39 Steps, The (1935): One of Hitchcock’s Best Thrillers, Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll and Peggy Ashcroft

One of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films, The 39 Steps holds up extremely well as a new kind of espionage thriller for the time it was made  The movie is laced with a healthy dosage of humor and includes an appealing romantic couple, played by Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Along with “The Lady Vanishes,” it is considered to be Hitchcock’s best U.K. films, though, thematically, it was influential in the long run, including impact of his U.S. pictures.


Please read our review of another great Hitchcock thriller, made in the U.K.


Lady Vanishes, The (1938): Hitchcock’s Train-Set Thriller, Starring Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Dame May Whitty

Please read our review of Hitchcock’s thriller, Foreign Correspondent, which was nominated for Best Picture Oscar.

Foreign Correspondent (1940): Hitchcock’s Oscar Nominated War Thriller, Starring Joel McCrea and Larraine Day

Released in 1935, “The 39 Steps” served as a model for many of Hitchcock’s later films (specifically the 1959 “North by Northwest”), as well as a workable format for other directors working in this genre.

At 36, having made about a dozen features, the director blends elements of thrillers, chase in the countryside (Scottish Highlands), comedy (sporadically witty dialogue) romance, and, of course, some dazzling (especially for its time) technical flourishes.

Loosely based on “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” the 1915 adventure novel John Buchan, the script was co-penned by Charles Bennett and Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife, who would contribute to many future scripts).

The hero of “The 39 Steps,” Richard Hannay, is played by British actor Robert Donat (who would become a Hollywood star and win the Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for “Goodbye Mr. Chips”).

The event that set off this suspenser is an accident, which presumably could have happened to any ordinary man. While visiting London, Hannay becomes involved in a national secret , which is prevented from leaving the country. It begins with a nasty murder, which takes place in his tiny apartment (through the window…).

To establish his innocence, Hannaye must discover a ring of spies, known as the 39 Steps, whose malevolent goal is to steal knowledge for a new line of fighter airplanes.

As usual in Hitchcock’s romances, at first, one of the partners is reluctant.  Here, the appealing blonde Pamela, (Madeleine Carroll) initially hinders before agreeing to help Hannay.

One of the feature’s amusing sequences occurs, when Hannay, handcuffed to Pamela, falsely admits that he is a murderer.  Speaking in sarcastic way, he confirms her suspicions, and for a while, he manages to fool her—and confuse the viewers.

Individual and collective interests go hand in hand: The journey that the couple embarks on is meant to prove the innocence of a wrongly accused man, as well as protect the safety of the secret.

This film displays all the major themes that Hitchcock later developed in his American pictures.  The mystery plot is subordinate to the development of specific characters and themes.  The secret is of no particular or significant interest, it’s the MacGuffin, to use Hitchcock’s terminology, just a generic plot device.

Beginning and Ending in the Theater (Intertextuality)

Structurally, the film bears symmetry: The 39 Steps begins and ends in a theater (just like in Hitchcock’s 1951 thriller, Stage Fright).

The scholar Donald Spoto has observed that the ending is accompanied by twice-falling curtain.  After the secret is revealed by the dying Mr. Memory, Hitchcock shows us the legs of chorus girls in the background, suggesting that, despite death, the show must go on.

Mr. Memory, who answers from the stage all questions, including the hero’s, pays for this information with his own life.

Narrative Structure: Setting, Locale, Space, Characters

The film’s hero is an everyman civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organization 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.

At a London music hall theatre, Hannay (Robert Donat) is watching a the superlative powers of recall of “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson) when shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, Hannay finds himself holding a seemingly frightened Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who talks him into taking her back to his flat.

She tells him that she is a spy chased by assassins, and that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military information, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the “39 Steps”, but does not explain its meaning.

Later that night Smith, fatally stabbed, bursts into Hannay’s bedroom and warns him to flee. He finds a map of the Scottish Highlands 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 outside.

He then boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. He learns from a newspaper, read by a pair of women’s undergarment salesmen, that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt.

The police is searching the train, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in order to hide his face. She frees herself from his embrace and alerts the policemen, who stop the train on the Forth Bridge.

Hannay escapes, hiding behind the bridge’s truss, then walks toward Alt-na-Shellach. He spends the night in the house of the poor farmer (John Laurie) and his younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft). The crofter becomes suspicious of sexual attraction between his wife and Hannay, when he spies on them from a window.

Hannay revealed his predicament to the wife, askingd for her help. The next morning, she sees a police car and warns Hannay. She gives Hannay a dark coat for camouflage. He flees across the moors and at a bridge he finds a sign for Alt-na-Shellach.

The police fire at him and use a Weir autogyro to chase him down. He arrives at the house of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) and is let in by his maid after saying that he was sent by Mrs. Smith.

The police arrive, but Jordan sends them away and listens to Hannay’s story after ushering out all his guests (including the local sheriff) visiting the house.

Hannay relates to Jordan that the man at helm of the group of foreign spies is missing the top joint of the pinky finger of his left hand. Jordan corrects him by revealing that the top joint of the pinky finger of his (Jordan’s) right hand is missing and thus he is the head of the spies. Jordan then shoots Hannay and then leaves him for dead.

The bullet is stopped by the crofter’s hymn book in the coat pocket. This is revealed by Hannay to the local sheriff in his office (the same sheriff from the guests at Jordan’s). More police arrive when the sheriff reveals that he does not believe the fugitive’s story since Professor Jordan is his best friend.

The police arrest Hannay, handcuffing his right wrist, but he jumps through a window and escapes by joining a Salvation Army march. He tries to hide at a political meeting and is mistaken for the speaker. He gives a rousing impromptu speech—without knowing anything about the candidate. However, recognized by Pamela, she gives him to the police again.

He is taken away by “policemen,” who drive past the police station, claiming they have orders to go directly to Inveraray, but Hannay realizes they are the conspirators when they take the wrong road. When the men get out to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, Hannay escapes, dragging along the unwilling Pamela to whom he is handcuffed.

They make their way across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While he sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of the handcuffs, but then overhears the fake policeman on the phone, confirming Hannay’s assertions.

She returns to the room and sleeps on a sofa. The next morning, she tells him what she heard. He sends her to London to alert the police.   As no secret documents are missing, they do not believe her.

Pamela leads them to the London Palladium. When Mr. Memory is introduced, Hannay, in the audience, recognizes his theme music—the catchy tune he has been whistling and unable to forget. Hannay, upon recognizing Professor Jordan and witnessing him signal Mr. Memory, realizes that the spies are using Mr. Memory to smuggle the Air Ministry secret.

As the police take Hannay into custody, he shouts, “What are the 39 Steps?” Mr. Memory compulsively answers, “The 39 Steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the Foreign Office of …” at which point Jordan shoots him, jumps to the theatre’s stage and tries to flee, but is apprehended.

The dying Mr. Memory recites the information stored in his brain—the design for a silent aircraft engine—and passes away peacefully, saying “I’m glad it’s off my mind.”

Hannay and Pamela witness Memory’s death as their clasped hands are shown from behind, Hannay’s handcuffs clearly visible. As they stand together at the side of the stage, their hands begin to touch. Now Hand in hand, they watch as the chorus line dances to an orchestrated version of the Jessie Matthews song “Tinkle Tinkle Tinkle.”

The scholar William Rothman has observed that the spirits of comedy and romance are tardy in announcing themselves, and that the power of these forces will continue to be an important issue in Hitchcock’s future work.

Thematically, the text deals with the level of trust between a man and a woman, which is structurally manifest in the contrast of three couples: the hypocritically pious Scotsman and his younger spouse; the relationship of the kindly in-peepers couple, and the tension between the gentlemanly villain and his aristocratic wife.

Hitchcock: Themes, Elements, Objects (Recurrent in his work)

City and Country

Romantic couple (Happy Ending)

Hero: Innocent man accused of wrongdoing

Villain: Professor; ring of spies

Married Couple (age difference)

Hands and Handcuffs


Knife (Stabbing)

Photo: Close up of hand and half finger

Cultural Status:

Orson Welles described the film as a “masterpiece,” and screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) said that “all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with ‘The 39 Steps.'”

Robert Donat as Richard Hannay
Madeleine Carroll as Pamela
Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Schmidt
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

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Michael Balcon
Screenplay by Charles Bennett and  Ian Hay, based on The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan
Music by Louis Levy
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Edited by Derek N. Twist
Produced and distributed by Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Release date: June 6, 1935 (U.K.); August 2, 1935 (U.S.)
Running time: 86 minutes

Budget: Less than $100,000