Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story. That’s exactly what it is.
This is another one of Alfred Hitchcock’s little known gems, and celebrating its 80th anniversary. I know many of you might be wondering why I chose this film and Jamaica Inn instead of The Birds or Vertigo. I don’t know, I guess I just feel like everyone talks about those films, and no one talks about Hitchcock’s earlier works, which were also fantastic. Maybe not as stylized as he didn’t have money and the technology wasn’t as great; but they are good stories with amazing suspense.
So the film is based on a book of the same name by John Buchan. It has been remade in 1959, 1978, and more recently in 2008. I have only seen Hitchcock’s and the 2008 version, but so far this is my favorite.
I first became aware of this film when I bought a DVD for a dollar at Wal-Mart that had 4 Alfred Hitchcock films: Easy Virtue, Sabotage, The 39 Steps, and Jamaica Inn. As I was watching the film, the DVD froze right in the middle, making me unable to know how the film ended.
Now if you have never had this happen to you in the middle of a Hitchcock film then you are lucky that you don’t know how excruciatingly painful it is to be stopped in the middle. How does it end???? I was going crazy, until my mom told me that she might have a VHS copy of it. I searched every inch of our film cases, until I found it. Watching it and loving it.
One thing I really like about this film, is that it is one of Hitchcock’s earliest films to have the theme of an ordinary person, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
I’m not sure if it is the first as I haven’t seen all of his silent films. They are hard to get copies of. So let’s get started on the prelude to Saboteur, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and all those other great regular joes getting a most irregular experience with The 39 Steps.
This film was made in Britain, so the opening is very different, not the usual Hollywood or FBI warning type things you see.
The music hall has a special guest today, Mr. Memory a man who knows everything as he commits to memory 50 facts a day. Richard Hannay has decided to come and watch the program with countless others, as it is a full house tonight. And of course, lots of hecklers, as this isn’t a super high class program, we have working and middle class attending. People are questioning Mr. Memory, but the program stalls when some drunks start brawling and create a hoopla. Two shots ring out and everyone flees.
A woman runs into Hannay and he helps get her out of the building. She asks to come home with.
Richard is a bit wary, but agrees.
The two go to his apartment, his temporary one as he is not permanent here. He just came from Canada but travels all over Canada, England, Scotland, and Ireland for his job.
When they get inside Hannay notices that the girl starts acting strangely. She will stand away from windows and close to the walls. She asks him to move a mirror around, and to close the curtains on the windows. The phone rings and she pleads him not to answer as she is sure “they” are calling for her.
He gives her a drink which she gulps down, clearly frightened about something. She is ready to give him an explanation, but not until they move to the more secure kitchen instead, of which she closes the curtains.
The phone rings again, Hannay compiling to her wishes, but finding the whole thing strange. Even more when she asks for something to eat.
She tells him to call her Annabella Smith, it is not her real name, as she changes it wherever she goes. Hannay starts cooking her some eggs, when they hear a thump of the stove being turned on, which frightens Annabella. Hannay assumes it is because of the gunshots they heard earlier, but she tells him she was the one who fired the shots.
Annabella tells then there were two men there that wanted to kill her. Hannay doesn’t believe her.
Richard Hannay: Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.
Annabella Smith: That’s exactly what it is.
Annabella tells him everything; she is a secret agent with no country, helping whatever one she chooses. She is here to help England, not because she loves the country but because they pay well. There is an agent that is trying to get vital information on England’s defense out of the country and she is here to stop it.
Richard doesn’t believe her at all. She then tells him to look down in the street. When he does he sees a man waiting by the light post looking up trying to see into the apartment!
Hannay believes Annabella is telling the truth. Annabella is scared and knows that Hannay is now stuck in this mess. That is when she decides to give him her secret.
Annabella Smith: Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?
Richard Hannay: No. What’s that, a pub?
With that smart aleck reply, Annabella decides to tell him no more, it is all up to her she is the only one who can stop them. Hannay asks her why she doesn’t tell the police, but she points out that they will have the same response he did. She also warns him about how clever the spies are, especially the head agent.
Richard Hannay: Who is he and what is his name?
Annabella Smith: He has a thousand names can look like anyone, only thing he cannot hide is a missing finger.
Richard offers Annabella his bed while he takes he couch. She tells him the only other thing she needs is passage to Scotland, there is a man there who can help her. Richard asks if the 39 Steps are in Scotland, and she tells him they can talk more about it tomorrow.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. If you have important info you do not wait until later, you give it now. Whenever people say they will save it for later, they die, and then the others have to try and figure out what they meant.
That night Anna wakes him up screaming throwing a paper at him. And then she’s dead!
And the phone keeps ringing, Hannay wants to answer but doesn’t . He looks out the window and sees the man still waiting outside. He hears everything Anna said in his head again, these men will stop at nothing.
He grabs the paper from her dead hand and sees it is a map of Scotland, with an area circled. There is only one thing for Hannay to do, get himself to Scotland.
Hannay takes off the next morning, wearing his hat low to hide identity. He waits in the lobby, running into the milkman. He asks to buy his clothes, saying that he is truing to get away from murderer and spy, but the milkman doesn’t believe him. He then tells him that he spent the night with a married woman, and her brother and husband are waiting to beat him up. They milkman feels sorry for him, and they trade clothes, with Hannay running off to the train The Flying Scotsman, heading to Scotland.
Hannay shares a compartment with three guys. One buys a newspaper when they stop at a station. They read that a woman was murdered in West End near the BBC. There is a picture of the owner of that flat. Luckily, in the picture, Hannay has his hat on low, so it is hard to recognize him.
Richard walks out of the compartment and heads over to the policeman, thinking about turning himself in, as he didn’t do it he should be proved innocent. Right? Wrong! He hears the police to another person say that the evidence they have is enough to hang the man. Hannay decides to forget that, he wants to live.
He goes back to the train but the spy’s henchmen have caught up with him. He runs into another compartment with a woman, stopping to kiss her. The men pass them by.
He tells her he is in need of help, and that these spies are after him. He asks her to lie and say they are together. But when the men come back, she gives him up.
They question him, are you Hannay and he says no.
Just then the porter comes in and I just love this scene here so much:
Porter: Are you coming in for tea, Sir?
Richard Hannay: I’ll be right along
Instead of going out the regular door, he then goes right through the exiting door even though the train is still going. Afterwards, he crosses into another compartment and runs down the hall. A great scene done by the master. You have to watch it.
He runs through the dining car, stopping at the pet and luggage, with the henchmen close behind. The engine masters are angry as the henchmen pulled the chain to make the train stop, sure that Hannay jumped out. And he did. He is hiding on the bridge barely hanging on waiting for them to all leave.
The train leaves, reducing Hannay to be to walking about Scotland. He reaches he circled area and stops at a country house, in the area. He pretends to be looking for work and asks about newcomers to the area, being told of an Englishmen in town.
As night is coming he asks to stay, paying for food and lodging. There is a young girl at the home, and he thinks it is the old man’s daughter, but she is actually his wife.
He sits at the table while she cooks dinner.
The wife is from Glasgow and tells him about how nice it is, and you can clearly she misses it. Hannay tells her that he has never been there but London, Montreal, and more. She wnts to know more about London and he answers her questions.
He asks to read the paper, and sees another article on him.
Later during dinner, while the husband is praying, his wife looks at the paper. She figures it out and makes a face to Hannay, then the two then stare at each other. Her husband is a bit worried that they might have done something, so he makes up an excuse and goes outside watching them through the window.
He’s creepin’ in your windows. He’s starin’ at your people.
That night, the wife hears something, getting up and waking Hannay so he can flee. As she is getting him out, the husband gets up. He thought those looks were about getting it on, and he thinks they are trying to get together now. Although Hannay is fully dressed, but you know how jealousy blinds
Hannay tries to explain, but the wife urges him to leave. He says the police are after him and is willing to pay for the man for silence. He agrees to this, telling his wife to put Hannay in the barn. The wife knows the husband will betray him, so she gives Hannay her husband’s dark coat and Hannay thanks her, running off.
The men walk across the moor searching for Hannay. They are having to crawl through the hills and rocks, running like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Although Hannay has to cross gushing streams and rivers.
Hannay flees to the Englishmen’s house, Professor Jordan, asking to come in saying he is from Annabella Smith. He goes in, and when the men later reach the house and ask the maid if Hannay has come by, she tells them there has been no one for half an hour. She lied to help him? Maybe this really is the guy Annabella wanted to see.
Then again I could be wrong.
So Annabella’s name gains him access to the house. Professor Jordan in charge asks him to wait a bit as they are celebrating his daughter’s birthday. He introduces Hannay to his wife. Hannay is then introduced to all these movers and shakers in that area of Scotland. Professor Jordan tells him to look at the view, where they see the men searching the river for Hannay.
h party beaks up and the professor locks them in the room. Hannay tells him that Annabella was murdered that is why he came. Professor Jordan asks him why he came to see him, and Hannay tells him how Annabella was coming to warn him about the foreign agent.
Professor Jordan: Did she tell you what he looked ike?
Richard Hannay: There wasn’t time. She did tell me he was missing a finger.
Professor Jordan: Which hand?
Richard Hannay: [holds up left hand] this one I think.
Professor Jordan: Are you sure she didn’t mean this one? [holds up right hand and reveals he is missing his pinky finger.]
Too bad for Hannay, the professor has been playing him since the beginning. The professor decides tat the only thing to do is kill Hannay. He lives in Scotland as a respected citizen, he can’t have him there starting rumors or saying things against him. Besides he has his information on the defense of England and needs to get it out of the country. He tries to get Hannay to commit suicide, as it is much tidier, butHannay says no so the professor shoots him in the heart.
And this was where my DVD died. Is that it? Is he dead???!!!! How could they do that???? Is that all there is????????
In the next scene we see out country couple. The husband is searchiung for his hymn book but can’t find it. It was last in his overcoat. Turns out that it stopped a bullet for Hannay.
Hannay goes to the sheriff telling him everything. The Sheriff eagerly listens and says he will happily help him.
Finally something GOOD!
Turns out all a lie, the Sheriff just playing him until the henchmen, who he believes agents of the government, come to get him. He tells the sherif to call Scotland Yard in London. but he won’t as they men will be taking him there. Yeah right, they are going to kill him. Hannay manages to get away, breaking through a window and joining a Scotland parade to hide. He then quickly ducks into an assembly hall. They are waiting for their speaker who is running late and assume it is him.
He sits on the stage he is thrust on. They introduce the professor they are waiting for, and Hanny finds himself on stage.
Richard Hannay: Ladies and gentleman I apologize for my hesitation in rising just now, but to tell you the simple truth I’d entirely failed while listening to the chairman’s flattering description of the next speaker to realize that he was talking about me.
He has no idea what he is supposed to be talking on, and as he is talking, He looks into the crowd and spots the women he used earlier on the train.
He starts asking the crowd what they want to talk about. He grabs onto the topic of the “idle rich” and starts ranting about what he has been through carefully hiding it between political speech.
Richard Hannay: I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel.
It starts a huge momentum as everyone is cheering and wanting to shake his hand, helping him sneak out, but then he is grabbed by the henchmen, lead by the girl.
He asks the girl to help him, telling London the information. The two guys look at each other and decide it is better to be safe than sorry, telling the girl, Pamela, she has to come with them.
They drive to the “police station”, passing it as they are going to another one 40 miles away. We know they aren’t, something Hannay tries to get Pamela to understand that they are taking them to the spy, Professor Jordan, to kill him. They have to stop the car as a huge flock of sheep are in the way. They handcuff Hannay and the girl together, as they go to move the sheep.
As soon as they are gone, Hannay gets out of there dragging the girl with him. They hide under a bridge, Hannay forcing her to be quiet until the men pass. Lucky it is a foggy night, as the two run through the moors. The girl tries to escape, but Hannay keeps pulling her along.
The two’s dialogue is just amazingly hilarious as they constantly bicker and fight. Hannay is angry as he has not only told her three times of his innocence, but the men clearly taking them 40 miles “to the police station” and going the wrong way should prove his innocence. But she won’t listen. As she insists he is a murderer Hannay decides to use that to get her to do what he says.
They find an inn, and go inside. Hannay tells the innkeeper that they are man and wife, and he asks for a room and supper. He tells Pamela he has a gun, his finger in his pocket, which gets her to sign the book for them. She tries to get her away, but he keeps pushing her on with him. Hannay also tells the innkeeper they are a runaway couple, with people after them. People used to elope to Scotland all the time, so the innkeeper doesn’t find it strange but romantic.
Hannay tells Pamela she should take her skirt off as it being wet could make her sick. She refuses, but takes her stockings off, and as they go over to the fireplace, Hannay hangs them up for her.
She doesn’t want to lie on the bed, but Hannay makes her as he is tired, and where he goes she goes. As I said before their conversation are hilarious. He starts making up lies about killing as she thinks he is a murderer. But you can tell they aren’t true as he is being sarcastic. The film is worth watching for the amazing dialogue. I wish I could get a copy of that scene to place here.
The two go to sleep. The professor/spy leader prepares to move out, and try to take care of this Hannay problem.
Meanwhile, the Pamela has woken up.
She tries to use the nail file to pick at the lock but when that doesn’t work, squeezes her wrist out, rubbing it raw. She sneaks away and starts downstairs.
She sees the men who she was in the car with and plans to go to them, but overhears them talking on the phone and realizes Hannay is telling the truth about everything, They question the innkeeper about the couple, and before he can answer, his wife comes down and chases them all out.
The girl heads upstairs, feeling sorry for being so mean and cruel to him, when he’s been given a rough break. She goes to the couch and goes to sleep.
The next morning, Hannay finds himself free of the girl. He is freaked, but sees her on the couch. He asked her why she didn’t leave and she tells him everything she overheard. Hannay starts putting everything together, and is angry that the men didn’t stay the night but left right away. The two rush over to the London Palladium, where the men said they would pick up the “package”.
In London, Pamela goes o Scotland Yard to tell them all the information from Annabella. They don’t really believe it and ask for Mr. Hannay, but she won’t tell him.
She rushes out to the Palladium to find Hannay, Scotland Yard detectives behind her. They shut the Palladium down as they are truing to catch Hannay once and for all.
Through binoculars Hannay sees that the professor is there. Hannay isn’t sure what to do, when he is joined by Pamela. When he hears the tune he has been whistling everywhere. It’s Mr. Memory!
He must be the package they are after and want to get rid off. Scotland Yard finds Hannay, arresting him, when he shouts out “What are the 39 Steps? As Mr. Memory answers, the professor shoots him.
The professor tries to flee, but he didn’t know that all the exits were blocked. Hannay asks Mr. Memory about the information, and he reveals that it was a huge job to memorize, plans to build a new ship. After talking a little about them, he dies, and it is all over for Hannay. He is cleared and able to go on his way, now with Pamela in the picture.
What a great film. And very under appreciated. You should watch it and love it, as it is amazing.
To start Horrorfest IV from the beginning, go to You Cannot Conquer It. It Has Conquered You!: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
For the previous post, go to A Modern Mummy: Under Wraps (1997)
For more Alfred Hitchcock films, go to That Place…There’s Queer Things Goes on in There: Jamaica Inn (1939)
For more films based on books, go to They’re Here Already! You’re Next!: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)