| Courtney Kowalke |
The 39 Steps plays at the Heights Cinema on Thursday, April 6. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
The 39 Steps is the twentieth movie directed by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. “The Master of Suspense” is not a nickname that can be applied to me—I will be spoiling a few plot details for the 1935 thriller in this post. Proceed with caution.
The 39 Steps is a movie with an interesting cast of characters, especially compared to the book Hitchcock used for inspiration. The 39 Steps is based off the similarly-named The Thirty-Nine Steps by Scotsman John Buchan (the first Baron Tweedsmuir if you’re fancy). The general plot is right up Hitchcock’s alley—The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s eleven films that focuses on a person being accused of a crime and pursued by authorities while they try to clear their good name. In this case, it’s former World War I soldier Richard Hannay (English in the novels, made a Canadian expat in the Hitchcock movie partly to appeal to the North American market and partly to celebrate Buchan’s then-recent appointment to Governor General of Canada). When a freelance spy entrusts Hannay with their secrets and is later murdered in his apartment, Hannay goes on the lam in the Scottish hillsides, relying on his wits and the aid of strangers to stay one step ahead of the police. It’s breezy, standard spy fiction fare, and the film adaptation has a similar energy, if not many of the same plot beats.
The script for The 39 Steps was primarily written by Charles Bennett, with Ian Hay helping with the dialogue. The story has Hitchcock’s fingerprints all over it, though. In addition to the man-on-the-run plot, Hitchcock toys with killing off the protagonist halfway through, 25 years before Psycho’s infamous bait-and-switch. There is a hunt for a physical object that overall isn’t that important to the plot apart from driving the characters to action (designs for a silent plane engine, in this case). And there is, of course, A Hitchcock Blonde. The female lead in this one is Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), an aloof traveler who gets stuck with wanted man Hannay. Literally, in fact—the pair gets handcuffed together while Hannay is still on the run.
Whoever decided to add Pamela—and more women in general—to the plot has a lot of my respect, to be honest. The female characters of The 39 Steps are especially remarkable after reading the novel because there is maybe one in the book, a shepherd’s wife who doesn’t have a name and gets mentioned once in passing.
One of the largest changes The 39 Steps makes from its source material is flipping the spy who gets Hannay tangled up in the plot from the male Franklin P. Scudder to the female Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), a sultry, German-accented brunette. The change is welcome in several ways, one of which is that Scudder’s most prominent trait (noted both by characters in the book and by critics of the book) is his antisemitism. Scrapping Scudder neatly avoids all of that. Making the spy a woman also shows that women in the world of The 39 Steps can be professional, resourceful, and valuable, too. I know that seems like the bare minimum here in 2023, but given the stark lack of female character in the book, I appreciated it.
Annabella’s inclusion at the start of the movie also subverted some of my expectations. It seemed like the movie was setting her up to be Hannay’s love interest, and then she shows up in his bedroom in the middle of the night…and collapses to reveal a knife in her back. Annabella’s introduction and death set off the plot, and I commend her for that.
All of the women inThe 39 Steps are fairly action-oriented. The shepherd’s wife I mentioned earlier—now named Margaret and played by Peggy Ashcroft—shows up for several scenes. In the book, the crofter and his wife lodge Hannay for the night. While there, Hannay reads a newspaper report about how the manhunt for him is going. Hannay then goes on his merry way the next morning. The 39 Steps adds a wonderfully tense scene of Margaret also reading the newspaper and realizing their guest is wanted for murder. Hannay and Margaret have a silent confrontation over dinner, but she keeps his secret from her husband and helps him escape during the night when the authorities catch up to Hannay. Margaret also gives Hannay a coat for camouflage, which more importantly contains a pocket book that literally saves Hannay’s life when he’s shot later on.
Other women turn up in bit-but-important parts. In the book, a butler allows Hannay into what Hannay assumes is a safehouse and covers for Hannay, telling the police who later arrive that Hannay was an expected guest. In the movie, she’s a maid. The rival spy leader who had Annabella killed also has a wife who interrupts him and Hannay during their confrontation in his study, which delays the spy leader from shooting Hannay and allows Hannay to get more information out of him.
And then, of course, there’s Pamela. Introduced 25 minutes in as a woman Hannay briefly meets while he’s fleeing from the police, Pamela reappears around the 50-minute mark. Both times, Pamela wants nothing to do with Hannay and attempts to hand him over to the authorities that are pursuing him. Unfortunately for Pamela, some of those authorities are working for the rival spy leader, and they insist on taking her along to Inveraray to cover their trail. The fake authorities handcuff Pamela to Hannay, who later makes a break for it, and along for the ride Pamela goes.
There’s a reason all the promotional material and synopses focus on this aspect of the plot even though it only occurs in the last half-hour of the film—it’s fun. Pamela’s stubbornness and her refusal to be charmed by Hannay make for an entertaining dynamic. Watching the pair banter and lock horns provides a different, more intimate and thrilling type of tension than the overarching manhunt. Pamela’s conviction that Hannay is a convict and her resolution that she is doing the right thing is also amusing. Too bad for Pamela that she’s in the movie that she is in—there’s a world out there where she’s a more-than-capable investigator or fugitive recovery agent.
I’m not arguing that The 39 Steps is some secretly feminist masterpiece. Based on what I expected, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The film’s focus on Pamela and Annabella and its inclusion of more minor female characters grounds the movie in a way I think the book lacks. Including more women makes the world of The 39 Steps more realistic, a little more reflective of our own world, and all the more engaging and interesting.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon