WHAT ARE THE 39 STEPS?!

I enjoyed re-watching this classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller made by Gaumont British studio.

Aiming for an American audience, the studio hired Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Donat had just starred in “The Count of Monte Cristo “ and Madeleine was about to go to Hollywood under contract to Paramount.

 

Robert Donat

 

Lucie Mannheim, Robert Donat

Lucie Mannheim as ‘Annabella Smith’, the spy who starts Hannay’s adventures. I love how ‘Annabella’ says she is a spy – for hire. And her memorable line, “May I come home with you?”
( Lucie Mannheim was a German actress who fled her own country. In England she married Marius Goring in 1941.)

 

The two bad guys make sure they are seen by everybody.

 

The map of the fictional Highland village of ‘Alt-na-Shellach’ which Hannay has to find.

 

One of the lighter  scenes, typical of Hitchcock, as Hannay escapes from his flat in the milkman’s coat and cap.

Robert Donat, Frederick Piper

 

The journey to Scotland from London on the Flying Scotsman.

Jerry  Verne, Gus McNaughton

Hitchcock brings the tension levels down in this funny exchange between the women’s underwear salesmen in the train carriage Hannay is in, with a clergyman also in the compartment looking increasingly flustered!

 

Madeleine Carroll

The first time we see Madeleine Carroll . Why she is on the train to Scotland  is never explained. As Pamela, she is absolutely no help to Hannay, not believing his bizarre story of spies and government secrets.

She constantly turns him into the authorities . Their relationship is decidedly frosty.

 

Hanging on, Hannay leaves the train as it is stopped on the Forth Rail Bridge (which is about 9 miles from Edinburgh).

I’m afraid neither Robert Donat or Madeleine Carroll  made it to Scotland. There was some second  unit shooting in the Scottish Highlands filmed around Glencoe  and on Rannoch Moor, with a double for Robert Donat in some  shots.

Nearly everything else was shot in London’s Lime Grove Studios and Welwyn Studios ( which had a standing street set which was used for the unnamed Scottish town where Hannay hides in the Salvation Army parade.)

The Forth Rail Bridge

 

And here’s the Forth Bridge, opened in 1889 and nearly 2 miles in length, it spans the Firth of Forth between the villages of North and South Queensferry. The world’s first major steel cantilever bridge.  It’s quite a sight.
( I mention this because I have a friend   who lives in South  Queensferry and when I visit, I picture Richard Hannay clinging on  as the Flying Scotsman train is stopped on the bridge!)

 

For this scene, a portion of the bridge was re-constructed on a section of railway line at Stapleford in Hertfordshire.

 

Another studio set with Robert Donat on the Flying Scotsman steam train. Love the kilted soldiers on the right.

 

The Professor’s bullet hits the bible in the crofter’s  coat which Hannay is wearing ( courtesy of the crofter’s wife.)

Sheriff Watson: “And this bullet stuck among the hymns,eh? Well, I’m not surprised. Some of these hymns are terrible hard to get through.”

 

Godfrey Tearle

The perfect Hitchcock villain, suave, sophisticated, quiet. Well played by Godfrey Tearle foreshadowing  Otto Kruger   in SABOTEUR and James Mason in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

 

Great scene in the hotel where they are handcuffed together and have to spend the night.

Daring for the time, ‘Pamela’ removes her wet stockings.

 

The penny  finally drops.Pamela overhears the Professor’s  henchmen discussing their plans.

 

Wylie  Watson

Mr.Memory: “The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of………”

The Mr. Memory character was based on William Bottle who performed in Music Halls as ‘Datas: The Memory Man’.

Hitchcock said to Francois Truffaut: “Mr. Memory is doomed by his sense  of duty – he is compelled to give the answer.”

So when Hannay shouts out “What are the 39 Steps!?”, Mr.Memory answers and is shot by the Professor.

 

Touching when Mr. Memory says to Hannay:

“Am I right, sir?” 

Hannay replies: “Quite right, old chap.”

 

I’ve used this photo recently, but it is the perfect ending, where words weren’t necessary, the implication being Hannay and Pamela may have a future together.

On the set:

It’s misty, there’s a wee bridge, and probably some heather. Must be Scotland.
A pity really that Gaumont British studio couldn’t afford more location shooting . The film’s budget was £60,000, with Donat’s salary at £8,000 and Madeleine Carroll’s at £5,000.

(The  rights to the  1915 John Buchan novel were bought for £800. )

 

The revelation that the respected ‘Professor Jordan’ is in fact the spy ring leader.

 

 

 

Foreign posters which should never have seen the light of day!

 

 

A review from the Burnley Express in 1936:

“Hitchcock succeeds in making you jump, scream and chuckle, and has presented a film which is virtually immune from criticism.”

 

Robert Donat (1905-1958) only made about 20 films. He was married twice and had three children. He suffered from asthma most of his life. He died in 1958 from an undiagnosed brain tumour.
His final scene in “Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958) , in which he plays a Chinese Mandarin, is always remembered.

To Ingrid Bergman , he says, “We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell.”

Robert Donat was given a wonderful role and he was perfect – nonchalant, daring, roguish, handsome and that cut-glass accent. The audience is with Hannay all the way.

Overall, I like the film a lot, it is the template for future Hitchcock  films about the innocent man on the run. Hannay is Barry Kane in “Saboteur”, or Roger O. Thornhill in “North By Northwest” – accused of murder and heroically trying to smash a spy ring and get his life back again.

But I have  a few criticisms.
For example, the Hannay character is identified as a  Canadian  rancher in Britain for a few months.Anyone more removed from such a character is Robert Donat who makes no attempt at a Canadian accent.  He acts and sounds like a typical upper class Englishman.

The newspaper report of the murder of ‘Annabella Smith’ and includes a picture of Hannay wearing a Stetson!

In the original Buchan novel, Hannay is a South African engineer. By coincidence, John  Buchan was made the Governor General of Canada in 1935.

Madeleine Carroll’s ‘Pamela’ is woefully underwritten and, given her costar status, she is only in the film for about half the running time.

We are told hardly anything about her or why she is on a train to Scotland – or why she turns up at the Assembly Hall where Hannay makes his impromptu speech.

We learn she is in the London phone book, so must be living in London, but that’s it. The character is  not particularly likeable and really hasn’t much to do other than follow Hannay . A pity because I like Madeleine a lot and she was the first Hitchcock blonde ( working for him again the following year in “Secret Agent”).

After the dramatic scene where the Professor shoots  Hannay, we are taken instantly to the police station where Hannay explains his escape . Surely a missed opportunity for Hitchcock to show rather than tell.I can imagine the scene, no dialogue, as Hannay wakes up, finds himself alone – and still alive . We would watch as he makes his escape from the Professor’s house.

Why is the spy ring called “The 39 Steps” – makes more sense in the book, where there is a set of steps.

Another blogger,  Classic Film Freak, rightly says, “The loose ends don’t matter.”

Very true!

 

One of my favourite lines, in the music hall with Mr. Memory – someone calls out, “What causes pip in poultry!?”

A shout-out to scripters, Charles Bennett and Ian Hay.

Hitchcock’s cameo is so fleeting, I usually miss it – near the beginning when Hannay and Annabella leave the music hall.

There’s a 1937 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of the story with Robert Montgomery, Ida Lupino. Must give it a listen. Also, radio broadcast in  1948 with Glenn Ford and Mercedes McCambridge.

For Hitchcock fans, there is a great website ‘the.hitchcock.zone’.

And, for information on Robert Donat, ‘Robert- Donat.com’

 

Two great trailers:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 responses »

  1. Easily Hitchcock’s best British film, it’s full of memorable scenes and the pacing is perfect. It improves on Buchan’s already pretty good story and still feels fresh over 80 years later.
    I think it’s also a fine technical achievement and the use of studio mock-ups, as I often find to be the case with Hitchcock, is actually one of its attractions.

    • Definitely the template for future action films. Donat is hardly off the screen. Must have been quite a strenuous role for him.
      And shows what can be done with great ingenuity on a smallish budget.

    • the use of studio mock-ups, as I often find to be the case with Hitchcock, is actually one of its attractions.

      Colin, I agree.

      The lack of location shooting in Hitchcock’s movies and his use of techniques like rear projection give them a subtly artificial feel and that artificial feel is a feature, not a bug. It makes them more cinematic.

      The worst thing that ever happened to movies was the fetish for realism that started to develop in the 50s. Movies are not supposed to look like they’re set in reality. They’re supposed to look as if they take place in an imaginary world which is similar to the real world and yet subtly different. Hitchcock’s movies take place in Hitchcockland.

      Location shooting is something which should be avoided unless there’s absolutely no alternative.

  2. I knew things about the movie years before I first saw it, because in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield and his sister saw it so many times they could recite the dialogue. I haven’t seen the film quite that often, but I do like it a lot.

  3. Vienna, a wonderful write-up of THE 39 STEPS(1935). Alfred Hitchcock’s Classic “wrong man” movie, of which many would follow. This was the first British Hitchcock movie I ever viewed and I thought it was a top notch spy thriller then, and I still do. I viewed it on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1974, which was its second airing, after receiving its first network television premiere in 1973. Also, the very next night, in 1974, Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES(1938) received its network television premiere on THE CBS LATE MOVIE. Those were the days of some really good viewing of movies and it didn’t cost one cent.

    Also, I like your choice of pictures, even the foreign posters, “which should never have seen the light of day!” Well, I still like to look at them.

    I tend to go along with Colin and Dfordoom where it comes to movie artifices or studio mock-ups as Colin calls them, especially during the studio era. The art and set designers created some fantastic worlds and universes. I like Dfordoom’s use of the term “Hitchcockland.” Yesterday, I viewed writer/producer/director Sam Fuller’s CHINA GATE(1957), which was set in French-Indochina(Vietnam). The movie was primarily filmed at RKO-Pathe Studios with some filming in nearby Bronson Canyon. The art and set designers did a good job of creating their Vietnam, which I think didn’t detract from this good small budget movie.

    It is always a delight to visit “Hitchcockland.”

    • On the subject of shooting movies in the studio rather than on location didn’t Ernst Lubitsch once say that he’d been to Paris, France and he’d been to Paris on the Paramount lot, and he preferred Paris on the Paramount lot.

    • Tangentially related to the subject of location shooting, the most depressing thing about movies from the late 80s onwards is the visual conformity. There are now standard “looks” for horror movies, for science fiction movies, for thrillers, even for rom-coms. Modern directors will not deviate from these standards looks. It’s partly because movies now cost so much that no-one will take risks any more. Let’s play safe and have our new spy thriller look exactly the same as every other spy thriller.

      I think the cult of location shooting was part of the process that led to this rigid visual conformity.

      • Dfordoom, I see your point , but personally I haven’t viewed enough movies from the late 1980’s onwards to really know about their standard conformity. I’ve become very selective about the movies I view from 1990 onwards.

        “Cult of location shooting” is a new one on me. I like location shooting and I don’t really see how that could lead to this rigid visual conformity, because there are so many different locations and different ways to film them. Lone Pine, doesn’t look like Monument Valley, Grand Tetons, Valley of Fire, Death Valley, Durango, and many others, just to use Western Movie locations as examples. Then again, I’m thinking of pre-1990.

      • My feeling about location shooting is that you end up with lots of different locations, but they’re all shot the same way. It’s as uninteresting as watching travelogues.

      • Walter said:
        personally I haven’t viewed enough movies from the late 1980’s onwards to really know about their standard conformity. I’ve become very selective about the movies I view from 1990 onwards.

        I don’t watch contemporary movies at all but my SO does and whenever I glance at the screen while she’s watching a movie I notice that all the movies look the same.

        On the rare occasions that I watch a post-80s movie i’m always depressed by how uninteresting movies became. There’s no room in the film industry for visionary film-makers any more. Or for eccentric film-makers.

        Partly it’s because there are no longer any alternative distribution networks. Everything is controlled by a few monolithic mega-corporations. And they just want product. If you make a movie that doesn’t conform to a standard formula it won’t get distributed.

  4. Vienna, I agree about location shooting for Western Movies. THE NAKED SPUR(filmed 1952, released 1953), which is currently being released on Blu-ray, just wouldn’t be the same in front of a projection screen. I think the wide open spaces of the West are characters in Western Movies.

    Western Movies that are set in towns are a horse of a different color, although I really like Westerns filmed in Old Tucson, Arizona.

    • Yes indeed – the wide open spaces contribute so much to the drama.Many of the studios had their own ranches for location shooting. And so many great locations – Old Tucson which you mentioned – the Alabama Hills, Monument Valley, in colour!

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