Released in 1935, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is one of the more popular films from his late-British period before leaving for Hollywood. The film stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll as fugitives on the run from a mysterious espionage ring.
The 39 Steps is the story of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and his string of bad luck. After attending a theater event that ends in a brawl, he bumps into a mysterious lady on the run and agrees to take her back to his flat, where she recounts a tale of espionage involving something called The 39 Steps. Unfortunately, they were followed on their way to his place, and her murder that evening leaves Hannay as the primary suspect, and now on the run from everyone: the police who are looking for him, as well as her killers who think he now shares her secret information.
While on the run to Scotland to meet up with the mysterious woman's contact, Hannay bumps into a lady named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). She gives him up to the police, but is also taken in for questioning. In a turn of events, Hannay discovers the cops detaining them are part of the conspiracy, and drags Pamela with him on a rapid escape. Now both fugitives, Hannay must work to find out what are The 39 Steps and to do so before he is either captured or killed.
If the "innocent man wrongly accused, now on the run" theme is sounding familiar for a Hitchcock film, that isn't a coincidence. The director borrowed several elements, both thematically and visually, from this film for his later masterpiece North By Northwest. And while this one may not have the polished edge and grand scale of the later work, it ably reigns in some of Hitchcock's key interests and finds him at every point playing to his strengths and mastering his craft. The dialogue is ever focused, subtle, and never trades genres as casually as it does in some of his other British pictures; the askew camera angles are more intentional and revealing; the actor closeups often work as effective dialogue substitutes instead of just reactionary shots; and the characters, overall, have more than one-note motivations, with even some of the smaller roles becoming effectively brief character studies.