Obviously this is one of the classic films of all time, regardless of it being a spy film, and much has been written about it and it’s director Alfred Hitchcock. And naturally, I’ll add my two-cents worth. The 39 Steps is an absolutely magnificent film and the prototype of all the Innocent Bystander spy films. Many spy films use the classic wrong place at the wrong time scenario. Everyman or woman can be the innocent person who stumbles in on an incident or who gets caught up in the web of intrigue. In this case it is Richard Hannay, a character created early last century by author John Buchan.
And the character of Hannay has endured. Buchan wrote, at least another four novels concerning the adventures of Hannay. And the film has been remade three times so far (at the time of writing there is rumoured to be a new version directed by Robert Towne – screenwriter for Chinatown and Mission Impossible 2 – whether this comes to fruition or not is another matter – time will tell). To top it off, a television series was made called Hannay, starring Robert Powell. It went for thirteen episodes and all new adventures and schemes were invented for our dashing hero. So that’s Richard Hannay; the innocent man caught up in this web of intrigue. His name may not be as well known as James Bond, be he is one of the cornerstones of modern spy films and literature.
Hitchcock’s story veers from the book but the film is such great fun, nobody seems to care. Here’s the synopsis. The film opens in a music hall. The act on stage is Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson). Each day, Mr. Memory commits fifty new facts to his miraculous brain. At the music hall his act consists of asking audience members to test his knowledge by shouting out questions. Memory then recites the correct answer. In a fever of excitement, the crowd shout out a plethora of questions. So many that Memory cannot answer them all at once. The crowd gets restless and a melee erupts at the back. As the fight escalates, two gunshots are heard and the crowd stampede for the exit. In the crush two people are thrust together. They are Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). She seems flustered and asks to go back to his apartment. Hannay obliges. At his apartment she does not allow him to turn on the lights and she turns the mirror to face the wall. All in all, she seems shaken and paranoid. Hiding in the kitchen with the blinds drawn she explains what is going on. Firstly, she fired the gun at the music hall to create a diversion. Two men are trying to kill her. He says, “It sounds like a spy story.” She says, “it is” but she prefers to be called an ‘agent’ rather than a ‘spy’. Then she explains she is trying to stop a secret being smuggled out of Great Britain – a secret that is vital to Air Defence. Hannay doesn’t believe her (his mistrust will come back to haunt him). She suggests that he looks out of the sitting room window. He does and sees two suspicious characters in overcoats standing under a street lamp. He finally believes her. Trouble ahead.
She says, “I am going to tell you something that is not very healthy to know!” Despite her claim, she doesn’t give much information away. She asks if he has heard of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’? He says, “No. Is it a pub?” Then she talks of the leader of this secret plot. He is missing the top of his small finger on his right hand.
Annabella Smith asks to stay the night till it is safe. She also asks for a map of Scotland. Once again Hannay obliges. He ends up sleeping on the couch – after all, he is a gentleman.
During the night, Miss Smith crashes into the sitting room where Hannay is sleeping. “Clear out Hannay. You’re next!” she says as she collapses on his lap with a knife sticking out of her back. She dies. In her hand is a piece of paper.
Hannay is shocked and staggers to the window. At that moment the phone rings. His first reaction is to pick it up, but then he thinks better of it. From the window he can see the two hoods who’d been watching his apartment, but now one of them is in a call box. Are they on the other end of the phone? Do they know he is there?
Hannay walks over to Smith’s dead body and pries the piece of paper from her hand. It is the map of Scotland that he had given her earlier in the evening. She has circled one section. “Alt-na-Shellach.”
The next thing Hannay has to do is get out of the apartment without being seen, but he only gets as far as the foyer. Men are watching the door. Luckily for Hannay, the milkman enters the building, making his usual early morning run. Hannay tells the milkman a cock-and-bull story and borrows the milkman’s hat and coat. Disguised he makes his escape.
Next he boards a steam train, The Flying Scotsman. The Scotsman is on its way to Scotland, but before it shunts off, two enemy agents recognise Hannay and raise the alarm. But the train moves off before they can board.
Back in London, Hannay’s maid finds Annabella Smith’s body in his apartment. In a standout piece of film-making, the maid’s silent scream becomes the whistle of the steam train as it powers out of a tunnel.
By the time Hannay hits Edinburgh, the newspapers have the story of Smith’s murder and police are swarming the station and board the train as it continues it’s journey.
Hannay gets flighty, once he realises he is a wanted man, and exits his compartment on the train. Good thing too, as the police are searching every carriage. As he tries to avoid capture he spies (no pun intended) a young lady, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in a compartment all alone. As the police get closer, he bursts into her compartment, pretends to know her, then gives her a passionate kiss. As the police pass the compartment, they see the couple locked in embrace. As they are after a man travelling alone, they move along. Hannay thinks it is a lucky escape, but not quite so simple. Pamela wasn’t a willing participant in Hannay’s ploy to avoid attention and at the earliest opportunity she tells the police who he is. Hannay runs. The emergency break on the train is pulled and it stops on a railway bridge. Hannay jumps off the train and hides behind the massive iron girders beneath the bridge. He avoids detection and the train pulls away.
But Hannay is now the subject of a substantial manhunt, and police officers flood into the area. Some are on foot, others are in cars and there is even a plane in the air. Soldiering on, Hannay makes his way towards Alt-na-Shellach. As nightfall approaches he buys himself a bed for the night at a farmhouse. His evening is interrupted when the police arrive during the middle of the night. He flees with the farmers dark overcoat.
Eventually, the next day Hannay reaches Alt-na-Shellach and approaches the mansion. At the front door he announces himself as Hammond (rather than Hannay) and says he was a friend of Annabella Smith. This works and he is ushered inside. It appears he has found sanctuary. Of course the police are in hot pursuit and arrive on the doorstep, but they are sent away by the head of the house, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle).
Alone, the Professor asks Hannay what is going on. Hannay tells his story and is relieved that someone believes he is innocent. Then his host reveals that he is missing the top of his finger on his left hand, and that he isn’t Annabella Smith’s contact, but rather the head of the spy ring she was investigating. The Professor pulls out a gun and shoots Hannay. Luckily for Hannay, the overcoat that he stole from the farmhouse contained a hymn book in the breast pocket. The bullet lodges in the book and saves his life.
Next, Hannay escapes from the mansion and heads to the police station in the local village. He tells his story. It appears the police officer believes him, but in fact is stalling for more time. More police arrive. Once again Hannay has to go on the run. He leaps out of the window of the police station, and searches for a place to hide in the village. At the town hall a civic meeting is taking place. He enters the hall and is mistaken for one of the speakers. It appears that a rally for a local member of parliament is taking place, and they believe Hannay is the guest speaker from London. Hannay has no choice but to step up to the podium and make a speech. He wings it. But Pamela (the girl from the train) recognises Hannay, and notifies the authorities. After the speech they arrest Hannay. Much to Pamela’s chagrin, they take her into custody as well – to identify the suspect (hasn’t she already done that?)
Of course, the police officers aren’t police officers. They are the Professor’s men and are taking Hannay and the girl back to him. Handcuffed together, Hannay and Pamela escape from the car when a herd of sheep block the road. Pamela isn’t an easy partner though. She doesn’t believe Hannay is innocent, and he has to practically drag her kicking and screaming into the night.
They both evade capture and end up on the doorstep of a quiet country inn. Posing as man and wife, to hide the handcuffs, and so Hannay can keep a tight reign on Pamela, they are given a room for the night. During the night, as Hannay sleeps, Pamela squeezes her tiny hand out of her handcuff. She intends to escape and tell the police once more, but as she sneaks out of the room, on the landing, she can hear two men making a phone call downstairs. It is the two fake police officers phoning the Professor. They inadvertently reveal that Hannay is telling the truth. She also hears that their boss has fled the mansion and is heading to the London Palladium to pick up a friend. Pamela returns to her room. She is finally a believer. She tells Hannay what she overheard.
And that’s where I’ll leave the plot synopsis dear reader. You’ll have to watch this movie to find out what happens and who are The 39 Steps. As I mentioned at the outset, the film (and story) is so popular that it has been remade three times, first in 1959 starring Kenneth More as Hannay. The next version was made in 1976 and starred Robert Powell – who would go on to play Hannay in the television series of the same name. Next, is the recent BBC adaptation (2008) with Rupert Penry-Jones as Hannay. IMDB lists a version scheduled for 2011, directed by Robert Towne (which I mentioned earlier).
Most recently, Hitchcock’s film has been adapted into a stage play which has played all around the world, and may I add is a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre. If you have an opportunity to catch the show, grab it with both hands.