I would like to preface this review by saying that Marian Keane’s Criterion Essay linked at the end is going to be much better than anything I will write here. The 39 Steps is my favorite Hitchcock film, made when he was still in Great Britain. In many respects his later work in The Lady Vanishes is related to this film. I have provided more than my usual number of screenshots because there were so many striking ones in this film. Some of the best cannot be reproduced in still photos, because the camera movement is the real star. I’m an unabashed fan of Hitchcock’s earlier works, possibly because of their quality in spite of budget and the British Board of Film Censors.
The plot of The 39 Steps is centered around a Canadian in Great Britain who becomes embroiled in a spy ring and is wrongly accused of murder. With only one clue and a talent for on-the-spot story-telling, he flees to Scotland from the cronies of a man with a shortened pinky finger in order to track down a Professor who turns out to have a shortened pinky finger. You see, they are trying to transport a government secret about a new plane out of the country to an unnamed foreign power. Of course, you don’t find out about this until the last minute or two of the film, in typical Hitchcockian suspense mode.
Along the way, the Canadian Richard Hannay keeps bumping in to this blonde woman who keeps turning him over to the police/spies from which he keeps escaping. Even in the most serious of scenes Hitchcock manages to place little bits of humor such as this to lighten the intensity of the action. And it isn’t the same sort of humor at every point, some is low-brow, some comes from awkward situation comedy and there is plenty of wry wit from the protagonist himself.
Most people think horror when they think Hitchcock, but it is mystery and suspense that are the bread and butter of his films. The deftness with which these traits are meted out in The 39 Steps, coupled with Hitchcock’s ability to add a twist right when we think the suspense is going to be suspended make the film interesting at every moment. The characters we meet, though only briefly, have lasting impacts throughout the film, and the most innocuous of items or actions create a similar ripple effect. It takes a special sort of director to so easily roughen the waters and subsequently still them and have a good time while doing it. Thankfully Hitchcock is that man.