Hitchcock – The 39 Steps (1935)

directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1935
(beware spoilers below)

I must have seen this film many times over the years, but was fortunate to see it for the first time on a big screen recently. How that has awoken me to it. I really get it now. I’m thinking of it as a bubbling brook, maybe in the Highlands, with the sun playing in it, full of life. I’ll try to explain.

The story is loosely based on a some favourite childhood reading of Hitchcock’s by John Buchan. Though I picked up from our course leader that Hitchcock actually preferred the sequel to this story. He adapted this one quite loosely. To summarise – Richard Hannay, Canadian in London is asked by a woman at a music hall (where he’s watching a memory act) to take her home with him (this after gun shots and panic). He does so, cooks her some fish (never taking his coat off) and she explains she is spy, of course, and they find there are indeed men apparently watching and waiting outside. The night takes an innocent course, except he wakes to find her murdered — and so the plot kicks in, there is a danger of important plans being taken out of the country, he knows a little more from what she says, knows he will be wanted by these men and the police and flees towards Scotland, which she mentioned, to try and sort things out. This leads to one of Hitchcock’s famous train sequences in the journey north, then the famous sequences across the highlands, before yet more famous sequences of sorting this whole business out (Hannay in the process kissing another strange woman (Carroll) on the train (out of necessity of course), before later finding himself handcuffed to her and a beautiful narrative of their relationship developing, her propriety and guts in the face of this fugitive before she learns he may be in the right, Mr Right even(?)). We then return to London, and where we began, with Mr Memory on stage. The story in true Hitchcockian Macguffin style is of course only an excuse to follow the action, what happens and how people react.

Several things struck me on this viewing. First it seemed to me that from the very start in a way we are played with. I wonder if Hannay sitting in the theatre and daring to ask Mr Memory a question triggers, for some, possible anxiety about speaking in public, not least as he has to repeat himself, and dare to be different, a Canadian. We see Hannay can do this. Some of the other questions may start to lead us to react – one is about Mae West, a person that might elicit strong responses, even now. Then we have a woman asking a man to take her home, and he does, it all elicits response in the viewer empathising to these situations, surely. It felt like an edge is being pushed. Hannay not taking his coat off I just found strangely a bit unsettling – though I do wonder if it was more common then, I wonder if he had heating as is more common now – though she takes her coat off, but does it put me on edge, maybe. Then we have the the developments of her murder and his situation, now we are primed for the action, adrenalin flowing.

Perhaps building on this, Hitchcock throughout seems to play at the edge of convention and genre – not just with the dialogue, but visual jokes and juxtapositions. It was released in 1935, when the world was very old and full of lots of adults. Though cinema was quite young and in the USA I think the Hays code may have just been introduced. To get away from his flat unseen by the watching spies Hannay enlists the help of  a milkman on the strength of a pose as needing to get passed the husband and brother of the married woman he has just been visiting, and the milkman is most helpful, once he knows this need. Again I think this may have prompted many a reaction in the audience — an audience he is never once it seems to me, for all his prompts, taking for granted. Another small thing may be his train compartment companions travelling in ladies underwear as it were – and their reaction to him wanting to read the paper after they have discussed a rival’s advert.

But this is by the bye really – what we then get into in many of the situations presented is pushing their boundary as to how they may usually be seen. So it seem to me anyway. But I’ll be a bad reviewer right now and not try to show all these ways, like some essay. Maybe they are there maybe not. besides its now two weeks since I saw it. But instead I want to take another turn.

I’m actually going to see a series of Hitchcock’s films and in the lead up to it I saw the film Hitchcock/Truffaut. That reminded me of Hitchcock wondering at the end of his life if he had been trapped in some way in the approach he took to art. I was also reminded of his own, at least legendary, experience as a child of being locked in a police station cell (for a length of time that varies on the telling). Thinking about this I wondered if in some way I might see in his films a concern with being confined, entrapped, a prisoner – it might obviously relate to some famous examples perhaps, Scottie stuck in his interpretations in Vertigo, Norman Bates worse in Psycho. I decided to watch the films with this in mind. It especially seems relevant in terms of the labels given to people and the styles of thinking they deploy.

I did not expect to see this so obviously a theme in The 39 Steps – perhaps I had forgotten, for I have seen it. Yes, it seems to me the camera and story is continually playing at the boundary of definitions and asking questions. But it also seems key to these characters — part of Hannay’s charm seems to be to play in such ways. He is so wonderfully played by Robert Donat, who is so dynamic I think in his expression, alive. Madeline Carroll likewise – with her acceptance of the story she is being told, but ability to respond when it is challenged. In fact, as I must have known before, it is central to the film – in the end the man of rote learning reaches an end as young women dance in the background, far more striking to me than ever before in the big screen presentation, seems a comment on a certain view of the world, epistemology maybe (though maybe it is crass to use such words), life, freedom, art not being rote at all, obedience to the rote being death? – and at the same time love is found, has been found through challenge of simply obeying the labels given, the narrative part offered. They have actively challenged that and found themselves. Wonderful — and amidst all the ways this is done throughout, I do now think of the film as that bubbling stream of light, of life, that cannot be repressed, must not be.

I have begun to see a theme in which the character and thinking habits of everyday life have their effect upon the crises the protagonists face – Hannay is calm and sure of himself, thinks for himself, unperturbed by heckles in the theatre, this helps him face the way in which others try to trap him.

When I think of Hitchcock sometimes I think of playing within convention and that then I can stereotype in my mind. I love Tarkovsky, I love his book, I love his films. But this achievement wholly surpasses my small minded view of Hitchcock to remind me of how full and wonderful a film maker he was. True freedom bubbles through throughout this film. It is well known he described his films as a ‘slice of cake’ rather than a ‘slice of life’ as other film makers may describe their work. Clearly this is an important artistic statement, and this film a very wonderful cake, very well prepared, well understood, well cooked, well iced, with care and love — playing in the very ways that save Hannay, knowing the nature of evil, of traps and simple presentation of facts, obedience to them, and cocking a snook at them, open to what is true, true to it, prepared to love. I look forward to the rest of the season very much now, and more wonderings about my hypothesis (doubtless clear to others and probably written about elsewhere), and have to admit writing two weeks later that my hypothesis has been developing in relation to the next films and with time. I’m not sure I have found the best words, the briefest words, the most playful and poetic words to do justice, as this film calls out for – this is only a step in celebration.

(c) A. H / K. H-H (October 2018)

edit 9/11/19 – it occurs to me that what I’m talking about in regard to Hannay is an aspect of grace, not unlike Martin Luther’s definition of it as “the experience of being delivered from experience”. It struck me having written this, after a bit and then thinking of Hannay:


Fox Film Corp. / Public domain (via Wikicommons)

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