Week 16: The 39 Steps (1935)

39stepsposter“Am I right, sir?”
“And this bullet stuck among the hymns, eh? Well, I’m not surprised Mr. Hannay. Some of those hymns are terrible hard to get through.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for my hesitation in rising just now, but to tell you the simple truth I’d entirely failed, while listening to the chairman’s flattering description of the next speaker, to realize that he was talking about me.”
“Hullo, what are we stopping for? Oh, it’s a whole flock of detectives!”
“There are 20 million women in this island and I get to be chained to you.”
“Gloat? Do you think I’m looking forward to waking up in the morning and seeing your face beside me, unwashed and shiny? What a sight you’ll be!”
“What are the 39 steps?”

The 39 Steps

After the enormous success of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock knew that he had struck a nerve. The growing tension in Europe, vague fears of national upheaval and the shadow of political intrigue were a rich source of public and story ideas that Hitch was quick to tap into. Although the best films he had made during his decade in the business were thrillers, the majority of them were romantic comedies and melodramas. This raises an interesting question: Without the atmosphere of tension in England during the years leading up to the Second World War, would Hitchcock have become the household name he is today?

robertdonatIn any case, with The 39 Steps (based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan) Hitchcock perfected his formula: a mix of thrills, comedy and romance, a wrongfully-accused caught in a double chase (on the run from both cops and criminals), a blonde heroine and a vague MacGuffin (what are the 39 steps?). Still considered one of his two best British films, The 39 Steps is a fast-moving dash across England and Scotland. Hitchcock had originally wanted to adapt Buchan’s sequel to The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, however that would have entailed a much larger budget. Greenmantle would have required location shooting all over Europe, while The 39 Steps is much more contained.

madeleine carrollAlthough Hitchcock had been an enormous fan of Buchan’s novels when he was younger, he and screenwriter Charles Bennett made some essential changes to the original material. They added a love interest and altered the very nature of what the story’s title referred to, for instance. In the all-important role of fugitive Richard Hannay, Hitchcock cast Robert Donat, a smooth, dashing leading man, fresh out of the title role in The Count of Monte Cristo. Donat would later go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the title role of Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939. The equally-critical part of Pamela, Hannay’s reluctant travelling companion, was played by gorgeous leading lady Madeleine Carroll.

peggyashcroftOther notable performers include a very young Peggy Ashcroft (later Dame Peggy Ashcroft) as Margaret Crofter, the farmer’s wife. Ashcroft was already a famous stage actress by this time, and she went on to win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in A Passage to India in 1984. John Crofter, the farmer, is played by John Laurie, who was the dour Johnny Boyle in Juno and the Paycock, and Helen Haye (Mrs. Hillcrist of The Skin Game) has a bit part as the wife of the movie’s villain.

johnlaurieIn The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay, a Canadian residing in London on business, meets Annabella Smith, an international spy who gives him some important information before she is murdered in his flat. Hannay goes on the run both from the police and a group of foreign spies as he struggles to piece together the clues that prompted Annabella’s death. The plot itself and many of the circumstances which arise in it are completely contrived, but the whole thing is carried out in such a sophisticated style and with such a contagious sense of fun that one hardly cares.

memoryThe film opens on the exterior of a brightly-lit music hall. A shadow falls across the slanted shot of the ticket window as a man purchases admission. The shots remain focused on his mid-section, as he hands his ticket to the doorman and steps inside. The camera tracks up from his feet and follows him from behind as he makes his way down the aisle and finds a seat in the midst of a row, never showing his face. Just after he sits down, the act of “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson) is introduced by a distinctive tune played by the orchestra in the pit.

hecklersMemory’s act, obviously, showcases his ability to recall an incredible range of obscure facts of all types, and it is said that he commits fifty new facts to memory every single day. The act is a participatory one, as audience members are encouraged to shout out questions for him to answer. Despite the mysterious anonymity of the man who has entered at the beginning and some vaguely sinister shots of Memory as he is introduced, the tone of the scene is very light at the beginning. The crowd is at first inclined to heckle the performer, who begs to be asked a serious question.

questionAfter he has answered a few, Hannay (whose face we now see for the first time) attempts to ask a question about Canadian geography, but is initially drowned out by other questions, some quite comical (“How old is Mae West?” “I know, sir, but I never tell a woman’s age.”). Finally, Hannay gets his question out. As Memory answers it (correctly), the camera adopts a position behind and slightly above him on the stage, including Hannay in the shot.

bandMeanwhile, a few men by the bar are being particularly rowdy, and a small scuffle breaks out. A policeman hurries over, but gets drawn into what soon becomes an all-out brawl that sweeps across the whole room. After a few moments, shots are fired from somewhere (we see only a close-up of a gloved hand holding a small revolver) and the audience begins a stampede for the door. Memory, still struggling to regain control, prompts the conductor to start up his theme tune again and it plays in the background as the crowd surges towards the door. The opening sets the tone nicely for the rest of the film, as mysterious uncertainty shifts to comic relief and then changes just as suddenly to fear and suspense.

crowdAs the camera watches from overhead, Hannay, caught helplessly in the current making for the door, suddenly has a well-dressed woman shoved into his arms and they sort of embrace. Hannay keeps his arm around her as they are jostled out into the street and break free of the tightly-packed group stuck in the doorway. The woman, who has a trace of an accent, asks if she can come home with Hannay, who, although he seems a bit confused, agrees (“Well, it’s your funeral.”). They slip across the street and board a bus together.

39stepscameoAs the bus pulls up, Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance, his first confirmed walk-on since Murder! in 1930 (he has unconfirmed appearances in both Number Seventeen and The Man Who Knew Too Much). The director can be clearly spotted walking across the screen behind the two characters as they face away from the camera, tossing some garbage on the ground as he passes by.

darkroomHannay and the mysterious woman arrive at his flat without incident and step into the darkened sitting room. Light from the street outside casts stark shadows across the walls, but the woman prevents Hannay from switching on the light, slipping over to thedarkroom2 place her back against the wall between the room’s two large windows first. She also has Hannay remove a large mirror (in which she is clearly visible) from the opposite wall. When the phone rings a few seconds later, she begs him not to answer it, afraid that it might be for her. He seems confused, but he plays along with her small eccentricities, perhaps because he is attracted to her.

warningsThe woman introduces herself as Annabella Smith without bothering to pretend that this is her actual name. After fixing her a drink, the two move into the kitchen to talk, where Annabella pulls the window shade down before the lights come on. Hannay begins to make Annabella something to eat as they converse. Almost immediately, Annabella reveals that it was she who fired the shots in the music hall. As the conversation continues, Hannay appears casually unaffected by what Annabella’s wild story of foreign spies and air defense secrets, even though she is clearly deadly serious. It is clear that he doesn’t believe she is telling the truth.

Soon, Annabella instructs him to go look out the window, which he does, still clutching the knife he was using to slice bread. Down in the street he spots two men loitering conspicuously under the street lamp on the corner. He returns to the kitchen in a slightly more sober frame of mind, ready to listen. It is here that Annabella first mentions “the 39 steps,” although she doesn’t say what the phrase means. She also reveals that the leader of the foreign spies, although he is a master of disguise, is easy to recognize because he is missing the top of his right pinkie (shown via an extreme close-up of Hannay’s own hand). Finally, Annabella requests a map of Scotland, which is where she must go next “if anything is to be done.”


The conversation in the kitchen contains every element of the main plot. However, by the time Annabella is talking about missing fingertips, Hannay has slipped back into cool indifference, and it is unclear whether he will heed the clues and warnings that are being provided to him. The scene fades out as Hannay opts to give Annabella the bed while he takes the couch.

alarmWe fade back in on a shot of the sparsely-decorated entryway to Hannay’s apartment. It is now dark, and there is an air of something being not quite right about the scene. The window in the far wall is open and the thin white curtains are billowing outward in the breeze from outside. The statue standing on the cabinet by the door is outlined sharply in silhouette against the bare white wall, one arm lifted in the air as though requesting our attention, the other pointing directly at the window.

stabbed1The scene cuts into the sitting room, where Hannay is stretched out asleep across the bottom of the screen. Annabella bursts through the door, clutching something in herstabbed2 left hand. In contrast to her carefully-groomed appearance earlier, her clothes seem disheveled and her hair is in a mess. As she stumbles towards him, she warns him that “they” will be after him next, then collapses across his legs with a knife sticking out of her back.

phonecall1The shot switches to a close-up of the telephone, which begins to ring, and zooms out as Hannay backs past it away from the body. He starts to pick up the phone, but checks himself, looking out of the window instead. Below he spots the two men from before, standing in the telephone box. Looking back at Annabella, he sees that she is clutching the map of Scotland. He retrieves it, and sees that she has circled a place labeled “Alt-na-Shellach.” A vision of Annabella repeating some of what she said earlier is superimposed over the scene, both on the shot of the map and over the scene of the street.


milkmanIn the next scene, Hannay, fully-dressed, creeps down the stairs of his building. Peering out through the door, he sees the two men still patrolling the street outside. He begins to pace, wondering what to do next, when the milkman enters. Hannay pulls him to one side conspiratorially, and the camera keeps them tightly framed together asfakemilkman he attempts to talk his way out of the building. At first he tells the milkman the truth, but the other doesn’t believe him. Instead he makes up a story about an adulterous affair which the other seems all too willing to believe him, and help him, under the circumstances. The milkman quickly sheds his hat and coat and Hannay puts them on, promising to leave the get-up in the cart once he gets around the corner before he slips out.

screamNow, Hannay boards a train for Scotland, watching anxiously from the window of the car as the train gets ready to pull out. Just as it starts to move, a car pulls up and two men jump out, racing alongside the track before stopping short. They are too late. The scene cuts back to Hannay’s flat, as a charwoman opens the door and sees the body. She turns, mouth wide to scream, and Hitchcock cuts back to the train flying out of a tunnel, the shrill sound of its whistle replacing the woman’s terrified shriek.

lingeriepriestOn board the train, Hannay is sharing a compartment with three other men: a priest and two lingerie salesmen. The latter two are discussing the latest in corsets and brassieres while the priest feigns disinterest in the corner, and Hannay wakes up from a nap just as the train pulls into the station. The priest gets off and turns around, staring distractedly at the bra that one of the others is holding before coming to with a start and scurrying off.

paperHere, as in almost every scene so far, a moment of comedy quickly turns serious. In this case, it is because one of the salesmen buys a newspaper and spots a story about Annabella’s murder and Hannay’s subsequent disappearance. As he reads it out loud, the camera shifts rapidly across the compartment to Hannay, who is suddenly all ears. Soon they become distracted by a lingerie ad, and then Hannay asks to borrow their paper. There is an old picture of him next to the article, and he hands the paper back.

trappedAs the train pulls out of the station, Hannay turns his head to hide his face from some policemen who are peering in the windows, then gets up and collects his coat to leave. He steps out into the claustrophobic corridor and looks out of the window. The train in approaching an enormous bridge. Bringing his head back inside, he spots a police inspector with two men behind him checking each compartment. They haven’t noticed him yet. Turning his head, he finds another inspector approaching from the other direction. He has nowhere to run.

kiss1Looking into the compartment he is next to, he finds that it is occupied by a lone woman reading a book. He slips quickly inside, pauses for a moment, then exclaims, “Darling!” and pulls her into a kiss. The camera focuses on his hands gripping her wrists as she struggles ineffectually to free herself. His body blocks the sight of the struggle from the police as they pass harmlessly by. He immediately apologizes and quickly explains that the police are looking for him, but that he is innocent. She is angry and upset and doesn’t believe him, and when the other inspector pokes his head into the compartment a few moments later, she turns Hannay in.


trainchase1Without hesitating, Hannay leaps up and clambers around the outside of the train to slip into the compartment next door, dashing out into the corridor and away down the length of the train. With the police in hot pursuit (once they’ve pulled the emergencytrainchase2 stop cord), he hurries through the dining car, and a waiter balancing a tray of cups and saucers is forced into some acrobatic maneuvers to avoid the sudden rush of people. Arriving at the baggage car, he runs into a trio of fiercely barking dogs and decides to disembark instead. The police don’t arrive quickly enough to notice and they waste precious time getting past the dogs.

bridgeThe police finally exit the train, which has come to a halt on the large bridge, and look around helplessly. Hannay is revealed to be hiding behind a massive pillar, precariously balanced high above the water below. Soon, the police give up and the train starts moving again. By now, Hannay has disappeared, and the camera regards the empty bridge from a distance as a radio operator transmits his description in voice-over.

moorThe scene fades back in on a shot of the high moor, where Hannay is walking almost casually along a deserted backroad. Soon, he arrives at a farmer’s stone cottage, and conversation reveals that he is not far from his destination, Alt-na-Shellach. The farmer also reveals a promising lead, “a sort of professor” who lives nearby, but it is too late in the day to continue the journey, and Hannay makes arrangements to stay the night in the cottage.

farmwifeWe dislike the farmer immediately, as a grouchy, suspicious, greedy character, and the dislike deepens when we meet his young, pretty and obviously-unhappy wife (whom Hannay first mistakes as the farmer’s daughter). After they talk a bit of the big city life that the wife misses, the farmer returns for supper and Hannay asks to see the newspaper. With it lying in the middle of the table, the farmer halts the proceedings to say a blessing.

blessing What follows is classic Hitchcock: irrelevant dialogue drones in the background while the important points of the scene are relayed visually through quick cuts. Hannay, impatient and unable to resist, glances down at the murder story on the front page. The eyes of the farmer’s wife follow his gaze to the story, and she knows immediately why he is so interested. Her gaze flies back up to meet his. Meanwhile, the farmer, who continues to pray, shifts his eyes back and forth between them suspiciously. He doesn’t understand their bond, but he knows that they have one.

collusion1As the farmer finally intones “Amen” the tension at the table is palpable. He rises andcollusion2 exits, claiming that he has forgotten to lock the barn, but slips around instead to spy on the other two through the window. They are both on their feet, talking excitedly, but we are not privy to what they are saying. We only witness the conversation silently, from the farmer’s jealous, voyeuristic point of view, before the scene fades.

barsLater that night, the farmer and his wife both lie awake in bed, but he is facing away from her, silently pretending to sleep. Something outside causes her to rise, and she looks out the window to see a police van approaching over the moor. She rushes quietly out to wake Hannay and warn him, but as she prepares him to run again, the farmer enters the scene, certain that they are about to leave together. Hannay explainssoldout the situation to him as the police pull into the yard (the headlights flash across the three inside in a shot ominously framed through bars). He bribes the farmer to send the police away, but the wife is certain that the farmer will sell him out anyway. Before packing him out through the back window, she gives him the farmer’s Sunday coat. It is much darker than the one he is wearing, and it enables him to escape.

chase1The next day, the manhunt for Hannay is in full cry across the barren landscape. An approaching line of hiking policemen spot the fugitive from a distance as he makes a break for it. An exciting chase across rugged country follows. Hannay is forced tochase2 clamber over rocks and hills and ford a rushing river as a whole gang of policemen follow doggedly behind. Coming to a crossroads, he pauses briefly to take note of a sign directing him to the nearby Alt-na-Shellach (framed strikingly in a close-up that also captures Hannay’s head).


houseSeeming to have gained a bit on the pursuit, he runs up to the door of a large house and summons the maid. He gains admittance before the police arrive, and the maid lies to them, claiming no one has been near the house recently. Meanwhile, inside, Hannayprofessor (under his assumed name, “Hammond”) is conversing with the Professor, who has just discovered that he was sent by Annabella Smith. There is a party going on for the professor’s birthday, and their conversation is delayed while the professor allows it to run its course so the guests will leave. Hannay is introduced to the various people in the room (including the local sheriff) and joins the professor on the window seat at the back.

professor2Talk in the room turns to the sensational London murder and the ongoing manhunt in the area, while the camera remains focused on Hannay and the professor (neither bats an eyelash). After a few moments, the guests get up to take their leave, and the camera tracks back from the window as departing guests fill the screen and file out through the door. After the last one is gone, Hannay is left alone in the back of the large, empty room. The professor comes back in, and addresses Hannay by his real name.

pinkieThe professor quickly milks Hannay for all the information he knows (precious little). As a final thought, Hannay notes that the man Annabella was after is missing a portion of his pinkie. “Which one?” the professor asks. “This one, I think,” replies Hannay, indicating his left. “Are you sure it wasn’t . . . this one?” the professor says, holding up his right hand, and we can now see that he is missing half of his pinkie. The camera zooms in close to the deformed hand, then cuts to Hannay’s face as the realization of his mistake dawns on him.

hands1Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane notes that the party scene immediately preceding this revelation prepares us for it by subtly emphasizing the hands of everyone in the room.hands2 This is quite true. As Hannay enters the room, he shakes the hands of various people as he is introduced. A little group gathers around him, handing him a cigarette, lighting it for him, and giving him a martini. Once he has settled into his seat, the shot frames both Hannay and the professor with their hands clearly visible, as well as the hands (but not the faces) of the people standing nearby.

shot1A conversational game of cat-and-mouse ensues, as the professor reveals that, in any case, Annabella had already lost; he has the secrets he was after and will soon beshot2 leaving the country with them. Hannay, meanwhile, edges carefully towards the door until the professor produces a revolver. He suggests that Hannay extricate himself from his predicament by killing himself, which the other is not inclined to do. He seems to be positioning himself to run when the professor fires the gun. Hannay’s body becomes rigid with shock, and then he falls limply to the floor.

hymnbook1We return unexpectedly to the stone cottage, where the farmer is standing by the empty hook where his coat once hung. He is looking for his hymnal, but his wife reveals that it was in the pocket of the coat she gave to Hannay.hymnbook2 Furious, he advances toward her and begins to beat her off-screen. The scene cuts again to a close-up of the missing hymnal, which now has a small bullet embedded in it. Hannay is in the office of the sheriff he met at the professor’s party, and they are laughing over his narrow escape (a devastating contrast to the screams of the abused wife).

trickedThe sheriff’s affability, unfortunately, is only another act, and Hannay finds the tables turned on him once again. A whole group of London police burst through the door at the sheriff’s summons and he berates them for taking so long to arrive. The camera pans rapidly across the room to Hannay’s face again. Will he never learn to stop trusting? He is outraged at this new betrayal, but seemingly helpless in the face of it. As one of the detectives snaps the handcuffs around one of his wrists, the shot cuts to an exterior of the station. A car pulls up and one of the spies emerges, speculating that Hannay is inside even now “spilling the beans.”

escape1Just then, Hannay comes crashing out through the window and dashes up the street. As the police rally to follow, he quickly joins a Salvation Army parade that is passing by, casually falling into step in the midst of the crowd. We see in close-up that the policeescape2 only managed to cuff one of his wrists, which he now hides in his pocket. The police run past, and Hannay peels away from the procession down a side-street. Feeling trapped and exposed outdoors, he ducks quickly into the nearest doorway, which happens to lead into the local Assembly Hall. As soon as he pops through the door, he finds himself in the midst of a political rally, and mistaken for one of the guests!

speechHe is sent out to take an empty seat on the stage as the next speaker is introduced. In a favorite Hitchcockian use of sound, the man doing the introduction mumbles indistinctly, and is almost impossible to hear. Various people call out for him to speak up. Finally, he yields the stage and Hannay looks around for the next speaker, only to find that everyone on either side is looking back at him. Forced to improvise a speech on the spot, Hannay’s remarks are side-splittingly hilarious. In a brilliant scene of dialogue, every word he utters sounds like generic political rhetoric, but also functions as a double-entendre reference to his own desperate situation:

May I say from the bottom of my heart and with the utmost sincerity how delighted and relieved I am to find myself in your presence at this moment. Delighted because of your friendly reception, and relieved because so long as I stand on this platform I am delivered, for the moment, from the cares and anxieties which must be the lot of a man in my position.

exposedAs he continues to speak, the irate blonde from the train comes in the back with the man who is evidently the real guest speaker. Surprise and extreme annoyance vie for supremacy on her face. As Hannay continues to speak (and delight the crowd), the woman stalks indignantly back down the aisle and runs into two men who have just come in. They are not, however, policemen; they are the spies that recently watched from a safe distance as Hannay made his daring escape through the window. The three return together and stand waiting, just off-stage.

crowd2Having whipped the crowd into a bit of a frenzy, Hannay attempts to disappear into the midst of them, but instead is carried back by the thrust of their enthusiasm right into the waiting arms of the two men. Spotting the blonde (whose name is Pamela) standing to the side, he steps over to her and they have a brief argument. He asks her to place a call to the authorities in London on his behalf, and although she refuses, the inevitable result of the exchange is that she is pulled into the midst of events as well. The two men (whom both Hannay and Pamela believe to be from the police) ask her to come along and help identify their prisoner, and she reluctantly agrees.

She immediately gets more than she bargained for when their car drives past the local police station and she’s informed that their destination is a town some two hours away. Hannay, who has his own reasons to be annoyed with her, is amused at her irritation. As they settle in for the ride, the camera pulls back out of the car and stops to watch it wind its way into the darkness of the lonely countryside.


sheep The scene fades back in some time later, as the car stops and makes a turn. Pamela is suddenly confused, certain that they’ve gone the wrong way. Their stated destination is in the other direction. The shot shifts suddenly to a close-up of Hannay’s face as his eyes shift to the side and back. His suspicions are now aroused. He asks to see their badges and is refused; now he is certain, and he is quick to reveal that he now knows they aren’t real policemen. Now the car comes to a sudden stop and they look out to see the road blocked by a flock of sheep.

handcuffedThe two men get out to investigate, but first they lock the other cuff (half of which Hannay is still wearing) around Pamela’s wrist to ensure that Hannay remains in the car. As soon as they are gone, however, Hannay drags Pamela out with him. He knocks one of the bad guys over the side of a small stone bridge and slides down the other side. There is a thin mist covering everything, and the couple seems certain to slip away in the dark when Pamela attempts to scream for help. Hannay silences her and drags her behind a waterfall, pointing an object in his coat pocket at her to keep her quiet. When the spies fail to find them, they drive away in disgust.


spatDespite the gravity of the situation, the introduction of the handcuffed couple element lends a vague air of squabbling romantic comedy to the proceedings. As they walk along through the night together, Hannay and Pamela bicker back and forth as she continues to believe he is a murderer and he insists on his innocence. Finally, completely fed-up with her, he reminds her that if she truly is walking alone through lonely country with a murderer, she’d better watch how she behaves. Throughout this sequence, Hannay finds himself whistling an agonizingly familiar tune, but he cannot remember where he heard it or why it is stuck in his head. The tune weaves its way casually through the next several minutes, then fades into the background of the story. It will resurface later.

inn1Finally they happen upon a small inn, and Hannay (again with the implied threat of the “gun” in his coat pocket) insists that Pamela pretend to be his wife as they procure a room for the night. He stuffs her hand into his pocket with his own to hide the handcuffs and they venture inside. Pamela is desperate to signal the innkeeper or his wife rather than share a room with Hannay, but he watches her like a hawk and intimates that he and Pamela are a “runaway couple.” The innkeeper’s wife is charmed, noting to her husband how obviously in love the young couple is, and promises to keep their secret. The expressions on the couples’ faces, whenever anyone else can’t see, reveal everything that is passing between them as they communicate silently. She is reluctant. He is insistent.


bed1She brings them something to eat and leaves them alone, and there are further sharp words. Pamela removes her wet stockings to let them dry by the fire and they try to eat and get comfortable on the bed. Throughout this scene, he manhandles her ruthlessly (though he is not necessarily abusive), and she is furious, all the more so because she feels helpless to do anything about it. Pamela offers a nail file to hack at the handcuffs with, and as he saws away he spins what Keane calls “a bedtime story,” a wild tale about the long and glorious line of serial killers that he comes from. As he speaks, she drifts off to sleep, and before long, so does he. The scene fades out on a close-up shot of a burning candle by the bed.


looseA brief intermediate scene shows the professor leaving his home by car for London, as he accelerates his plans to get out of the country with the information he has stolen. We return to the sleeping couple some hours later, as indicated by the still-burning candle, which is now only a stub. Pamela wakes up and, with Hannay sound asleep, manages to painfully wriggle her hand out of the cuffs. Getting out of the bed, she reaches into his pocket for the gun and discovers, much to her exasperation, that it is only a pipe.

spies1Pamela sneaks out onto the landing, intent on leaving at once, and spots the two fake policemen interrogating the innkeeper below. When the innkeeper leaves to fetch some drinks, she starts to call out to them, but something prevents her. This is fortunate, as they almost immediately reveal in conversation that Hannay has been telling the truthspies2 all along. As Pamela crouches in the shadows on the second story, the innkeeper returns and the pair asks him if any young couples have come by that evening. Just as he is about to answer, his wife rushes up and stops him, cleverly hiding her alarm behind the excuse that he is serving customers alcohol after-hours. She quickly hustles the men out the door and gently chides her husband’s carelessness.


eavesdropperThe camera tracks straight up to Pamela, still watching overhead. Smiling to herself, she returns to the room with Hannay and affectionately tucks him in. She lays down on the short couch at the foot of the bed, but, finding that she is cold, she sits up and snatches Hannay’s blanket to cover herself with. When Hannayfight wakes up, he immediately notices that she is missing and smiles wryly to himself. But Pamela is already awake, and watching him over the foot of the bed. The conversation that ensues is very sweet, but it ends in a fight when she reveals what she overheard the night before and he tells her off for not waking him up at once. She storms out of the room in a huff, and the scene moves back to London.

policePamela is at Scotland Yard, talking to the police. They have inquired at the air defense and discovered that no secrets are missing. Pamela is baffled, and goes to join Hannay at the London Palladium, where the spies are supposed to put in an appearance before leaving the country. Of course, the police follow her there in force, hoping to find Hannay. The film now comes full circle, returning us to a rowdy performance for the final climax.

operaglassJust before Pamela reaches him in the audience, Hannay spots the professor hiding in the shadows of a private box. He confirms the sighting by borrowing a pair of opera glasses and getting a closer look at the deformed hand. His quarry is in the theater (assolved are the police), but he cannot quite figure out what the final piece of the puzzle is. Why has the leader of the spies come to the theater? The answer comes to him suddenly as the next act comes on. The introductory music that the orchestra plays is the tune that has been stuck in his head, and he now remembers where he heard it before: It is the preface to Mr. Memory’s act!

The final piece is in place, and Hannay confirms it by following Memory’s gaze up to the professor with the opera glasses. The stolen secrets are hidden inside of Memory’s prodigious brain, thus explaining why none of them seem to be missing. As the act begins, though, the police swoop in to hustle him out. Hannay tries to explain, but they are intent on taking him out of the theater. Suddenly, Hannay breaks away and shouts out the question, “What are the 39 steps?”


memory5The camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Memory’s face, tilted at a jarring angle, as he answers the question automatically. Before he can finish, a shot rings out and he falls over. The shot cuts up to the professor, who is holding a smoking revolver. Thesmokinggun professor backs towards the door of his box, but sees the vivid shadow of a policeman just outside and instead jumps down onto the stage. The camera swoops back to watch him from a very high angle as he whirls around, looking for an escape. There is none, and as the curtain whooshes down to cover the scene, policemen swarm in from all sides and converge on him.


dyingbreathHannay and Pamela rush backstage, where Memory is slowly fading away on the floor. In a final confirmation of Hannay’s solution, he prompts Memory to recite thetheend memorized data: plans for a silent plane engine. As a line of chorus girls, the next act, dances behind him, Memory dies. Hannay and Pamela step back and the camera focuses on their hands. Hannay, handcuffs still dangling from his right wrist, reaches out to take Pamela’s hand as the final fade-out arrives.

The 39 Steps was a magnificent achievement for Hitchcock; a full-fledged emergence into multi-layered film-making with boatloads of popular appeal. In comparison, The Man Who Knew Too Much seems like simply a minor introduction of far better things to come. Of course, Hitch had most of the brightest moments of his career still ahead of him, including the best of his British films a few years away, but The 39 Steps effectively ensured that future. Hitchcock could now be certain that he had stumbled upon a genuinely valuable genre, and he showed no signs of abandoning it throughout his next several films.

Next Week: Hitchcock comes in from the cold


~ by Jared on April 16, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: