Movie thrillers may come and go, but after half a century, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps still reigns supreme. And not only for the sheer, breathless excitement of the story; the seamless construction; the chilling, beautifully realized atmosphere; and the constant, startling stream of plot twists. Nor for its historical importance, though almost every chase and spy thriller since 1935 copies it slavishly. Nor for its actors—despite a truly excellent ensemble: Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, the cool Hitchcockian blond; Lucie Mannheim as a seductive lady of mystery; Godfrey Tearle as an urbane master criminal; Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie as a moody farming couple on the barren Scottish moors; Wylie Watson as that Proustian prodigy, Mr. Memory—and, at the center, Robert Donat as the endlessly suave and resilient Richard Hannay, a fugitive who keeps his quiet wit and brilliant resources, no matter what dangerous curve Fate (and Hitchcock) manage to throw him.
More than anything else, the film keeps its preeminent place because this is the movie in which Hitchcock became “Hitchcock”—and for which he earned the reputation which he never relinquished as “The Master of Suspense.” Hitchcock had major successes before, but The 39 Steps was the first with major international impact. No previous Hitchcock so gripped, amused or thrilled audiences from Europe to America, Australia to Asia. More than any of his previous 19 British films, or the five which followed, it is the movie which was responsible for his emigration to America, as a first-rank filmmaker. In fact, for many years, most critics insisted that Hitchcock had never equaled or surpassed The 39 Steps. Well into the 1960s, it was still commonly called his best movie. André Bazin: “It remains indubitably his masterpiece and a model for detective comedies.” Pauline Kael: “This suave, amusing spy melodrama is . . . charged with wit; it’s one of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did.”
The Hitchcock of 1935 was a director of a decade’s experience, the master of his craft, adapting a novel by one of his favorite authors, John Buchan. And Hitchcock was telling a story of strong personal appeal—so strong that he used bits and pieces of it throughout his career. In Young and Innocent (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959), Torn Curtain (1966) and Frenzy (1972), we get part, or most, of the basic situation here: the “wrong man,” wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, fleeing through dangerous or colorful locales—sometimes engaged in erotic sparring with a woman both desirous and fearful of him, trying desperately to find the evil doppelganger who has committed the sins which cling to him.
In discussing the film with Truffaut, Hitchcock said: “What I like best about The 39 Steps are the swift transitions.” And it’s that swift, unremitting pace, those lightning transitions, that keep it fresh, bewitching. The editing is so ingenious that some examples have become textbook legends: the landlady’s scream, on discovering a corpse, which, before we hear it, becomes the shriek of the train whistle as Hannay escapes. We race at breakneck speed, from the seedy London streets and the Palladium Music Hall, through the forbidding Scottish moors under eternal, glowering skies, and back to London, where another Palladium performance squares the circle.
But the swift transitions are more than geographic or physical. Hitchcock, as he would many times again, offers a dizzying set of moral alterations: a world where love and death, fear and desire are in constant, nerve-wracking, and sometimes acidly humorous juxtaposition. Hannay begins his perilous odyssey with what seems an innocuous peccadillo: meeting and taking home a woman who calls herself “Mrs. Smith.” Romance leads to danger: the woman is not a pickup; she is a hunted spy, fearful for her life. Hannay escapes from his London flat by pretending to a milkman that he is a lady-killer, ducking a vengeful husband—something he very nearly becomes later, on the moors, when a dour farmer mistakes his desperation for lust. Later he tries to escape the police by passionately embracing a total stranger (to her fury); while still later, he winds up manacled to that same stranger, taking refuge at an inn where the beaming landlady, impressed at their constant togetherness, exclaims: “They’re so terribly in love with each other!” Love and death, sex and slaughter—these are the poles of the universe so playfully presented here: supplanting each other, reversing and replacing each other, becoming a shadowy, deeply disturbing double mirror.
The 39 Steps is that rarity: a bona fide cinematic masterpiece which the public clasps to its bosom, a great work which is also a great crowd-pleaser: amusing and scary, engaging and engrossing, full of dazzling light and eerie shadow. Hitchcock liked to remark, with what may have been a sly touch of self-deprecation: “Most films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” This particular cake is one of his most luscious: dark, savory, a richly compulsive treat.