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.
Unlike Buchan’s book, Hitchcock’s film has a healthy dose of sexual tension. For example, the film opens with the murder of a prostitute/spy, Annabella Smith (Lucie Manheim), a means to introduce the espionage plot while Hannay is framed for her death in his apartment. In short order, this scene is juxtaposed against the introduction of Pamela Stewart as the heroine who has to help Hannay. This also allowed the juxtaposition of a “mercenary spy”—Smith—-versus the “patriotic spy”—Hannay.
It was not lost on Hitchcock that having his leads on the run handcuffed together playing an eloping couple was a bit kinky. The thrust of the story is Hannay and Stewart coming to trust each other. Along the way, Stewart kept pace with Hannay each step of the way, met him scripted line for witty line in each scene, and outthought him as often as not. Steward was the one who discovered how to pick the lock of the handcuffs linking the two leads. Those cuffs were more than a kinky prop—they symbolized a fake marriage, but one of the movie’s many allusions to marriage, good, bad, and humorous. Speaking of sexual imagery, was the professor’s mutilated finger a symbol of castration?
For more than 75 years, critics have interpreted and analyzed The 39 Steps on nearly every level. One of the delights of the new special edition of The 39 Steps is that viewers can get a generous sampling of what critics and historians have said about the film. There’s audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane who points out how the director used camera placement and framing to shape his story. In addition, she makes apt points about various scenes such as those with helpful Scottish wives aiding Hannay hide from his pursuers.
For historical contexts, there’s “Hitchcock: The Early Years,” a 2000 British documentary, which looks at the director’s career from the ‘20s to his leaving England for Hollywood in 1939. We hear Hitchcock’s own voice in conversations with Mike Scott in a 1966 television interview and in excerpts from François Truffaut’s 1962 recordings. There’s a visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, Original production design drawings, and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns.
While radio adaptations of classic films often serve as mere appendices to such packages, the December 13, 1937 CBS Lux Radio Theatre broadcast from Hollywood is of special interest. Unlike the Mercury Theatre adaptation of Buchan’s novel, the Lux version, starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino, was a condensation of the Hitchcock film. It had its own flourishes, such as the coda of Hannay and Stewart agreeing to marry despite the foreknowledge they’d be arguing over breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But it’s the intermission that should interest spy buffs. In between the first and second acts, show host, film director Cecil B. DeMille, interviewed special guest Major C. E. Russell of U.S. Army Intelligence. At the time, the U.S. had no useful intelligence agencies in part due to public disdain for espionage—hence the use of terms like “secret agent” and “counter-spy.”
Russell’s interview was thus a bit of propaganda to sell the idea that “patriotic spies” and not “mercenary spies” provided important services to a country. Russell outline what he thought the key aspects of a good spy are, stating they had changed little over the centuries. Modern audiences will raise eyebrows when hearing his belief women make for lousy agents as they’re too passionate to think straight. The interview thus mixed entertainment, politics, and a touch of commercialism when Russell revealed new microfilm could be hidden on things as small as a flake of Lux soap, the show’s sponsor.
So, while The 39 Steps has been widely available on DVD for some time, the new special edition is indeed special. Reportedly, the Blu-ray version has enhanced sound, but I’m not sure that’s the major selling point most viewers will want. The film on its own is magic enough, but it’s all the bonuses that will have long-time aficionados going out to replace their copies despite the fact much of this material has been widely available in one format or another for some time. The Truffaut discussions, for example, appeared in his 1967 book, Hitchcock. Still, if you haven’t yet enjoyed The 39 Steps, this is the version for film students, Hitchcock fans, spy enthusiasts, and lovers of classic cinema. Did I mention the gorgeous Madeline Carroll is one of the most neglected screen beauties . . .?