Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Three women and… The 39 Steps (1935)

Peggy Ashcroft
As some of us are delighting in discovering Hitchcock’s early silent work, it leads you on to that period immediately after, when he was establishing his future templates in a series of bold and innovative British sound pictures.

Seeming familiarity means that you forget how skilful and impactful Hitchcock was… these are his early albums recorded on modest budgets for indy labels… fresh, abrasive and highly influential. Would Hitchcock have made his 1950’s Hollywood classics without the ground work laid in the 30s… isn’t The 39 Steps the film North by North West was intended to ape and isn’t Robert Donat the prototypical Cary Grant?

Robert Donat
The 39 Steps certainly has much style and wit and I enjoyed it all the more for being able to place it in the context of his silent work. The story moves on at some pace and is so well structured with stories within the story and a maguffin to end all maguffins… But, for me at least, the tale revolves around the main character’s interaction with three women.

The tale starts in music hall, with jaunty expressionist shots of the theatre exterior as we follow a great coated man entering to watch a Mr Memory – “every day he commits to memory 50 new facts!”. The scenes in the theatre are superb and reminded me of the audience shots in The Ring, lots of British characters rapidly established through their questions, hesitations and off-hand comments… it’s quick fire and very funny.

“What causes pip in poultry?”, persists one dour character and there are repeated shouts of “how old’s Mae West?” leading to a scrap between audience members.. ah London!

Miss Annabella Smith

Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim
A shot rings up and panic ensues… the man in the great coat (Robert Donat) rescues a lady from the crush and she asks to come back to his flat…a pretty forward suggestion in those times yet one which the man doesn’t hesitate to accept. The sign on his rented Portland Place apartment says he is Mr Richard Hannay – in Britain temporarily rather than his native Canada. The woman introduces herself as Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) and sauciness turns quickly to suspense…”I fired those shots… there were two men there who wanted to kill me”.

She’s a freelance agent who had tracked two foreign agents to the theatre, they have a secret vital to Britain’s air defence which they are planning to get out of the country as soon as they can. She loads Hannay up with as much information as she can: “Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps? No, what’s that? A pub?”

She tells him about how ruthless the group is and that their leader has the tip of his little finger missing… Hannay is having the batton passed to him as he now knows too much for the agents to leave him alone.

She is knifed in the night and hands Hannay a map of Scotland showing a pencil mark around Alt na Shellach near Killin…(and coincidentally near to a mountain, Meall nan Tarmachan, I climbed in the summer...spooky!) her voice-over recounts the key facts: Hitch is making sure the audience is following…there’s a lot to take in.

Hannay escapes disguised as a milkman, makes it form Portland Place to Euston in time to catch the Flying Scotsman… and just evade the two spies. The scream of the woman finding the body merges with the train whistle as it roars up the tracks.

Over the Forth Rail Bridge… the police come searching and he snogs a surprised Madeleine Carroll (good plan!) as cover but she gives him away - there'll be no easy route to trust with this one.

Margaret, the crofter’s wife

Hannay escapes across the glens and encounters a crofter (John Laurie). This is a pivotal section of the film and features great cameos from both Laurie and a young, frankly very cute, Peggy Ashcroft. Ashcroft plays a Glasgow girl who’s married an older man, swapping the energy of the big city for the smothering quiet of the country and her oppressive husband. She laps up Hannay’s tales of London: “is it true that all the ladies paint their toe nails…”

What are we to make of this character? Is she the counter-point to Hannay’s chance taking/life-living adventurer?

So much is communicated so quickly as the dour crofter says grace over the supper table, and his wife sees Hannay glancing at the latest Portland Murder headline: she realises and he mouths innocence at her. All the while Laurie looks at both sensing their instant connection, jealous and fearful at the same time.

Robert Donat, John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft
He goes outside ostensibly to lock the barn but only goes to spy on hannay and his wife through the window. We see her and Hannay debating his situation… she trusts him. Ashcroft is simply stunning, quick witted and clever actress who tells an immense story within this relatively short camera time.

She hears the police coming early the next day, her husband is going to give him up but she – Margaret – gives Hannay the break – he kisses her and says he’ll never forget her… in another time they could have been a couple? She knows she’ll be made to pay and looks in despair at the floor as he leaves.

Hannay is chased across the glens and finds his way to Alt na Shellach… where, after he telling them he’s from Annabella Smith, he meets the owner, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle). There’s a drinks reception for the Professor’s daughter… it’s a quick shift to apparent normality after the chase.

Hannay talks with the Professor whom he thinks Annabelle was intent on seeing but, he holds up his hand to show the missing finger tip of the enemy agent… Donat’s reaction shot is cool and rather impressed – suave doesn’t do him justice!
Godfrey Tearle and Robert Donat
The Professor offers Hannay an honourable suicide but after he declines shoots him. Hannay’s life is saved by the bullet getting lodged in the crofter’s hymn book – the film cuts to Laurie asking Margaret about it and as she tells him he hits her… she's saved Hannay twice now but the police have him.

Madelaine Carroll and Robert Donat
Hannay escapes through the window, he joins a march and then ducks into a political rally where he is mistaken for the guest speaker… Again Hitchcock pulls us back to “normality” as, in the midst of all this re-assuringly cosy political debating, there is a real drama being played out – life and death…There’s a brilliant sequence as Donat makes up a stirring speech whilst the police arrive with Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) in tow – she identifies Hannay and they and the enemy agents close in on him. He plays for time by stirring up the political rhetoric… such an admirable and resourceful character – a great cinema hero!

As he’s arrested he pleads with Pamela to contact the Canadian embassy… she refuses…but he’s told her too much and she’s taken with him by the agents. Once again the baton has been passed…from Annabelle to Hannay and onto Pamela. A great camera sweep moves from focusing on the captured couple in the agents car to a rear view of it speeding through the Trossachs… now the final section of the film begins as the relationship between Hannay and Pamela is built.

The car is stopped by a sheep-jam and they handcuff Pamela to Hannay but he drags her out of the car and they run…Annabelle trusted Hannay enough to tell him her story whilst Margaret instinctively knew Hannay was good – there was an instant connection. But Pamela just won’t believe him… and, even when they are physically attached, he struggles to connect. It’s the classic rom-com "falling in hate" scenario and the fact that they’re handcuffed – literally inseparable – makes it all the more barbed! How many relationships end up like this let alone get started as a “ball and chain”?

Maybe Pamela is spoiled, used to having her own way and also bored and used to being allowed to complain all of the time… she’s certainly not happy. Another woman for Hannay to save? And this time he might manage it…having failed with the first two.

They stay in the Argyll Arms… welcomed by a complicit look from the barman, similar to the milk man earlier in the film, who was only too willing to help Hannay when he thought he was trying to avoid his lovers’ husband! A male conspiracy… Hitchcock's shared fantasy. The barman asks his wife if she think they’re married, "Idinnae ken and Idinnae care. They’re so terrible in love with each other!” We laugh but she’s right and is about the first to see it. Pamela isn’t convinced yet and Hannay’s bullying her…even if he’s joking about it.

Pamela removes her damp stockings and Hitchcock focuses unashamedly on her legs. This was certainly provocative for the time and a way of reinforcing her vulnerability: but, impressive as the Carroll pins are, the viewer is uncomfortable with this frankness. Donat’s hand is inevitably drawn to them by their metal connection, he grabs her knee but she pushes a sandwich in his hand... a humorous apology for the free show?

They chat and both fall asleep, Pamela gets free of the cuffs and is about to escape when the two agents call Professor Jordan’s house and give the game away: the 39 Steps is to be revealed at the London Palladium. She returns to Hannay knowing his innocence at last.

Spoilers ahead:
The film ends as it began, in a theatre… Pamela tells Hannay that no information is missing and he despairs then hears the tune that’s been stuck in his head… it’s the introductory music for Mr Memory, the penny drops:“All the information’s inside Memory’s head!”

Grabbed by the police, Hannay calls out “what are the 39 Steps?” and Mr Memory starts to answer but gets shot by Professor Jordan who then gets got by the police: trapped from all directions on stage. Mr Memory dies giving up his secret and the camera pulls away as Hannay and Pamela - voluntarily this time - hold hands.

It's a classic use of the Maguffin… the motor of the plot but not important in itself… (see also the Avenger in The Lodger as well…) it doesn’t matter what the 39 Steps is…or even what the secret is that’s being stolen… the real movers in the story are the relationships and specifically Hannay’s time spent with Anabelle, Margaret and Pamela.

The cast is excellent, especially Ashcroft and Donat. Carroll is also good value as the spoilt and stubborn Pamela: another Hitchcock blonde who endures much for our entertainment.

The 39 Steps
is available in a variety of releases. I watched the ITV release which has a nice short feature on early Hithcock… got some more catching up to do I think.


  1. Post-holiday greetings. Glad to read you again.


  2. Thanks very much for reading Roy - hope you had a good vacation!