The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.
It is very loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It concerns a Canadian civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organisation of spies called “The 39 Steps” from stealing British military secrets. After being mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland and becomes tangled up with an attractive woman while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name.
Since its initial release, the film has been widely acknowledged as a classic.
Part of The 39 Steps Franchise.
At a London music hall theatre, Richard Hannay is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of “Mr. Memory” when gun shots are heard inside the theatre. In the ensuing panic, Hannay finds himself holding a seemingly frightened woman, who persuades him to take her back to his flat. There she says her name is Annabelle Smith. She tells him that she is a spy and that she fired the shots to create a diversion so she could escape pursuing assassins. She claims that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military information, masterminded by a man missing the top joint of one finger. She mentions “The 39 Steps”, but does not explain the phrase.
Later that night, Smith bursts into Hannay’s bedroom and warns him to flee, before dying with a knife in her back. Hannay finds a map of the Scottish Highlands clutched in her hand, showing the area around Killin, with a house or farm named “Alt-na-Shellach” circled. He sneaks out of his flat disguised as a milkman to avoid the assassins waiting outside. He then boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. He learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith’s murderer. When he sees police searching the train, he enters a compartment and starts kissing the sole occupant, Pamela, in a desperate attempt to avoid capture. She alerts the policemen, who stop the train on the Forth Bridge. Hannay escapes.
He walks toward Alt-na-Shellach, staying the night with a poor crofter (farmer) and his much younger wife. Early the next morning, the wife sees a police car approaching and warns Hannay; she also gives him her husband’s coat. Hannay flees. The police chase after him, even employing an autogyro, but he eludes them. He eventually reaches the house of Professor Jordan. The police arrive, but Jordan sends them away and listens to Hannay’s story. Hannay states that the leader of the spies is missing the top joint of the little finger of his left hand, but Jordan shows his right hand, which is missing that joint, then shoots Hannay and leaves him for dead.
Luckily, the bullet is stopped by a hymn book in the coat pocket. Hannay goes to the sheriff. When more policemen arrive, the sheriff reveals that he does not believe the fugitive’s story, since Jordan is his best friend. Hannay jumps through a window. He tries to hide at a political meeting and is mistaken for the introductory speaker. He gives a rousing impromptu speech, but is recognised by Pamela, who gives him away to the police once more. He is taken away by the policemen, who insist Pamela accompany them. When they drive the wrong direction, Hannay realises they are agents of the conspiracy. When the men get out to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, they handcuff Pamela to Hannay. Hannay manages to escape, dragging the unwilling Pamela along with him.
They make their way across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While Hannay sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of the handcuffs, but then overhears one of the fake policemen on the telephone, confirming Hannay’s story. She returns to the room. The next morning, she tells him that she overheard the spies saying that Jordan will be picking something up at the London Palladium. He sends her to London to alert the police; however, no secret documents have been reported missing, so they do not believe her. Instead, they tail her, hoping that she will lead them to Hannay.
She goes to the Palladium. When Mr. Memory is introduced, Hannay recognises his theme music – a catchy tune he has been unable to forget. Hannay, upon seeing Jordan signal Mr. Memory, realises that there is no physical document, as Mr. Memory has memorised the secret contents. As the police are about to take Hannay into custody, he shouts, “What are The 39 Steps?” Mr. Memory compulsively answers, “The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of…”, at which point Jordan shoots Mr. Memory before he is apprehended by the police while trying to escape capture. The dying Mr. Memory begins reciting his memorised information: the design for a silent aircraft engine.
- Robert Donat as Richard Hannay.
- Madeleine Carroll as Pamela.
- Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Smith.
- Godfrey Tearle as Professor Jordan.
- Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret, the crofter’s wife.
- John Laurie as John, the crofter.
- Helen Haye as Mrs. Louisa Jordan, the professor’s wife.
- Frank Cellier as Sheriff Watson.
- Wylie Watson as Mr. Memory.
- Gus McNaughton as Commercial Traveller.
- Jerry Verno as Commercial Traveller.
- Peggy Simpson as Maid.
- Matthew Boulton as Fake Policeman.
- Frederick Piper as Milkman (uncredited).
- Ivor Barnard as Political Meeting Chairman (uncredited).
- Elizabeth Inglis as Pat, Professor Jordan’s daughter (uncredited).
The script was originally written by Charles Bennett, who prepared the initial treatment in close collaboration with Hitchcock; Ian Hay then wrote some dialogue.
The film’s plot departs significantly from John Buchan’s novel, with scenes such as in the music hall and on the Forth Bridge absent from the book. Hitchcock also introduced the two major female characters, Annabella the spy and Pamela, the reluctant companion. In this film, The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organisation, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps, with the German spies being called “The Black Stone”. By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with Alt-na-Shellach house circled) Hitchcock avoids the coincidence in Buchan’s novel where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.
The 39 Steps was a major British film of its time. The production company, Gaumont-British, was eager to establish its films in international markets, and especially in the United States, and The 39 Steps was conceived as a prime vehicle towards this end. Where Hitchcock’s previous film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, had costs of £40,000, The 39 Steps cost nearly £60,000. Much of the extra money went to the star salaries for leads Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Both had already made films in Hollywood and were therefore known to American audiences. At a time when British cinema had few international stars, this was considered vital to the film’s success. Hitchcock had heard that Scottish industrialist and aircraft pioneer James Weir commuted to work daily in an autogyro and worked the aircraft into the film.
Hitchcock had worked with Jessie Matthews on the film Waltzes from Vienna and reportedly did not like her very much. Nevertheless he used the song “Tinkle,Tinkle,Tinkle ” (from the film Evergreen which starred Matthews) as the music underscoring Mr. Memory’s dying words and fade-out music in The 39 Steps. He also used an orchestrated version of her song “May I Have The Next Romance With You” in the ballroom sequence of his 1937 film Young and Innocent.
The 39 Steps is another in a line of Hitchcock films based upon an innocent man being forced to go on the run, including The Lodger (1926), Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959). The film contains a common Hitchcockian trope of a MacGuffin (a plot device which is vital to the story, but irrelevant to the audience); in this case, the designs for a secret silent aeroplane engine.
This film contains an Alfred Hitchcock cameo, a signature occurrence in most of his films. At around seven minutes into the film, both Hitchcock and the screenwriter Charles Bennett can be seen walking past a bus that Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim board outside the music hall. The bus is on London Transport’s number 25 route, which runs from Oxford Street through the East End and on to Ilford. As author Mark Glancy points out in his 2003 study of the film, this was familiar ground to Hitchcock, who lived in Leytonstone and then in Stepney (in the East End) as a youth. The director’s appearance can thus be seen as an assertion of his connection with the area but he was by no means romanticising it. As the bus pulls up he litters by throwing a cigarette packet on the ground. Hitchcock is also seen briefly as a member of the audience scrambling to leave the music hall after the shot is fired in the opening scene.
In the middle of the film, Hannay is shot in the chest with a pistol at close range and a long fade out suggests that he has been killed. This jarringly unusual development – the main character is apparently killed while the story is still unfolding – anticipates Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and the murder of Marion Crane in the Bates Motel. Hannay was not dead, in the next scene it is revealed that a hymn book in the pocket of his borrowed coat prevented the bullet from killing him.
The film established the quintessential English ‘Hitchcock blonde’ Madeleine Carroll as the template for his succession of ice cold and elegant leading ladies. Of Hitchcock heroines as exemplified by Carroll, film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerised the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated”. In keeping with many of Hitchcock’s films, key sequences are set in familiar locations; in this instance Kings Cross station, Piccadilly Circus station and a dramatic sequence on the Forth Bridge.
Copyright and Home Video Status
According to one source, The 39 Steps, like all of Hitchcock’s British films, is copyrighted worldwide but has been heavily bootlegged on home video. Despite this, various licensed, restored releases have appeared on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand services from Network in the UK, The Criterion Collection in the US and many others.
In chapter 10 of J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield recounts the admiration that he and his younger sister Phoebe have for the movie.
In the Sesame Street segment “Monsterpiece Theater” Alistair Cookie (Cookie Monster) introduces the audience to the thriller film, “The 39 Stairs” (“By guy named Alfred…”). Grover in a film noir setting climbs a set of stairs counting each one as he ascends. Once he reaches the top, he finds a brick wall. Instead of climbing back down, Grover slides down the banister.
The comedy play The 39 Steps is a parody of this film version of the story, with a cast of just four people for all the parts. It was originally written in 1995 by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon; a version rewritten in 2005 by Patrick Barlow has played in the West End and on Broadway.
- Before filming the scene where Hannay (Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) run through the countryside, Alfred Hitchcock handcuffed them together and pretended for several hours to have lost the key in order to put them in the right frame of mind for such a situation.
- During a private screening, Alfred Hitchcock asked John Buchan, whose original plot had been used only very loosely, what he thought of the movie so far.
- Buchan replied: “Fascinating! I wonder how it will end.”
- The newspaper article seen on the train is not printed with dummy text below the headlines, but is actually a detailed account of the murder according to the witnesses and police reports.
- The otherwise uncredited milkman played by Frederick Piper is named as “milk supplier” Bert Jossop.
The 39 Steps Films and TV Series
You can find a full index and overview of The 39 Steps franchise here.
Production & Filming Details
- Alfred Hitchcock.
- Michael Balcon … producer (uncredited).
- Ivor Montagu … associate producer (uncredited).
- John Buchan … (adapted from the novel by).
- Charles Bennett … (adaptation).
- Ian Hay … (dialogue).
- Jack Beaver … (uncredited).
- Louis Levy … (uncredited).
- Bernard Knowles … (photography).
- Derek N. Twist … (as D.N. Twist).
- Gaumont British Picture Corporation (presents) (as Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd.).
- Gaumont British Distributors (1935) (UK) (theatrical) (controlled throughout The United Kingdom and Irish Free State by) (as Gaumont British Distributors Ltd).
- Gaumont British Picture Corporation of America (1935) (USA) (theatrical).
- Nederland NV (1935) (Netherlands) (theatrical).
- Filmes Luís Machado (1936) (Portugal) (theatrical).
- Fribergs Filmbyrå AB (1936) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Gaumont-France Distribution (1936) (France) (theatrical).
- Kommunenes Filmcentral (KF) (1936) (Norway) (theatrical).
- Suomi-Filmi (1936) (Finland) (theatrical).
- General Film Distributors (GFD) (1938) (UK) (theatrical) (re-release).
- General Film Distributors (GFD) (1942) (Australia) (theatrical).
- General Film Distributors (GFD) (1942) (UK) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Parvisfilmi (1948) (Finland) (theatrical).
- Victory Films (1951) (France) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1970) (Finland) (TV).
- Hal Roach Studios (1985) (USA) (VHS).
- Urania Film (1987) (Finland) (theatrical).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1989) (Finland) (TV).
- The Criterion Collection (1999) (USA) (DVD).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1999) (Finland) (TV).
- EuroVideo (2002) (Germany) (DVD).
- Divisa Home Video (2004) (Spain) (DVD).
- Elephant Films (2005) (France) (all media).
- Future Film (2006) (Finland) (DVD) (8-disc Hitchcock Classic Collection).
- St. Clair Vision (2007) (USA) (DVD).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (2007) (Finland) (TV).
- Park Circus (2008) (UK) (theatrical) (re-issue).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (2008) (Finland) (TV).
- Filmmuseum Distributie (2009) (Netherlands) (theatrical) (re-release).
- ITV DVD (2009) (UK) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
- New Star (2011) (Greece) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Films sans Frontières (2015) (World-wide) (all media).
- Antenne 2 (A2) (1975) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
- Antenne 2 (A2) (1981) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
- Arcadès (2012) (France) (DVD).
- BBC Two (2016) (UK) (TV).
- El 9 Besepi S.L. (2021) (Spain) (all media).
- Gaumont/Columbia TriStar Home Video (France) (VHS).
- Great Movies (2015) (Germany) (Blu-ray).
- HBO Max (2020) (USA) (video) (VOD).
- RCA SelectaVision VideoDiscs (USA) (VHS).
- Regie Cassette Vidéo (RCV) (1983) (France) (VHS) (French subtitles).
- The Criterion Channel (2019) (USA) (TV) (digital).
- The Criterion Collection (2012) (USA) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
- The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA) (TV).
- WME Home Entertainment (2020) (Germany) (DVD).
- Release Date: 06 June 1935 (London, UK).
- Rating: A.
- Running Time: 86 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.