The McGuffin. The wrong man. An everyman hero who’s at once the pursuer and the pursued. All the classic elements of an Alfred Hitchcock movie are perfectly articulated in 1935’s The 39 Steps, which stands as both the culmination of his career to date in the UK and the genetic material for future masterpieces like Notorious and North By Northwest. Early efforts like the 1927 silent thriller The Lodger had asserted a visual style in line with the German Expressionists, and his 1938 follow-up The Lady Vanishes affirmed his gift for dry, drawing-room wit, but The 39 Steps represents the ultimate distillation of Hitchcock’s strengths. Robert Donat’s dash across the Scottish highlands may anticipate the large-scale pleasures of Cary Grant fleeing crop-dusters and scaling the face of Mount Rushmore, but the film has distinction beyond a mere warm-up. Infused with elements of screwball romantic comedy, it uses a tightly written spy story to explore issues of trust with maturity and cool sophistication.
Based on John Buchan’s novel—which, according to David Cairns’ liner notes, was occasionally altered radically to open it up cinematically—The 39 Steps stars Donat, a gentleman with a Douglas Fairbanks groom, as an innocent man thrust unwittingly into danger. After shots are fired at a London music hall, Donat, a Canadian visitor, gives cover to a mysterious woman who claims to be on the run from secret agents. When she appears later with a knife in her back, Donat flees all the way to the Scottish moors in an effort to escape his pursuers and expose the truth about a spy ring involving a man with part of his pinky finger missing and something about “the 39 steps.” While eluding the police and various shadowy figures, he takes on baggage in the form of a strong-willed young woman (Madeleine Carroll) who’s handcuffed to his arm.
All roads lead back to the music hall and “Mr. Memory,” the source of one of the all-time great movie twists, but getting there is tremendous fun, a deftly managed series of suspenseful turns and romantic feistiness. Donat may be the audience surrogate—an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary peril—but he seems just as much a surrogate for Hitchcock, handling his twists of fortune with unflappable elegance and wit. His cool-headedness provides the ballast for a thriller that’s utterly relentless, an exemplar of fat-free efficiency for Hitchcock and countless other genre films to follow. Hitchcock would make richer films in Hollywood, but The 39 Steps came off the line as the Model T of cinematic plot machines.
Key features: Go-to Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane reveals some racy symbolism in the commentary track. Other supplements include footage from a 1966 TV interview with Hitchcock as well as audio from his famous sessions with François Truffaut, various visual essays and short documentaries, and the full 1937 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast adaptation.