Early Hitchcock? Yes. Minor Hitchcock? Definitely Not. – The 39 Steps (1935)

***Spoiler Warning! Yes, I’m writing about a more than 80 year old movie today, but just as this was my first viewing of the movie, therefore it was new to me and there were twists I wouldn’t have wanted to know about, I’m sure there are those of you out there who are in the same situation, and even though I’m not going to be talking about the very ending of the movie, there are some twists that are unavoidable. Therefore, if you want to go into it completely spoiler free, well… End Warning***

39s1One of the things that I’ve decided recently is that I need to spend more time catching up with early Alfred Hitchcock movies, especially those that he made before leaving England for Hollywood. Thus, The 39 Steps which he directed in 1935.

Adapted from John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps which was first serialized in Blackwoods Magazine in 1915, Hitchcock’s film not only stands as a great early example of spy films in general, but of what was to come from the great director as it either introduces or reinforces a number of the touches and tropes that would be seen throughout his career.

First, the movie is a great example of the Hitchcockian plot device of a seemingly innocent man caught up by circumstance in events beyond his control which could have world changing implications. In this case the man is Richard Hannay who is played by Robert Donat. Interestingly, Buchan’s novel was the first of five novels to feature Hannay as the lead as he continued to get caught up in a number of adventures beyond the conclusion of the events in this story.

39s2Second, and especially of note in this day when gender-and race- swapping are controversial issues which receive a lot of attention, We have the introduction of “Annabella Smith” (an admitted alias) as the character who brings Hannay into the plot after a show at a London music hall is disrupted by gunfire. What makes this interesting is that on the novel, the person who draws Hannay into the story is an American man named Franklin P. Scudder. By turning Scudder into a woman of unknown national origin, Hitchcock not only raises a question of sexual tension that would not be a part of Buchan’s story, but also in his casting of Lucie Mannheim as Smith, he reinforces the idea of the “Hitchcock blond” which would become a staple of the master’s movies.

39s3Also, by recasting the character as female, Hitchcock provides an early take on an idea which would have a later echo in the director’s 1960 film Psycho when she is suddenly and unexpectedly stabbed and killed very early in the film, thus leaving Hannay with only the slightest of clues as to the actual mystery that is surrounding him, and changing the focus and perspective of the film from what seems like it will be a chase of both Hannay and Smith as they try to intercept and deter the spy ring to more of a man on the run film as Hannay must not only attempt to figure out the secret that she was trying to protect, but must also stay one step ahead of Scotland Yard who believe that he is the one who murdered her.

39s5Finally, I think it should be noted that even though The 39 Steps may seem to be, as noted above an “early” Hitchcock film, he already had quite a few directing credits to his name before this (the number is kind of inexact depending on the sources you check and just how much involvement you give credit to on some of the earliest films, but it already shows the assured hand of someone who knows just what he wants from both those behind and in front of the camera and how to get what he wants. It may be early Hitchcock, but it isn’t minor Hitchcock. Also, it was considered a major film by production company Gaumont-British which was not only willing to give Hitch a very free hand with the adaptation, but was also willing to spend what was then considered a major-league budget to make it, including spending the money to bring in two stars who at the time were well known American actors in an attempt to make a splash not only in England but also in America, and that investment paid off greatly, not only at the box office, but with critics and audiences.

I said at the first that I felt a need to fill in the Early Hitchcock hole in my viewing experience, and if The 39 Steps is any example of what’s in store as I do that, I can’t wait to watch more.

Here’s, well, not exactly a trailer, but a taste of the film:

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