Robert Donat as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps (1935)

The First 39 Steps

Maybe I was not in the right frame of mind but after watching Hitchcock's version of "The 39 Steps" I was not that impressed. There is nothing bad about it, Hitchcock has a delivered a solid, well paced thriller about an innocent man on the run trying to clear his name having been accused of murder. But to me it is just another innocent man movie with many typical Hitchcock trade marks which is where it is probably the most appealing, a movie for those who go mad for Hitchcock and love to over analyze his movies for deeper meanings and sub context.

After an incident at a musical hall show visiting Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) finds himself in the company of Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim - Hotel Reserve) a frightened woman who going back to his flat with him admits to being a counterspy with knowledge of a plot to steal British secrets but has men after her. During the night Annabella is stabbed and realising he will be accused of murder Richard sneaks out and ends up on the run trying to uncover who the men were after Annabella and what "The 39 Steps" are which she mentioned. His journey leads him to Scotland where he finds himself having to trust beautiful stranger Pamela (Madeleine Carroll - Secret Agent) who he ends up handcuffed to.

Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (1935)

So whilst I enjoy Hitchcock movies I am not one of those people who goes cuckoo over his work, analysing every camera angle or line of dialogue for some deeper context, I look at them from purely a point of being entertaining. And the good news is that "The 39 Steps" is entertaining, an early take on the innocent man on the run trying to clear his name whilst avoiding being killed. It is well paced, with some nice moments of drama and excitement as well as a nice blend of drama and humour. But it is for me just an early example of the innocent man storyline, a theme which Hitchcock would use a few times during his career.

For me the big reason why it ends up so entertaining is less to do with Hitchcock and more to do with Robert Donat as Richard Hannay. Donat delivers this blend of being a desperate man but with a humorous side, a lightness which never feels forced so when he jokes during a moment of danger or flirts with a woman it is entertaining rather than a groan moment. Talking of women well to be honest Madeleine Carroll as Pamela doesn't have much to do but plays the initially reluctant helper nicely especially during the scene in the hotel where Hannay has forced her to pretend to be his wife. In fact it is Peggy Ashcroft as the Crofters wife who helps him escape who for me makes the bigger impact as her performance and casting tells of a sub story surrounding her unhappy relationship with her older husband.

And that Crofters subplot brings me to where "The 39 Steps" probably works the best, as an example of Hitchcock's early work which can be analyzed. The scene where Hannay kisses the Crofters wife speaks volumes of her relationship to her husband and it this which provides the depth for those who like to over analyze Hitchcock's movies. That is not the only elements and "The 39 Steps" is full of these scenes which have hidden depths although hearing some of what people think something means makes me think some people are a bit to keen on trying to make something out of nothing.

What this all boils down to is that as a Hitchcock movie "The 39 Steps" offers up plenty for fans of his work to paw over, looking for sub context. But for those like me who are looking for entertainment it is a well made take on the innocent man storyline but not one which is going to blow you away even when you take in to account its age.