The world may never know how old Mae West was (or rather they will, as this IS the age of the internet), but this film is packed with a wide array of other perplexing mysteries. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is widely considered to be one of the integral films that sparked the Master of Suspense’s career, and with good reason. While he had been making films for some time (this being his 22nd), The 39 Steps was one of the great films that catapulted Hitchcock into the spotlight and paved the way for his later masterworks. But that’s enough about the prophetic nature of the film. Let’s get down to brass tacks – this movie is fantastic! From the beginning of the opening sequence until the very end Hitchcock strategically places his audience in a tense state and he never fully reveals exactly what's going on (or does he...?).
Put very simply the film’s plot is about a grave accusation of murder landing upon a completely innocent bystander. Hannay, played by Robert Donat, comes in coincidental contact with a mysterious female spy, "Miss Smith" (Lucie Mannheim). Providing her asylum in his apartment overnight he awakens to find her stumbling into his bedroom after being stabbed in the back and warning that he is next. After a brief commotion he realizes that he is now the target of her murderers as well as the police who have been alerted to the murder in his apartment. From this point, out of sheer necessity, Hannay himself becomes entangled in the espionage that got Miss Smith killed in the first place. Picking up where she left off he rushes to Scotland in an attempt to solve the mystery and exonerate himself. Along the way he runs into an obstinate yet beautiful woman on a train, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who turns him in to the authorities. After narrowly escaping the police at this turn, he seeks who he believes to be a friend of Miss Smith’s who as it turns out might not be so friendly. At this point in the plot everything becomes beautifully convoluted and the mystery enters its ascent to the climax. Needless to say much of what we know at this point changes and our obstinate beauty, Pamela, will certainly return to become an integral part of the film.
While this is most certainly an early film for Hitchcock, originally released in 1935, it provides the viewer with a perfect roadmap into the mind of an amazing and enigmatic auteur. The viewer is left with a good number of questions at the end and spends the entirety of the film on the edge of their seats. Aided by the shadowy noir-ish cinematography, the use of odd close ups that seem to allude to something (dun-dun-duuuunnnn!), and the lack at any point of a FULL reveal, Hitchcock is able to build tension like no one else. In addition to the brilliant building of tension and the constant suspense, in true Hitchcockian tradition the director completely breeds a deep audience mistrust of all of the characters on screen (aside from the hero of course). These techniques, which will become vitally important to Hitchcock’s oeuvre, are perfectly demonstrated in this early classic.
But what makes this film, as well as other early/early-mid Hitchcock films, so magnetically engaging is the fact that while he perfectly weaves tension and mistrust into the psyche of the viewer there remains a healthy dose of sly comedy. While we know very little about the hero of this story, Hannay, one thing is sure – he is a quick wit and an amusing gentleman. For example, as Hannay has been captured and rides in the back of the detective’s car, they run into a flock of sheep in the road at which point he quips, "Hello, what are we stopping for? Oh it's a whole flock of detectives." With such amazing and well timed sarcatic one liners the viewer is provided with just enough comedy to catch them off guard when the next plot twist drops (and there are more twists dropped in this film than bass drops in a Skrillex song).
So what else can I say, you simply must take this ride for yourself. Ride the rails though every twist and turn and see if you can put together the puzzle that is The 39 Steps. What exactly is/are the 39 steps? Who is the real "bad guy"? Who can Hannay and Pamela trust? What will happen in the end? How old is Mae West?! What causes Pip in poultry?!?! These questions and many more are proposed by and possibly answered in this fantastic film from the mid 30's; do yourself a favor and check it out.
- Edward Hill