39 Steps, The (1935)

Dated and unexpectedly dull, this early Hitchcock effort is a true disappointment.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
1935 | UK | Mystery/Thriller | 86 mins | 1.33:1 | English
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim
Plot: A chance meeting with a female spy on the run from assassins sends Richard Hannay deep into a government conspiracy. When he is accused of her murder, he must go on the run in search of the real culprits in order to clear his name.
Awards: –
Distributor: ITV/MGM

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 7 Jul 2014
Spoilers: No

I couldn’t sit through this film without shifting around in my couch.  Half the time I willed myself to stay engaged, to be excited about what was transpiring on screen. But I failed, or was it Alfred Hitchcock who failed? 

The 39 Steps, far from being the first well-known Hitchcock feature (I think that would be 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much), but often regarded as the first true Hitchcockian picture in the auteuristic and stylistic sense, is a troubling experience for me. 

As a huge admirer of his works, including North by Northwest (1959) whose structural and thematic template mirrors closely to this, I find it hard to reconcile with my muted feelings toward a film that has been understood to have laid foundations for Hitchcock’s later films.

The 39 Steps follows a man caught in a dilemma – he is accused of murder, but while authorities chase him, he must also give chase to clear his name.  It is a chase for truth, for justice. 

There is also a mystery element, and as far as spy thrillers are concerned, the scenarios portrayed here are no different to, for example, a James Bond flick, except that there’s a MacGuffin (something that was popularly birthed from Hitchcock) involved.

“There are twenty million women in this island and I’ve got to be chained to you.”

The ‘wrong man’ mode of narrative address has been the raison d’être of many thrillers, contemporary or otherwise.  Hitchcock did it better than most, and with films such as North by Northwest and The Wrong Man (1956) functioning as staples of the subgenre, there must be some historical merit to The 39 Steps

As a key work of Hitchcock during his early British years, The 39 Steps is very unexpectedly dull.  It feels dated.  I would even go to the extent of calling it a true disappointment.  There have been films made in the 1930s that were far more entertaining, the works of Charles Chaplin and Fritz Lang, for example. 

However, one can appreciate the legacy of the Hitchcockian style, not in terms of suspense (The 39 Steps is far from being a tense affair), but the use of setting. 

In an emblematic scene, Hannay, the protagonist, finds a woman handcuffed to him as they escape the police across the Scottish moors.  The precise shots foreshadow Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint at Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest

But whatever, this is boring.

Grade: C-


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