Synopsis – A man in London tries to help a counter-espionage agent, but when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to save himself and stop a spy ring that is trying to steal top-secret information – The 39 Steps.
Director – Alfred Hitchcock
Released – 1935
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say The 39 Steps was one of Hitchcock’s most important movies, not only is this my favourite movie from his time working in Britain, but also the movie that shaped his illustrious career in Hollywood. Almost every key ingredient of this thriller resurfaces again in his later work including the double-hunt structure, the beautiful blonde forced against her will to become part of the story, an unlikely everyman hero, an upper-class villain, at least one McGuffin, bungling police officers and suspenseful action sequence taking place upon a national monument. It’s true to say that Hitchcock had used some of these elements before, he’d based a story around an innocent man falsely accused as far back as The Lodger, but here is the first time that so many of these things combined.
Even though The 39 Steps is at heart a pure adventure film transporting the audience from the backstreets of London all the way up to the highlands of Scotland, Hitchcock still finds time to play with the genre, introducing multiple crime-noir elements to darken the mood, while counteracting that with moments of comedy, including the repeated cheery murder-related banter or the crowds taunting the performers in the opening scene.
Donat makes for a strong put-upon protagonist and shares genuine chemistry with Madeleine Carroll, the two of which are handcuffed together for much of the production a trend that multiple filmmakers have used since). The film also benefits from decent supporting performances from John Laurie and Godfrey Tearle.
Hitchcock’s direction is really tight. By this point in his career, he was starting to find the right balance between the heavy-handed expressionism required in his earlier career when the technology wasn’t there and the more direct approach he favoured during his Hollywood years. But it was his use of sound that really stands out. Multiple memorable moments were linked to the use of sound, including turning the inoxuious sound of a phone ringing into something ominous or the brilliant moment where a woman’s silent scream fades into a shot of a train’s whistle as it leaves a tunnel.
The 39 Steps has a particular charm lost in Hitchcock’s later work but also hints at the way in which his career was destined to go this is a film that any fan of British cinema, crime-thrillers or Hitchcock should check out as it’s not only of his most important works but also one of the best movies of the ’30s, while also remaining a rule engrossing story.