See This - The 39 Steps

Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to Robert Donat in The 39 Steps

Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to Robert Donat in The 39 Steps



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


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imdb poster The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps (1935)
Run time: 86 min
Rating: 7.9
Genres: Comedy | Crime | Mystery
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Buchan, Charles Bennett
Stars: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim
Trivia: A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top secret information.
Storyline Richard Hannay is a Canadian visitor to London. At the end of “Mr Memory”‘s show in a music hall, he meets Annabella Smith who is running away from secret agents. He accepts to hide her in his flat, but in the night she is murdered. Fearing he could be accused on the girl’s murder, Hannay goes on the run to break the spy ring. Written by Claudio Sandrini <>
Plot Keywords: on the run, spy, police, memory, music hall