THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!
Richard Hannay, a Canadian visitor to London gets caught in a web of espionage after he takes home Annabella Smith with him after an incident in a Music Hall show featuring one Mr. Memory. When they arrive at his apartment she reveals that she’s an agent and that a foreign nation has gained information vital to the Britain’s air defense and she needs to get it before it is smuggled out of Britain. Later that night Annabella bursts into his room with a map of Scotland and dies with a knife on her back and that’s when all the action begins!
Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Smith
The 39 Steps is based on a book of the same name by John Buchan, though many of the book’s fans have outed it as not resembling the book aside from the ‘man on the run’ plot and how Hannay is Scottish as opposed to Canadian. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, later known for Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo among others here we see him in his earliest form, honing his craft as a master of suspense and innovative camera techniques with the help of leading man Robert Donat and leading lady Madeleine Carroll both of whom he had specifically chosen for the lead roles since they had already achieved fame and success on the other side of the pond.
Robert Donat as Richard Hannay
Robert Donat who plays Hannay is the dashing gentleman who gets thrown into a web of espionage, at this stage in his career Robert Donat was Britain’s answer to all the Hollywood leading men, his appeal to an audience was his rarity of being neither haughty nor common and I certainly agree. Madeleine Carroll who plays Pamela was also already a familiar face and at the peak of her career she was the highest paid actress in the world in 1938. Here she is immortalized as Hitchcock’s first icy blonde heroine she doesn’t have as much screen time as Donat but she equals him in this film. Hannay and Pamela have their differences and she certainly doesn’t buy into his story that he was framed for murder, for the amount of screen time Pamela had she was different from the damsel-in-distress type. Donat and Carroll may not be Bogie and Bacall, but boy were they a riot together!
Madeleine Carroll as Pamela
During filming Hitchcock deliberately handcuffed his two stars on the set after the two met each other for the first time. Hitchcock said that he had ‘lost’ the key and Donat and Carroll were subjected to amusement for hours. Donat later wrote to family members that he and Carroll had nothing to do but talk of mutual friends, and films when Hitchcock saw this he took out the key from his pocket and said ‘Now that you two know each other, we can proceed.’ Many variations of this story exists but Hitchcock’s bizarre method certainly worked onscreen.
“We’re a runaway couple.”
Supporting characters Hannay stumbles into are each given a personality while consistently keeping the thrills in the picture. They may not be relevant to the plot but it gives the movie a realistic atmosphere and the script by Charles Bennett is witty, filled with true human interaction despite the plot being a roller-coaster ride. An example of the quirky characters is the old lady who runs a Scottish inn with her husband, she being a romantic takes them in while they both masquerade as a runaway couple.
Richard Hannay the prototype James Bond
Some viewers may be put-off by how Hannay is just some ordinary guy and we never get any background aside from him being a Canadian rancher visiting London for a few weeks, nor do we know why he was so adept at escaping the bad guys that he’s a prototype James Bond but much more concerned with saving his own skin first while King and Country comes second to that. I think this is why it appeals to people to this day, Hannay was just an ordinary person he could be me or you and get thrown into the type of situation he was in.
Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat: The Hipster Hitchcock Couple
True that casual film fans or even classic film fans might not enjoy it as much as I did, even its two main stars are pretty much forgotten when they’re being pitted against the likes of other Hitchcock couples in James Stewart and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) and Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (Notorious). Donat and Carroll both had short careers on film though she made more films than he did. She abandoned her career after her sister was killed in WWII and devoted herself to helping wounded servicemen and children displaced and maimed by the war, she lived until the age of 81 while his chronic asthma got in the way of him making more than 20 films, later he died of an undiagnosed brain tumor in 1958 when he was only 53 years old, today he is best remembered as the title role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips which won him the Oscar. Secret Agent was to be their next Hitchcock project together but studio boss Alexander Korda refused to loan Donat again and a young John Gielgud took over.
Richard and Pamela at the London Palladium where everything goes down.
Overall, the film is a blast from the past Hitchcock and is a warm up of North by Northwest. It has a sassy Hitchcock couple that answers an earlier question; ‘out for adventure eh?’, it’s a spy story that doesn’t take itself seriously and the atmosphere is suspenseful and beautifully shot in glorious black and white. The supporting characters make this film memorable as well, the subtle humor inserted in is, shall I say…very British and how can we forget that this film was mentioned in The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger and is such a favorite of Phoebe Caulfield’s (Holden’s sister) that she’s seen it ten times and remembers it all by heart.
Highly recommended to those looking for adventure, romance, thrills and humor all in a Hitchcock film. You might not know what the man with the top joint of his little finger missing has to do with all this and you’ll miss Hitch’s little cameo!