The 39 Steps
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 thriller finds its way back on to the big screen courtesy of a new digital cinema and 35mm print. Scottish author and unionist politician John Buchan’s novel has been filmed three times, but this, the first version made remains, justifiably, the most loved.
Made like all Hitchcock’s best British films at a time when a very English type of isolationism meant that most gentlemen above a certain class cared more about the Bodyline fast leg cricketing theory than they did about the meteoric rise and dominance of the brown shirts in Germany, The 39 Steps now looks like a Freudian dialectic on the need for modernism, fear of change and why a chap simply has to step up to the plate, sometimes.
Much copied but rarely equalled the plot deals with the accidental immersion of insouciant, impermeable Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) into the murky world of espionage. A chance encounter with a mysterious woman at a music hall leads him to be framed for murder. His attempts to clear his name take him to the heart of the Scottish Highlands, but it is a race against time as various officials slowly close in on him.
While undeniably dated The 39 Steps still pleases in so many ways. For a start there’s Donat’s delightful turn as the well-spoken, self reliant, unflappable Hannay, a man born to wear tweeds as only the imperturbable can. There’s the wonderfully cast Madeleine Carroll, the sexy but slow-to-catch-on love interest who spends much of her time handcuffed to a chivalrous would-be murderer. There’s Charles Bennett and Ian Hay’s frequently hilarious script, and of course there’s Hitchcock who, with this, his 23rd film (if you include his early shorts), was beginning to lay a remarkable style template that was to resonate through postwar American masterworks.
The weight of history has made this wonderful film ripe for readings for symbolism, but at its heart The 39 Steps is just a rattling good yarn, a man on the run thriller the likes of which we are unlikely to see again.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 11 Apr.