Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie The 39 Steps has been one of my favorite spy films for some time. I’m not alone. Few would contest the film’s place as being the best of Hitch’s British black-and-white productions. Taking some of his cues from John Buchan's 1915 novel, Hitchcock cast the very capable Robert Donet is Richard Hannay, a gentleman who becomes a fugitive on the run chased by both law enforcement and enemy agents.
Pamela Stewart (Madeline Carroll) is Hannay’s equally reluctant love interest. She’s drawn into the intrigue despite her disbelief in Hannay’s claims. For some fans, the delicious Madeline Carroll is a beauty of the silver screen now neglected in film studies, despite Hitchcock using her twice, in The 39 Steps and his less successful 1936 Secret Agent.
Hitchcock's formula of the innocent caught up in espionage and the reluctant, skeptical love interest drawn into the intrigue despite herself has become the established template for so many genre films since, from Three Days of the Condor to The Bourne Identity. There’s also no question that the script for North by Northwest was built on elements taken from The 39 Steps.
Orson Welles was absolutely correct when he observed that his 1938 Mercury Theatre radio adaptation of The 39 Steps was much closer to Buchan’s book than what Hitchcock created. For one matter, there was no Pamela Stewart in the book. In the novel, Richard Hannay might have been an innocent in the game of espionage, but he had learned from the natives in South Africa how to throw knives and catch them in his teeth, how to wander quietly in the heath, and how to take out an opponent by pressing on pressure points on the body.
Hitchcock’s Hannay was a Canadian with apparently no such experience. The director didn’t think it would be credible that his “everyman” could pull off such feats. So, among many changes he made to the story, Hitchcock changed the “McGuffin” from a secret spybase on the shore to secret plans hidden away in a memory expert’s mind.
However, while Hitchcock would become known as a master of espionage films, spying wasn’t his real interest. In fact, he thought espionage was a nasty, disreputable business. At least, that’s what he told François Truffaut in 1962. His focus in The 39 Steps was something else altogether, his oft-used theme of how everyday people react when thrown into circumstances beyond their control or understanding.