and hunted by both good and bad guys. If you haven’t seen this one folks, then you owe it to yourself, to check it out. I’m even going to make it really easy for you because this one is in the public domain I’m embedding the whole film for your enjoyment. I hope you enjoyed this first installment of Hitch on the Hump, and I’ll see you back here real soon with another classic from the master of suspense.