Follow TV Tropes


Film / The 39 Steps (1935)

Go To

The 39 Steps is a 1935 Thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It is adapted from the 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; later film versions were made in 1959, 1978, and 2008.

The film keeps the basic outline of the plot, in which Richard Hannay (Donat) has a chance encounter with an agent trying to defeat foreign spies active in England, then is framed for the agent's murder, forcing him to go on the run and defeat the spies himself to clear his name, knowing only a few things the agent told him before dying, including a cryptic reference to "the 39 steps".

It also makes many changes, updating the setting to the 1930s, changing the doomed agent into a female spy of Central European origin, adding a love interest (Carroll), changing the purpose of the foreign spy ring (stealing a secret formula instead of plotting an assassination), and giving the story a completely different denouement, in the process also changing the meaning of "the 39 steps". In this version, the 39 Steps is the name of the spy ring. Some Black Comedy and Screwball Comedy elements are also added to the story.

Typically considered the best of Hitchcock's British films (and one of the best British films of all-time), it became an international success, and it was the film that first earned him the title "Master of Suspense" (from a review in The New York Times).

"I tell you, these Tropes act quickly...quickly...quickly":

  • Adaptational Explanation: In the novel Hannay heads to the Scottish countryside to hide from both the police and the foreign agents pursuing him in London, and out of sheer bad luck walks right into his enemy's headquarters. The film gives Hannay a reason to head straight for the enemy's stronghold (Annabella's map) and a reason to walk right in (because she died before she could explain what it signifies, he thinks it shows a safehouse she was trying to reach).
  • Adaptational Nationality: Hannay is Scottish in the novel, but the film makes him a Canadian visiting London, possibly as a nod to John Buchan's then-recent appointment as Governor General of Canada; or to make the character more appealing for American audiences note ; or perhaps to explain why Hannay is reluctant to go to the police at first, as he's only recently arrived in the country and would have no one to vouch for him when Annabella is murdered in his flat.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Annabella makes it back to Richard's room and manages to tell him to run before keeling over with a knife in her back.
    Annabella: Clear out, Hannay! They'll get you next!
  • Anonymous Ringer: The unnamed country is pretty clearly meant to be Germany. For one thing, the only two countries that call their foreign ministry an "Office" are the UK and Germany. Annabella having a German accent also points in that direction.
  • Arc Number: The numbers 3 and 5 appear quite frequently. A couple examples include the numbers 5 and 10 (5 x 2) appearing in the corners of the film, the title being "39" (3 and 3 x 9, or 3 x 13), and the scenes being roughly 3 - 5 minutes in length. The significance is not present in the film itself, but a theme of bread and fish is seen throughout the film as an alleged reference to The Bible, where Jesus Christ takes 3 fish and loaves of bread to feed 5,000 people.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Alt-na-Shellach, the place circled on Annabella's map of Scotland, doesn't actually exist. The name is Scots Gaelic gibberish that would translate out to something like "The article without willows". There is a real Highlands village called Achnashellach.
  • Awful Wedded Life:
    • John the Scottish crofter and his wife Margaret. He's a sanctimonious Jerkass who's deeply suspicious of his younger wife, suspecting that she's more interested in Richard than him when Hannay stays with them, even if she's just ostensibly helping him while he's on the run.
    • More jokingly invoked by the milkman.
      Richard: Are you married?
      Milkman: Yes, but don't rub it in.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: To satisfy The Hays Code (which a British film still needed to do to get distributed in America), it's downplayed, but it's still the defining feature of the relationship between Richard and Pamela, who bicker almost non-stop but clearly find each other attractive.
  • Brandishment Bluff: Richard tells Pamela that the tobacco pipe in his coat pocket is a gun.
  • Break the Haughty: This is Pamela's character arc as she gradually realizes that Richard was telling the truth about the spies.
  • Catchphrase: "Am I right, sir?" for Mr. Memory.
  • Chained Heat: Only for a couple of scenes, though. Pamela and Richard have been handcuffed together by the bad guys, but manage to escape. They make their way to a hotel, where they have to conceal the fact that they are cuffed to each other. Pamela manages to work her smaller hand out of the cuffs that night.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • Mr. Memory is performing at the vaudeville hall where Richard meets Annabella in the opening scene. It seems like an espionage version of Meet Cute. Then in the last scene Mr. Memory pops up again, and Richard realizes that Memory is working for the 39 Steps and has memorized the secret information.
    • Pamela is initially treated like a One-Scene Wonder, but it's really obvious she's going to reappear later in the story.
  • Clear My Name: Richard has to prove he didn't murder Annabella.
  • Cool Train: The London and North Eastern Railway's Flying Scotsman.
  • Creator Cameo: As required in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Here he is seen taking out a cigarette and throwing the empty pack on the ground as Richard and Annabella board a bus. The film's writer, Charles Bennett, walks next to him.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Hannay, like when Pamela refuses to believe he's innocent, so he instead invents a whole criminal career.
  • Decoy Protagonist: 25 years before he codified this trope in Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock experiments with it here, since Annabella looks like she's going to be the female lead, but dies 16 minutes into the film. Meanwhile, the actual female lead, Pamela, only becomes an important part of the story in the final half-hour.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: One consequence of Hitchcock trying to enhance the film's appeal for American audiences is that the ending seems a bit reminiscent of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, including the gunman leaping from a balcony onto the stage while he tries to flee.
  • Don't Make Me Destroy You: Professor Jordan begs Richard to shoot himself, so he won't have to, in a bit of Pragmatic Villainy, as the suicide of a suspected murderer would wrap things up nicely and make the police less likely to dig further. Jordan's approach is to tell Hannay that being Driven to Suicide while on the run will give him some posthumous sympathy from the public.
  • Dream Melody: Richard can't get a jingle out of his head. He realizes at the end that it's Mr. Memory's stage music.
  • Dutch Angle: Used for Mr. Memory's close-up during the climax.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Naturally, any journey to Scotland includes crossing the Forth Bridge
  • Fake-Out Make-Out: Subverted. The police are hunting for Richard on the train. He dives into Pamela's cabin and kisses her in an effort to hide his face. She then turns him in.
  • Flashback... Back... Back...: After Annabella dies, Richard tries to remember everything she told him, and this trope comes into use.
    Annabella: I tell you, these men act quickly...quickly...quickly
  • Gender Flip: The male agent Scudder becomes the female Annabella.
  • Handwave: The 39 Steps is the name of the spy organisation simply because there was no other way to work in a Title Drop, given the changes to the original story.
  • Honor Before Reason: The climax of the story—Mr. Memory reflexively answers all questions accurately, seemingly without even thinking, so when Richard asks him about The 39 Steps, he dutifully starts explaining what it is, angering the Professor.
  • Hope Spot: Richard seems to have gotten to a police station safely with the inspector listening to his story and preparing to arrest Jordan. However, it turns out the man was stalling for time until more police arrive as he counts Jordan as a friend and believes Richard the murderer.
  • Human Hard Drive: How the 39 Steps are getting the information out of the country, by having Mr. Memory memorize it.
  • Idiot Savant: Mr. Memory and his remarkable skill for memorizing arcane facts sort-of fits the bill. Today he would probably be considered to have some form of High-Functioning Autism.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Secret agent Annabella dies, leaving Hannay with a few cryptic comments and a map of Scotland with a location circled on it.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Variation, as Annabella coughs right before she expires.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Richard's reaction to Annabella's tale of espionage.
    "A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by a gunman? Sounds like a spy story."
  • Lost in a Crowd: Richard flees the cops by joining a parade and ducking into a political rally.
  • MacGuffin: In true Hitchcock fashion, it's something that isn't really explained very much—"a secret vital to your air defense", apparently a silent plane engine.
  • Match Cut: From a cleaning lady screaming after finding Annabella's corpse to a train whistle's shriek.
  • Maybe Ever After: The final shot is of Richard and Pamela holding hands. It might signify that they're now in love, but it might also show that they're just Fire-Forged Friends trying to comfort each other after the shocking climax they just witnessed.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Not really mugging, but Richard talks the milkman into giving him his uniform by pretending to be a man on the run from a Crazy Jealous Guy.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Mr. Memory was based on William Bottle, who was a popular British music hall act under the name Datas: The Memory Man. "Am I right, sir?" was his Real Life Catchphrase.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Richard's expression after Professor Jordan shows him his pinky finger and he realizes that the Professor is the Big Bad.
    • Pamela upon hearing that There Is Only One Bed at the inn.
    • Mr. Memory looks utterly terrified when Richard asks him what The 39 Steps are.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • We never find out Mr. Memory's real name.
    • Also, it's pretty clear that "Annabella Smith" is an alias, and we don't learn her actual name.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping:
    • Robert Donat starts out trying to sound Canadian. By the end, not so much.
    • It's also been noted that Peggy Ashcroft doesn't really achieve the proper accent for a woman from rural Scotland. For example, when she mentions Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, she says it exactly that way; Scots and especially Glaswegians pronounce it "Suckyhall" Street. One blogger has described her accent as "buying a zone-hopping travelcard into a variety of geographical locations."
  • Outside Ride: Richard does this briefly aboard the train: Trapped in Pamela's compartment by the police (and the steward offering tea), he opens the door and steps outside onto the carriage's running board, then opens another door and slips through that compartment.
  • Pocket Protector: Hannay is shot square in the chest by the bad guy, but he's saved by the hymn book that was in his coat's pocket.
  • Police Are Useless: Beginning by jumping to the conclusion that Richard killed Annabella, the police of London and various Scottish jurisdictions totally botch things, allowing him to escape while pursuing him in various unfamiliar places. Then they don't believe him when he voluntarily goes to them and tells them his story. Then there are the police who are actually spies sent to capture him.
  • Pushed in Front of the Audience: Richard, running from the cops, dives into a building. He winds up on the stage at a political rally, where he's mistaken for the guest speaker. He gives a Rousing Speech. He ends up in a similar situation in the original book.
  • Screaming Woman: The housekeeper who finds the body opens her mouth to scream, then we Smash Cut to the shrill whistle of the train carrying away the supposed murderer.
  • Setting Update: From the 1910s to the 1930s (the then-present day).
  • Smithical Marriage: Pamela and Richard have to pretend they are married to get a room in an inn. The innkeeper and his wife are suspicious, but find them charming enough that they don't question it.
  • There Is Only One Bed:
    • Averted when Annabella comes back to Richard's apartment. He lets her sleep in his bed while he sleeps on his couch.
    • But enforced strongly with Richard and Pamela at the inn, since they're handcuffed together.
  • Vaudeville: The film opens and closes at a music hall performance.
  • Wicked Cultured: Professor Jordan cultivates friendships among the local elite at the Scottish estate, loves his Luxurious Liquor, and gives Richard the Faux Affably Evil treatment.
  • Word Salad Title: In the novel, there actually are 39 steps crucial to the story (they lead to a beach involved in an escape plot). Here, it's the name of the spy ring, but the name isn't explained, so the film's title essentially becomes this.
  • Would Hit a Girl: The Scottish crofter with his wife, after he learns that she gave Richard his "Sunday best" coat, but it's done off-camera.