Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Charles Bennett & Ian Hay
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle
Getting caught up in a grand conspiracy seems to be a regularity if you happen to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s leading men. With the constant tension built during the progression of the story, it further drags the audience into grand escapes to find out these mysterious steps.
After a show becomes interrupted, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) invites a frightened woman up to his flat where she divulges that her life is in danger from being a spy. She reveals that a foreign agent has stolen important English military intelligence and that they must be stopped. After the woman gets killed in his home, Hannay must stop this agent while also being wanted for the murder of the mysterious woman.
Landing in the early days of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, The 39 Steps displays different filmmaking techniques that he would perfect in later works like North By Northwest, but it still has plenty of merits. The chase involved with this story feels large and quite epic, especially when looking at Hitchcock’s more stagey films like The Skin Game and Easy Virtue. His foray during the mid-30s started to see him evolve as a filmmaker and tell stories on a more grand scale and The 39 Steps showed the beginnings of it.
Robert Donat as Richard Hannay takes on this character who must go almost the entirety of the film proclaiming his innocence when it looks quite incriminating for him. While the audience knows that the female spy was killed by her adversaries, all evidence and common sense make him look very guilty. During this journey to stop this interference and thus clearing his name, Hannay runs into an interesting bunch of characters. One including an old Scottish man with his young wife and a lodge with a very helpful couple. As a character, Hannay should exude cool during this process but he has nothing but fear because he never has a moment of peace.
It shows the excellence Hitchcock puts into this film, no moment or place of refuge feels safe for Hannay as he attempts to clear his name. The police and the detectives represent some of the best law enforcement work ever in a feature film. Through all of Hannay’s attempts to flee and hide, the detectives always stick onto his trail and force him to run away once again. Never having this feeling of safety makes every interaction Hannay has be one of incredible danger to him. The tension continues to ramp up because of this and makes an already short film truly fly by.
The story feels accomplished and delivers a truly satisfying ending to reveal the 39 steps and how they play into the plot. It even has some small comedic moments that might not have been intentional in the 30s but seem funny through a 2020s lens. The 39 Steps stands out as an early indicator of everything Hitchcock would be known for and it shows that he had this greatness from the beginning and would sustain it for decades more.