The 39 Steps (1935), Alfred Hitchcock’s first great romantic thriller, smoothly plays the “wrong man” gambit with the light, black-humored grace that would reach its apex in North by Northwest.
Robert Donat stars as Richard Hanay, an affable Canadian tourist in London who becomes embroiled in a deadly conspiracy when a mysterious spy winds up murdered in his rented flat and both the police and a secret organization wind up hot on his trail. With only the a meaningless phrase (“the 39 steps”), a small Scottish town circled on a map and a criminal mastermind identified by a missing finger as clues, quick-witted Hannay eludes police and spies alike as he works his way across the countryside to reveal the mystery and clear his name. At one point Richard finds himself making his escape manacled to blonde beauty Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), whose initial antagonism is smoothed by Donat’s charm and the sheer rush of her thrilling chase.
The Hitch touch is all through this delightful confection: the quick-witted innocent plunged into conspiracy, the icy blonde who is literally handcuffed to the man and thaws in the warmth of his charm and resourcefulness, the ingenious set pieces and brilliant use of locations, and of course the world where no one is as they seem.
The “maguffin” of the story doesn’t really make sense, as least as it is scripted, but it sets in motion an effortless balance of romance and adventure set against a picaresque landscape populated by eccentrics and social register smoothies, none of whom what they appear to be. Hitchcock would play similar games of innocents plunged into deadly conspiracies, but in this breezy 1935 classic Hitch proves that, as in any quest, the object of the search isn’t nearly as satisfying as the journey.
Charles Bennett and Ian Hay adapt the novel by John Buchan and Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, John Laurie, and Peggy Ashcroft.
Black and white
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The 39 Steps (The Criterion Channel) [Blu-ray]
The 39 Steps (The Criterion Channel) [DVD]
The film has been remade a few times, and Hitch’s version has been released on numerous DVD labels, most of them in poor editions. Criterion remasters the film for DVD and Blu-ray and offers the finest edition by far, which also includes commentary, a 1937 radio adaptation with Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, archival featurettes and interviews, and other supplements.