Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s early British films after a number of his later, Hollywood ones reveals the lineage of the style we know so well. The 39 Steps, released in 1935, is distinctly British but has a number of the elements common to his American work, particularly the lone man on the run, the MacGuffin that everyone except the protagonist wants, suspenseful chase sequences, and an admirable clarity of purpose. Like his later thrillers, The 39 Steps is a confident, lean film that benefits from its straightforward spy plot rather than being let down by its simplicity.
Imported Hollywood star Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London who shelters a woman who turns out to be a spy on the run. Her enemies believe he now has the information they want about something called ‘the 39 steps’, so he flees to Scotland to find her contact. The nature of the secrets is immaterial to the plot, of course: this is a classic spy story where an innocent but capable person has to fend for themselves against villains whose sole characteristic is that they might kill you. The creative and gleeful cruelty we’re accustomed to in later film villainy doesn’t exist in a film like The 39 Steps; the simple stakes are quaint and charmingly entertaining.
Hitchcock generates effective suspense nonetheless, such as in a chase sequence on a train where Hannay runs into new obstacles in each room and has to move between compartments from the outside. This type of sequence is so familiar to us now: throwing off pursuers with a jibe to a crew member, being diverted by unrelated obstacles like ferocious dogs, squeezing past civilians who do something funny in the process. I’m not familiar enough with the history of suspense filmmaking to know if Hitchcock helped devise sequences like this, but seeing one so common to even today’s films in a 1935 production was emblematic of how little certain components of cinema change.
The 39 Steps also throws in an abrupt change in genre. In the final act, when Hannay is inadvertently shackled to a hostile civilian (Madeleine Carroll) who has reported him to the police, the film turns into a screwball comedy. He tries to convince her that he’s innocent; she’s adamant that he’s not, but her burgeoning attraction to him is clearly silencing her evident doubts. Their sniping at each other becomes more affectionate, but remains funny. Donat and Carroll are charming and amusing together, a reminder of how unexpectedly fresh and timeless screwball comedy from this era continues to feel (try not to find Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant hilarious in Bringing Up Baby). The genre gear-shift shouldn’t necessarily work in a spy film that’s taken itself quite seriously until that point, but Hitchcock is so evidently confident in every sequence that, like Frasier Crane’s eclectic furniture, they “go together”.
This is the first of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films I’ve seen, and the familiar Hitchcock tropes and style in a British setting are distinctly enjoyable. As a non-threatening spy caper, The 39 Steps is absorbing and compelling too, like a Tintin story with a charismatic lead. I doubt this period in Hitchcock’s career is as widely watched as his later work, but personally, I can’t wait to dive into it further.