By Dirk Sonniksen | March 20, 2009
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Buchan (novel) Charles Bennett (adaptation)
Starring: Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll
In The 39 Steps (1935), Robert Donat plays Canadian Richard Hannay, apparently visiting England on business. Hannay walks into a music hall, where shots ring out. He is shuffled out into the street where he is met by the beautiful Annabella (Lucie Mannheim). She appears quite shaken in that 1930’s sort of way, and abruptly asks Hannay if she can come to his place, in which he replies “It’s your funeral,” not knowing how prophetic his words will be.
Annabella is mysteriously stabbed in the back and dies, but not before revealing an espionage plot pertaining to the secret organization known as The 39 Steps. Donat’s character is falsely accused of the murder and must go on the run in true Hitchcock fashion, hiding out on a train (where he has his first abrupt encounter with Pamela played by Madeleine Carroll), dodging police, hiding out in a farmhouse, running through the moors of Scotland (in that very 1930’s, I’m running faster than I should sort of way), and ending up at the very house where the secret spy organization is located. Convenient you say. Indeed, but I digress. From there he must again extricate himself from yet more foul play, this time at the hands of Professor Jordan, played by Godfrey Tearle, aka, the guy missing one finger.
Escaping the clutches of the evil professor and the police, Hannay meets up again with Pamela, where she is pulled into the entire ugly mess against her will. After more running, some walking, and a bit of verbal fisticuffs, Hannay and Pamela take refuge at a country inn, where Pamela finally realizes his innocence, and the two set off to solve the mystery of The 39 Steps.
Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll both give excellent performances in what is known (at least by the British) to be one of Hitchcock’s best films. For Donat, The 39 Steps would be a crowning achievement in a regrettably short career. Carroll, one of the fortunate actresses to make the transition from silent movies to talkies, would become the first of many blonde heroines to grace the screen in Hitchcock’s films.
For those just cutting their teeth on Hitchcock, this is as good a film as any to get started. From the crowded shots of the music hall to the guy running endlessly from the bad guys, the occasional scream, and oh, more running, this is the 1935 version of North by Northwest. Couple that with the handsome Donat (insert Grant or Stewart) and the blond knockout played by Madeleine Carroll (insert Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, or Tippi Hedren), and you’ve got just about all of Hitchcock’s films, only with cool, grainy film and bad sound. And that’s a good thing.
Yes, Hitch is in this one too. Can you find him? Good luck.