Richard Hannay, a Canadian temporarily residing in London, is enjoying an evening’s music hall entertainment along with a packed crowd who are enthralled by the feats of Mr Memory. However, this is rudely interrupted by a violent outburst during which a gunshot rings out, scattering the crowd. Amidst the confusion, Hannay is approached by a rather upfront young woman whom he invites back to his flat. The following morning, after a night being told tales of spies and secrets by the mysterious female, he finds her dead. Now a man on the run, can he clear his name whilst at the same time avoid the pursuit of not only the police but the enemy agents also on his trail?
John Buchan's novel has been brought to the screen three times, but it is this first version that is the best, albeit the most loosely adapted. Directed by Hitchcock early in his career, it is a fast paced thriller that could have been a decidedly average movie had the master of suspense not been in control. Centring on the now familiar theme of the innocent man on the run, The 39 Steps is told at a relentless tempo. Not a single shot or foot of film is wasted as the narrative pushes ever forward at a breathless pace, reflecting the sense of urgency felt by Hannay in his race against time to clear his name. Hitchcock obviously delights in placing the hero in dangerous situations and the phrase out of the frying pan and into the fire could have been invented for this movie, as the innocent Canadian never knows where one nick-of-time escape will lead him. Unlike many thrillers in which the audience is privy to information that the hero is not, here both viewer and protagonist are equally clueless, and the audience is never able to second guess what little twist or predicament he will come up against next. As such a detailed discussion of the plot would be unfair, but suffice to say the journey Hannay makes to Scotland to solve the mystery is full of adventure and danger with plenty of twists along the way.
The character of Hannay is brought to the screen by the superb Robert Donat. He is in practically every scene and invests the character with warmth, humour and a real sense of urgency in his quest to discover the truth for the sake of his own liberty. He is immediately likeable with his everyman quality, rather than the indestructible hero of many modern thrillers and his performance realistically conveys a man thrust into desperate action by deadly circumstance. Perfectly partnering Donat's performance is that of Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, the woman who finds herself a reluctant companion in Hannay's race against time. Their relationship is antagonistic at first and despite the obvious inevitability of her believing him, it is done in such an entertaining manner that it is a joy to watch. The obvious on-screen chemistry and charisma of the leads only adds to the enjoyment of the many scenes they share. Hannay teasing her with tales of a mythical criminal past, the physical comedy resulting from the duo's handcuffed predicament, such elements add a comic vein which prevails throughout the movie; a comic sensibility that compliments rather than hinders the more serious aspects of the plot.
It is not only the leads that are fully fleshed out, all the supporting players have an authenticity to them. Hitchcock and the screenwriters have created a world populated by realistic characters, from the comic duo discussing women's underwear on the Scotland bound train, to the married couple who run the hotel in which the handcuffed fugitives find shelter. This concentration on character is best exemplified when Hannay intrudes upon a husband and wife dwelling in a remote highland cottage. The domineering puritanical husband at odds with his more free spirited but trapped wife is expertly realised, the conflict in their relationship exposed by the intrusion of Hannay. These scenes could be viewed as superfluous to the narrative but it is touches like this that elevate the film above the levels of genre cinema and make it endlessly rewatchable.
With hindsight, The 39 Steps can be seen as a blueprint for the recurring themes and motifs that would dominate the films of Alfred Hitchcock with repeated refinement and success. But regardless of such historical significance, it is a brilliantly entertaining film that more than holds its own with contemporary thrillers. Indeed its pace, wit and direction could teach modern moviemakers a thing or two, and despite its relatively short running time (a few minutes shy of an hour and a half) the film packs in all the essential ingredients that have now become the standard (but rarely bettered) conventions of the genre.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.