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39 Steps, The (1935)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of 39 Steps, The (1935)
35mm, black and white, 86 mins
DirectorAlfred Hitchcock
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
AdaptationCharles Bennett
Original novelJohn Buchan
PhotographyBernard Knowles

Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay); Madeleine Carroll (Pamela); Lucie Mannheim (Annabella/'Miss Smith'); Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan); Peggy Ashcroft (the crofter's wife Margaret)

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When a woman is murdered in his home, Richard Hannay finds himself on the run from the police and her killers. Only by unmasking a sinister conspiracy can he prove his innocence.

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Alongside The Lady Vanishes (1938), The 39 Steps, released by Gaumont-British in 1935, is the best known and most perenially successful of Hitchcock's British films, and is still among the most critically regarded. A free adaptation of John Buchan's popular novel, its central theme is one of Hitchcock's favourites: an apparently ordinary man embroiled by chance in a sinister conspiracy and charged with a murder he did not commit; he must unravel the plot to prove his innocence.

In outline the film therefore closely resembles Young and Innocent (1937) and the later Saboteur (US, 1942) and North by Northwest (US, 1959), and shares with the first two a couple who are chained together (literally in this case) by circumstance, beginning as antagonists, then becoming allies and finally lovers.

The sequence in which Hannay and Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) - a character who doesn't appear in the novel - are handcuffed together is typically Hitchcockian, and the director fully exploits the dramatic potential of their enforced bond, not neglecting the sexual implications (see Hitchcock and Handcuffs).

There are a number of other visual echoes of Hitchcock's other work in The 39 Steps. Like the preceding film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), it features an attempted murder in a packed auditorium (in this case, the London Palladium), while the closing shot, with two hands joining, recalls the end of The Skin Game (1931).

The film greatly benefits from Robert Donat's charismatic performance as Hannay. Donat was an unusually fluid, natural actor, both dashing and sophisticated, and he can be seen as a forerunner of the actor who was to become the Hitchcock's favourite leading man: Cary Grant.

Madelaine Carroll, who returned in Hitchcock's next film, Secret Agent (1936), was already a transatlantic star before The 39 Steps. She brought to the film an effortless glamour and a cool sex-appeal which anticipated later Hitchcock heroines like Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren.

The 39 Steps was a huge success on its release, and crowned Hitchcock as the undisputed king of British cinema. Campbell Dixon in The Daily Telegraph thought it "immensely cinematic", while the British Film Institute's usually reserved Monthly Film Bulletin described it as "first class entertainment". Sydney W. Carroll in The Sunday Times pronounced the director "a genius".

In recognition of his contribution, writer Charles Bennett was given the rare honour of his own Hitchcock-style cameo. Cinematographer Bernard Knowles (his first of several Hitchcock collaborations, ending with Jamaica Inn (1939)) and Austrian art director Oscar Werndorff (his second of four collaborations) can take much of the credit for the atmospheric look of the film, particularly in the moors sequences.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. The Flying Scotsman (3:21)
2. Unwilling bedfellows (4:55)
3. The London Palladium (4:28)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Ashcroft, Dame Peggy (1907-1991)
Bennett, Charles (1899-1995)
Carroll, Madeleine (1906-1987)
Donat, Robert (1905-1958)
Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Montagu, Ivor (1904-1984)
Tennyson, Pen (1912-1941)
Verno, Jerry (1894-1975)
Watson, Wylie (1889-1966)
English Hitchcock
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