I first became aware of this movie when I saw a remake of it on television many years ago. Having enjoyed it thoroughly, I simply had to watch the original.
The protagonist is thrust into a confusing and dangerous situation by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. During a performance, shots ring out. Richard Hannay (our hero played by Robert Donat) is waylaid by a frightened female who claims to be a spy chased by assassins, because she’s discovered a plot to steal military intelligence. She warns him to look out for a man who lacks a distal (top) joint on one of his fingers. She also mentions the “39 Steps”, but doesn’t bother explaining what that’s all about.
After the lady in question is stabbed, she manages to stagger into Hannay’s bedroom, conveniently clutching a map of the Scottish Highlands in her hand. On the map, a house or farm has been circled.
So it’s off to the Highlands for Hannay to find this place on the map. Thing is, he leaves a very dead spy behind. So guess who becomes a murder suspect?
This movie is great fun to watch, as it is very suspenseful. Alfred Hitchcock’s talent for combining suspense, humor, and even romance work well together here. But, having seen North by Northwest and considering that it’s one of my very favorite Hitchcock movies, I can’t help but think Hitch was warming up for his later material with this one.
This isn’t to say the film isn’t worth watching—it’s considered one of Britain’s finest movies. But it is fun to compare it to some of his later ones—especially North by Northwest. There’s even a scene on a train where Hallay must evade the police and ends up kissing Madeleine Carroll (the eventual love interest) as a way of hiding in plain sight.
All the buildup and suspense notwithstanding and perhaps because I kept comparing it to the other film, I found the ending slightly anticlimactic. After the big reveal when Hannay finally learns what the 39 Steps are, I imagined him thinking, “Thanks lady spy. Wish you’d told me this before you keeled over dead.”
Regardless, if you’re a fan of old movies and/or Alfred Hitchcock, this one’s for you. The film keeps you riveted right up to the end—without having Hannay descend Mount Rushmore.
There is much in this film for Hitchcock buffs to relish. But I still see it as practice for his later work. So, I’ll give it a thumbs up!
PS: If you’d like to watch and compare, here’s the film in its entirety!
You’re welcome! 🙂