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The 39 Steps (1935)

WARNING: 39 SPOILERS

Here’s a snatch of dialogue from early in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”:

She: May I come home with you?
He: What’s the idea?
She: Well, I’d like to.
He: It’s your funeral.

He is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London. She is Annabella, (Lucie Mannheim), who, unbeknownst to Hannay, is a secret agent. They’ve just met. They were both in a London Music Hall watching a man named Mr. Memory perform before a raucus crowd when shots were fired and everyone ran (they didn’t walk) to the nearest exit. At the moment she’s playing the frightened woman even though she’s the one who fired the shots.

I love the economy in these four lines. With only 15 words, she seems to promise easy sex while he responds with a shrug—as if he knows he’s in a 1930s movie, where there is no sex, easy or otherwise. The final line is hilariously self-effacing. It’s also expert foreshadowing. Going home with Hannay will, in fact, be Annabella’s funeral.

“The 39 Steps” was the second of six films Alfred Hitchcock directed for Gaumont British Picture Corporation, films in which he began to perfect what became known as “the Hitchcock thriller,” and there’s something clean and nonchalant about it, the way there’s something clean and nonchalant about “The Great Gatsby” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” There’s no wasted space in the plot even though we go off on tangents with quirky secondary characters, such as the milkman, the underwear salesman, and the crofter and his wife. It feels pure and self-contained. Plus it’s fun.

Hannay is the first great example of Hitchcock’s innocent man on the run. When he and Annabella get back to his flat, he fries her up some haddock while she tells her tale. Yes, she’s a spy. Yes, she fired those shots. There were men she needed to get away from. Those men are now outside. Hannay checks, confirms, and she warns him:

She: Now that they have followed us here, you are in it as much as I am.
He: How do you mean?

Now that’s innocent! Worse, though they seem intimate in the kitchen, always within a whisper of touching each other, the promise of easy sex remains just that: a promise. He gives her his bed while foolishly taking the couch, where, in the middle of the night, she wakes him, gurgling warnings, a knife in her back, a map of Scotland clutched in her dying hand. He backs away, wiping blood from his own hand. He may not get the sex but he catches the disease. Now the men are chasing him.

Annabella was vague about why she was being chased—because spies tend to be vague and because Hitchcock is always vague about his MacGuffin (that element that drives the story but is ultimately meaningless)—but Hannay knows the following: 1) Annabella was working to prevent information from leaving England; 2) there’s an important man to see in Scotland; 3) beware the man missing the top joint of his little finger.

Though Hannay gets away, just barely, from the bad guys, and settles into a train bound for Scotland, Hitchcock immediately lets us know there is no “away.” In the very next shot, a justifiably famous shot, Annabella’s body is discovered by a charwoman, and, as she turns toward the camera to scream, the sound we hear is the train whistle and the shot we see is the train coming out of a tunnel. It’s both clever-funny and immediately revives our sense of urgency. It’s as if the scream is already part of his getaway train. It’s as if the train now has the disease, too.

This is the second time in the film, by the way, that a face, or faces, have turned toward the camera, and us, in a moment of terror. The first was when shots were fired in the Music Hall.

The second is the charwoman finding the body.

First the gun, then the body. What comes next? Guilt and suspicion. The salesman on the train is actually in his own world of ladies underwear and cricket, yet he still stares with narrowed eyes at Hannay, and us, over the newspaper story of Annabella’s murder.

I’m sure books have been written about this Hitchcockian perspective. But at its most base level it helps us identify with Hannay. We are the ones people are frightened and suspicious of. We’ve caught the disease, too.

Soon the police, who are remarkably efficient when the story needs them to be, board the train searching for Hannay. Trapped, Hannay barges into the compartment of a pretty blonde, calls out “Darling!” and kisses her as the police, clucking to themselves wistfully, pass; then he tries to get her, this stranger, on his side. It’s a key moment. The Hitchcock story isn’t just about the innocent person caught in a web of intrigue; it’s about the innocent person who can’t get anyone to believe their story. It’s the stuff of nightmares: I have the answer but no one believes me! The milkman—a great secondary character—was the first charcter who didn’t believe Hannay, and the pretty blonde, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who will be a primary character, is the second.

Pamela not only disbelieves him, and not only gives him up to the cops, but she does it with a kind of vindictiveness. When you contrast it with Hannay’s nurturing quality with Annabella, in the kitchen, fixing her a meal, it seems not only unfair but unfeminine. One wonders if her anger stems from the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss or the fact that she enjoyed the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss.

Contrast her reaction, too, with the reaction of Margaret, the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft). Hannay escapes the cops on thge train and makes his way across the moors of Scotland, where he chances upon an old scabby farm, run by an old scabby man, John (John Laurie), with whom he bargains for a room for the evening. Though John is suspcious by nature, it’s his wife, Margaret, who figures out why Hannay’s running, and who believes him, and who helps him escape and ultimately saves his life (with the hymnbook in the breastpocket). What does she get for it? An off-screen slap, and possibly worse, from her husband. Pamela, the ice queen, gets Hannay.

We get more caught/escape cycles. The important man from Scotland, Prof. Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), no. 2 from above, turns out to be no. 3 from above, the man missing the top joint of his little finger. Oops. The hymnbook saves Hannay there, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, he’s in the local police station, where the police finally believe him. Except they don’t. So he escapes again, this time through a political parade and into a political rally. He’s on stage, and in the the midst of charmingly winning over the rowdy crowd (and anticipating Hugh Grant’s entire career), when he’s spotted by, whaddayaknow, Pamela, who promptly, and icily, gives him up a second time. Problem? She gives him up to the bad guys. And she’s brought along for the ride.

She gets hers, though. After he escapes again—this time handcuffed to Pamela—the two take a room at the Argyle Arms posing as newlyweds. Pamela is scandalized, you can see it in her pleading eyes, but we remember her previous behavior, so cold and unwomanly, and have no sympathy. Plus we’re titilated by her predicament. There’s a scene where she removes her damp stockings, Hannay’s handcuffed hand bumping along for the joyride, while the camera holds on her exquisite legs and silence—almost like held breath—envelopes everything. It’s one of the sexier 15 seconds in movie history.

The film ends where it began, in the music hall with Mr. Memory, whose rock-solid memory is the key to transporting the stolen information out of the country. On first viewing, this alley-oop seems brilliant. On second viewing, questions arise.

OK, so if Annabella was in the music hall in the beginning, did she know about Mr. Memory? If so, why point to Scotland? And how did those two bad guys kill her with a knife in the back but not get Hannay? Why kill Annabella—presumably inside the flat—and then phone Hannay from outside the flat? That makes no sense. And why phone the night before anyway? Aren’t they alerting both her and him to their presence? They’re not exactly putting the secret into secret agent, are they? And a hymnbook in a breast pocket? And Pamela shows up again at the political rally? In all the gin joints in all of Scotland...

To which Hitchcock, somewhere, harrumphs. “I’m not concerned with plausibility,” he once said. Another time: “Must a picture be logical, when life is not?”

With apologies to Sir Alfred, here’s a better response: Must a picture be logical when dreams are not?

Movies have been compared to dreams forever, and Hitchcock’s movies have been compared to nightmares forever, and this implausibility is part of the reason why. One can imagine Hannay waking up back in Canada and telling his friends about the dream he had:

I was in ... England, I suppose, and these fellows were after a woman, a beautiful woman, and I was trying to help her; and then they came after me. They thought I had information but I didn’t have information. I think I was charged with murder in there somewhere, too. I just kept running and getting caught, running and getting caught. I was even shot once but didn’t bleed. And there was another woman, another beautiful woman, who wouldn’t believe that I was innocent. No one believed it. So I had to keep running. Anyway, pass the sugar, will you?

—November 6, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard