The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, the film is about a man in London who tries to help a counter-espionage agent prevent an organisation of spies called The 39 Steps from stealing top secret information. When the agent is killed and he stands accused of the murder, he goes on the run with an attractive woman to save himself and stop the spy ring.
Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock's film has been the most acclaimed. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century; In 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British film of all time, and in 2011 named it the second greatest Best Book to Film Adaptation.
At a London music hall theatre, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of "Mr. Memory" (Wylie Watson)â"a man with a photographic memoryâ"when shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, Hannay finds himself holding a seemingly frightened Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who talks him into taking her back to his flat. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins, and that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the "39 steps", but does not explain its meaning.
Later that night, Smith bursts into Hannay's bedroom, fatally stabbed in the back, and warns him to escape. He finds a map of the Scottish Highlands clutched in her hand, showing the area around Killin with a house or farm in Glen Lochay named "Alt-na-Shellach" circled. He sneaks out of the watched flat disguised as a milkman and boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland, pulled by locomotive 2595. At Edinburgh Waverley railway station he learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith's murderer, and as the train continues over the Forth Rail Bridge he sees the police searching the train. Quickly, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, the attractive Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in a desperate attempt to escape detection. She frees herself from his unwanted embrace and alerts the policemen, who pull the communication cord stopping the train on the bridge. Hannay jumps from the train onto the girders of the bridge and escapes.
He walks toward "Alt-na-Shellach", and still 14 miles (23Â km) short of his destination pays to stay the night in the house of a poor crofter (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft) who sees the newspaper headline and realises that Hannay is accused of murder. Early next morning she sees a police car approaching in the dark and warns Hannay, the crofter accuses her of flirting with Hannay who pays him to fend off the police. As Hannay flees she gives him the farmer's dark Sunday coat to wear. Large numbers of police pursue him in a wild glen (filmed in Glen Coe at The Study with views of the Three Sisters massif) and he hides as Weir's autogyro searches for him from the air. He flees along the river, and at a bridge finds a sign for "Alt-na-Shellach". Hannay presumes that this must be the house of Annabella's contact, whom she was trying to meet and tell of the "39 steps". He arrives at the house of the seemingly respectable Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) and is let in after saying he has been sent by Anabella Smith. He is introduced to Jordan's guests, including the local Sheriff. The police arrive, but Jordan sends them away and listens to Hannay's story. Jordan reveals that he is missing part of a finger, and as Hannay realises his mistake, Jordan shoots him and leaves him for dead.
Luckily, the bullet is stopped by the farmer's hymn book, left in his coat pocket. Hannay drives into town and goes to the Sheriff, who disbelieves the story since he knows Jordan well, and brings in the police. Hannay's right wrist is handcuffed but he jumps through a window and escapes by joining a march through the town. He tries to hide himself at a political meeting, but is mistaken for the introductory speaker. He gives a rousing impromptu speechâ"without knowing a thing about the candidate he is introducingâ"but is recognised by Pamela, who gives him up once more. He is taken away by "policemen" who ask Pamela to accompany them. They drive off, and her suspicions are aroused when they pass the town's police station. The "policemen" say they have orders to go directly to Inveraray, but Hannay realises they are agents of the conspiracy when they take the wrong road at a junction. Hannay is handcuffed to Pamela while the men try to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, but he still manages to escape, dragging the unwilling Pamela along.
They make their way across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While he sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of the handcuff, but then overhears one of the fake policemen on the telephone; the conversation confirms Hannay's assertions. She returns to the room and sleeps on a sofa. The next morning, she tells him what she heard. He sends her to London to warn the police. No secret documents have been reported missing, however, so they do not believe her. Instead, they follow her to get to Hannay.
Pamela leads them to Mr. Memory's show at the London Palladium. When the performer is introduced, Hannay recognises his theme musicâ"the annoyingly catchy tune he hasn't been able to forget for days. Hannay puts two and two together and realises that the spies are using Mr. Memory to smuggle the secrets out. As the police take him into custody, he shouts out the question, "What are the 39 Steps?" Mr. Memory compulsively begins to answer, "The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the Foreign Office of ..." Just then, Jordan shoots him and tries to flee, but is apprehended. The dying Mr. Memory recites the information stored in his brainâ"a design for a silent aircraft engine.
- Robert Donat as Richard Hannay
- Madeleine Carroll as Pamela
- Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Smith
- Godfrey Tearle as Professor Jordan
- Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret, the crofter's wife
- John Laurie as John, the crofter
- Helen Haye as Mrs. Louisa Jordan, the professor's wife
- Frank Cellier as Sheriff Watson
- Wylie Watson as Mr. Memory
- Gus McNaughton as Commercial Traveller
- Jerry Verno as Commercial Traveller
- Peggy Simpson as Maid
- Matthew Boulton as Fake Policeman
The script was originally written by Charles Bennett, who prepared the initial treatment in close collaboration with Hitchcock; Ian Hay then wrote some dialogue.
The film's plot departs substantially from John Buchan's novel, with scenes such as in the music hall and on the Forth Bridge absent from the book. Hitchcock also introduced the two major female characters, Annabella the spy and Pamela, reluctant companion. In this film, The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organisation, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps, with the German spies being called "The Black Stone" . By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with "Alt-na-Shellach" house circled) Hitchcock avoids the coincidence in Buchan where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.
The 39 Steps was a major British film of its time. The production company, Gaumont-British, was eager to establish its films in international markets, and especially in the United States, and The 39 Steps was conceived as a prime vehicle towards this end. Where Hitchcock's previous film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, had costs of Â£40,000, The 39 Steps cost nearly Â£60,000. Much of the extra money went to the star salaries for Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Both had already made films in Hollywood and were therefore known to American audiences. At a time when British cinema had few international stars, this was considered vital to the film's success. Hitchcock heard Scottish industrialist and aircraft pioneer James G. Weir commuted to work daily in an autogyro, and worked the aircraft into the film.
It was voted the best British film of 1935.
The 39 Steps is the second film (after the silent film The Lodger) in a line of Hitchcock films based upon an innocent man being forced on the run, including Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).
Alfred Hitchcock cameo: A signature occurrence in most of Hitchcock's films. Towards the beginning of the film, both Hitchcock and the screenwriter Charles Bennett can be seen walking past a bus that Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim board outside the music hall. The bus is on London Transport's number 25 route, which runs from Oxford Street through the East End and on to Leytonstone. As Glancy points out, this was familiar ground to Hitchcock, who lived in Leytonstone and then in Stepney (in the East End) as a youth. The director's appearance can thus be seen as an assertion of his connection with the area, but he was by no means romanticising it. As the bus pulls up he litters by throwing a cigarette packet on the ground.
In the middle of the film, Hannay is shot in the chest with a revolver at close range, and a long fade out suggests that he has been killed. This jarringly unusual development â" the main character is apparently killed while the story is still unfolding â" anticipates Hitchock's later film, Psycho, and the murder of Marion Crane in the Bates Motel. Hannay, however, was not truly dead. In the next scene it is revealed that a hymn book in his coat pocket prevented the bullet from killing him.
The film established the quintessential English 'Hitchcock blonde' Madeleine Carroll as the template for his succession of ice cold and elegant leading ladies. Of Hitchcock heroines as exemplified by Carroll, film critic Roger Ebert wrote: "The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerised the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated".
Adaptations to other media
- Hitchcock's film version of The 39 Steps was adapted as a radio play on Lux Radio Theater on 13 December 1937, starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino.
- The 2005 West End and Broadway play The 39 Steps is adapted from both the Buchan novel and the Hitchcock film.
- The 39 Steps was remade by the BBC in 2008, starring Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, Patrick Malahide and Eddie Marsan.
- In the Sesame Street segment "Monsterpiece Theater" Alistair Cookie (Cookie Monster) introduces the audience to the thriller film, "The 39 Stairs" ("By a guy named Alfred..."). Grover in a film noir setting climbs a set of stairs counting each one as he ascends. Once he reaches the top he finds a brick wall. Instead of climbing back down, Grover slides down the banister.
- In chapter 10 of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye", the protagonist Holden Caulfield recounts the admiration that he and his younger sister, Phoebe, have for the movie: "Her favorite [movie] is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I've taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he's running away from the cops and all, Phoebe'll say right out loud in the movie--right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it--"Can you eat the herring?" She knows all the talk by heart..."
On 18 January 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the copyright clause of the American Constitution doesn't prevent the US from meeting its treaty obligations towards copyright protection for foreign works. Following the ruling, notable films such as The 39 Steps and The Third Man (1949) were taken back out of the public domain and became fully protected under American copyright law.
- BFI Top 100 British films
- The 39 Steps at the Internet Movie Database
- The 39 Steps at the TCM Movie Database
- The 39 Steps at Rotten Tomatoes
- The 39 Steps Eyegate Gallery
- The 39 Steps at AllMovie
- The 39 Steps is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- The 39 Steps is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- Streaming audio
- The 39 Steps on Lux Radio Theatre: 13 December 1937
- The 39 Steps on the Mercury Theatre on the Air: 1 August 1938
- The 39 Steps on Studio One: 23 March 1948
- The 39 Steps on Suspense: 3 March 1952