There are several filmed versions of John Buchan’s novel. The other two notables have Kenneth More and Robert Powell in the lead. But this one, in spite of its antiquity, is the best. It stars debonair, pencil-moustached Robert Donat as the innocent man forced into going on the run after accidentally getting caught up at the wrong end of someone else’s spying caper.
The “innocent” theme was something Alfred Hitchcock was already comfortable with in 1935 and one which he’d return to repeatedly, most notably in North by Northwest. If you’ve read John Buchan’s original book, you’ll know The 39 Steps is a taut thriller full of derring-do, a rattling good read even today. It was this astute choosing of good source material, often by his wife Alma, that marks out Hitchcock’s mature work. That period had really only kicked off with The Man Who Knew Too Much (also an “innocent man” film) the year before, even though all of Hitchcock’s bravura camera movements and other lessons learned from the German expressionists had been informing his work since 1927’s The Lodger. It’s a MacGuffin film too – the plot serving to do little more than keep the ball in play while Hitchcock delves into the psyches of his characters. It’s also a “blonde” film, with glamourpuss Madeleine Carroll playing the woman Donat is handcuffed to for large swathes of the chase action round the Scottish highlands, a woman who seems more sexually knowing than the plot strictly requires. And it’s a “set piece” film – kicking off with the Mr Memory music hall sequence which will also provide the film’s thrilling climax.
It’s all here, in other words, all the big Hitchcock tropes. And what really stands out on watching it again is the sheer pace of the thing; it belts along in a way which few films since have managed, and even takes a breather halfway through – in the stifling croft inhabited by John Laurie and Flora Robson, yoked together in unhappy domesticity – as if to give us a minute to stand back and marvel. Nearly 70 years later the same formula – innocent man, shady organisation, chase, blonde – would be served up again as the Bourne films. Here we have Hitchcock perfecting it.
© Steve Morrissey 2013