The 39 Steps (1935)
Hitchcock really didn’t bugger about did he. Inside 10 minutes here we’ve been introduced to the dashing Richard Hannay (Robert Donut), some witty east end music hall banter and a shooting. Hannay cuts a refined presence in this classic Noir. It’s themes of espionage and secret agents were to become a favourite for old Alf, but The 39 Steps is perhaps his purest depiction. The mysterious Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) is both our and Hannay’s gateway into this murky world of trenchcoat wearing men stood smoking on dark street corners. Divulging just enough tantalising information before taking a knife in the back. Hannay is in... and so are we. Off to Scotland in search of a man, a place, some safety and an answer to just what The 39 Steps are. It’s the little details that I enjoy so much about Hitchcock’s films. The train journey here up to Scotland provides some lovely exposition from two chatting salesmen in the train carriage, full of frivolous wit and charm, but always keeping the focus on the narrative and tension. The humour too is delightful, it’s packed with charming one-liners, warming us to our reluctant hero, on getting stuck on a highland lane in a police car with a load of sheep “Oh look it’s a whole flock of detectives”. That and the fact that everyone seems to be after him, inside and outside trains, over the Forth Bridge and the craggy rocks of the Scottish Mountains, it’s a rollercoaster chase between good and bad, accompanied with a sweeping dramatic orchestra. It’s doesn’t really let up either, one exciting set piece after another, every bit the blockbuster of its day. It does feel remarkably similar to North By Northwest. Donut is wonderful, dodging the police and the bad guys, getting himself handcuffed to do-gooder Pamela (Madeleine Carrol) and hamming it up with tall tales in country pub hotel rooms, before delivering the goods in a thrilling finale on the London stage. Bravo!