What are the 39 Steps? When Canadian, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), extends his good will to a woman on the run he finds out she is a spy hiding from assassins. She briefly mentions the 39 Steps, but is murdered before there is any chance for her to elaborate. Finding out what this mean is crucial to Hannay, and the source of as many laughs as pains. Annabelle Smith (Madeleine Carroll) suggests innocently that perhaps it’s a pub, clearly underestimating their importance. When Hannay finally gets his answer, it’s brief, to the point and apparently meaningless, “The Thirty-Nine Steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of ….”. Simply put, the 39 Steps is the MacGuffin. The ingredient of vital importance to the characters, but otherwise meaningless to the audience. Although not likely the first instance of the device in a Hitchcock film, it’s the first time that it dares to flaunt it’s presence with such audacity. The film essentially serves as a blueprint of most of Hitchcock’s themes and ideas from here on out, especially highlighting the importance of journey and the idea of the wrong man. The film though, does not succumb to the fate of the archetype as many other films of it’s type do. It’s brash, exciting and funny, ranking not only among his best British pictures, but near the height of his very oeuvre. By my rankings, it falls only behind Notorious, and perhaps Vertigo.
Where others fail, the 39 Steps succeed. As good as North by Northwest may be, putting it up against this early Hitchcock classic it’s quickly apparent that it’s more of a vignette piece than a cohesive picture. It’s especially hurt by the fact that not all these sequences are at the same level of interest, and instead of serving as downtime from the more exciting sequences (like the crop duster) they only slow down an otherwise enjoyable and quickly paced adventure film. Despite the fact this earlier film follows nearly the same structure, travelling quite literally across England, it feels far more cohesive than the later effort. Not to mention, outclassing in every possible way Saboteur, another Hitchcock film that features the wrong man on the run. The reason why this film feels more cohesive is not easy to pin down. I think one can credit a lot of this down to tone. Whereas North by Northwest is clearly more tongue and cheek, focusing on grandeur rather than character the drama is so inflated that those smaller scenes get lost in the excess. While there is definitely a lot of humour in the 39 Steps, the film has far more urgency and sympathy for it’s protagonist. The scale of events is also far more focused, and lends itself far more to an intimate experience between the events on the screen and the characters.
I appreciate this sense of intimacy between audience and players, as the film very self-consciously makes reference to the fact it is entertainment, and a show. The film plays into the idea that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”… The film is book ended by scenes in a theatre. They establish the film’s tone, as well as serving as an instigator of events and premise. The act on display is Mr. Memory, who is essentially a human encyclopaedia, he asks the audience to ask him any question and he will answer correctly. Already there is a sense of audience and performer being not only crucial to each other’s existence, but evoking an act far less structured by a script, but rather the unpredictability of the real world. When a gun goes off in the theatre, someone who appears to be the manager handles the situation in an extremely peculiar manner. Instead of calling for the police, or even running himself, he demands the band plays something, in hopes that perhaps it will calm the frenzy. Instead you have diegetic score, and an initiation into the construction that is stage, or in this case cinema. The film doesn’t attempt to vilify the structure, nor does it attempt create a self-aware audience, but in a way it highlights the intimacy capable from the medium. I think that’s why I prefer this film to Hitchcock’s later efforts in this particular form, it lacks that closeness of this picture. Even the two main characters are bound into a false sense of closeness as they are bound by handcuffs. Does this barrier make it any less close, any less real? I don’t think so.
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Well: the cinema manager is English, it’s the nineteen thirties: he doesn’t want a fuss.There’s also something curiously dispassionate and brittle about Donat’s charm: look at his eyes in the photo above, for instance. I would say that The Lady Vanishes has as complete a structure and more charm.
Did you mean diegetic sound? It took me a while to google around to the meaning there. I truly don’t mean to be a clever clogs, but if you are going to use obscure terms you need to spell them properly 🙂
I realise if I were a real cineaste I would already have known, but I still can’t bring myself to use ‘mise-en-scene-‘ in a sentence…..
My spelling is atrocious, I should use spell check more often :p I’ll fix the word.
This is true, and I think why the film works so well. Many others who have done the part, or at least an extension of it, spend a lot of time whining/complaining about their innocence or the absurdity of the situation, which doesn’t work very well. The Lady Vanishes is very good, and my second favourite of his British work. I’m not nearly as fond of the story though, and in my defence, the only version I’ve seen was a very bad print. Thank you for my imput.
rewatching The 39 Steps a few days ago and then reading this, I think you hit it right on the head. I was blown away by North By Northwest the first time I saw it, but then again that was before I saw the 39 Steps. Now, something doesn’t sit right with me about North By Northwest. Still entertaining as hell, but it’s so grand in scope, so elaborate in the set-pieces from the plane to Mount Rushmore and so chock-full of star power that it just feels…false in a way, like it’s got the stink of Hollywood excess on it. The 39 Steps, I think, is perfect in its simplicity. I also noticed the relative lack of music other than what’s diegetic, and I think it makes it feel more real. Annabella’s backstab is so sudden and abrupt that you, like Hannay, have no time to think about it, almost to the point that it’s a little funny. And seeing The 39 Steps a few times now, Robert Donat’s performance might now be one of my favorite performances by any lead in any film, ever…and that’s REALLY saying something. He’s just so smooth in his reactions to increasingly absurd situations, never really betraying his emotions, and he actually funny! He shows humor so damn effortlessly (the Mr. Crocodile line at the unexpected town meeting gets me every time), and his persona is incredibly smooth and likable. Great performance, great movie 🙂
I’m happy we can agree on this! Like you, I really do love North by Northwest but it doesn’t have the same intimacy and genuine conviction as the 39 steps for me. It’s easily one of the Hitchcock’s best in my books, and feels far more human than many of his films that, while I love, are nonetheless very cold. I think it is Donat who brings a lot to this, and I’m happy to hear you’re so VERY fond of his performance. I can’t believe I haven’t seen any of his other roles, although I’ve been told his really great ones are few and far between.