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The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps(1935)

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teaser The 39 Steps (1935)

Alfred Hitchcock had been a star director in England since his silent film The Lodger (1927) but for the rest of the world, Alfred Hitchcock's fame began with this movie, The 39 Steps (1935). It was as big a hit in America as in England, caught the attention of Hitchcock's future producer David O. Selznick and linked Hitchcock's name forever with light, quickly paced, romantic thrillers.

After years in which Hitchcock had made thrillers only occasionally, Hitchcock had just produced a British hit with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the story of an innocent family that gets involved with spies. For a follow-up Hitchcock and his producer Michael Balcon turned to the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by the suspense author John Buchan. By the time Hitchcock and his scriptwriter Charles Bennett were through the only details remaining from the novel were the chase from London to Scotland and back and the idea that the hero was pursued by the police while he chased the spies.

The resulting screenplay was a marvel of compression. Hitchcock and Bennett broke all the action into a series of set pieces, and then made the transitions between those scenes as rapid as possible. A landlady discovers a woman's body and her scream becomes the whistle of a train speeding the hero away from the scene. In another moment, the handcuffed hero smashes through a window in the police station and quickly joins a parade. Exactly how he managed this feat is never explained but with the film's speed there is never enough time to wonder.

This desire for taut narratives led to the invention of what Hitchcock would dub the "MacGuffin." Based on a Scottish anecdote, the MacGuffin is "the thing the spies are after" that is of vital importance to the characters but of no importance to the audience. Ignoring the point of the pursuit allowed Hitchcock and Bennett to waste less time in explanation and focus more attention on humor, romance and the mounting suspense.

Hitchcock was an inveterate theatre-goer while he was in England and for this film he picked two actors from the English stage. Robert Donat became a major star playing the hero Richard Hannay in this movie while, for the role of a crofter's wife who helps the fugitive hero, Hitchcock chose 27-year old Peggy Ashcroft, later Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Academy Award winner for A Passage to India (1984).

Several women were touted for the female lead before Balcon went to America for British-born Hollywood star Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock worried that she might be too prim and actressy for the role but he managed to break her of that on the day of her first scene. This was one where she was handcuffed to Donat before the two escape from kidnappers. Locking handcuffs around their wrists, Hitchcock led the actors through a rehearsal then claimed an urgent technical matter was calling him away. Unfortunately he had mislaid the key. Donat and Carroll were left locked together until that afternoon when the key, which Hitchcock had placed in the custody of a studio guard, was retrieved and the frustrated couple were separated. By then, of course, both actors were tired and cranky but much better prepared for their roles.

The resulting movie has been hailed as one of the greatest British films ever made and became the inspiration for countless movies ever since, from Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) to recent hits such as The Fugitive (1993) and Double Jeopardy (1999). Every film where an innocent man looks for the evidence to clear himself while the police close in owes a debt to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: Charles Bennett based on the novel by John Buchan
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Art Direction: O. Werndorff
Musical director: Louis Levy
Editing: D.N. Twist
Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter's Wife), John Laurie (Crofter).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.

by Brian Cady

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