Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps, is today regarded as among the best of his career, and possibly his best film before he left Britain for Hollywood in 1939. Its history was somewhat tortuous and unconventional, reflecting Hitchcock’s own unconventional working style and eccentric personality, and it became an archetype of how Hitchcock worked with actors and screenwriting collaborators alike. Based on an adventure novel by British-born lawyer and government official John Buchan, the story of an innocent man wrongly accused of murder and embroiled in an espionage plot (which he ultimately foils) bore little resemblance to its source.
As was Hitchcock’s practice, he selected a literary source and adapted it freely, adding elements of what he considered a good film – in particular, romantic, frequently sexual subplots and devices intended to keep both the audience and characters within the film off-balance. After completing The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock discovered his gift for making mystery thrillers and selected as his next project Buchan’s novel, which he had read in his youth along with the author’s other adventure tales.
First, Hitchcock had to transform the book into a screenplay, though this involved not merely translating the story – which was really a male-oriented thriller without a heroine or any hint of romance – into a more complex and interesting vehicle, complete with the romantic interest that the era’s audiences expected. Using the novel only loosely, Hitchcock’s main method for creating screenplays was to act as a sort of informal story editor, collaborating with others who would contribute a wide range of ideas and keeping those he found suitable to the story.
He also used Plotto, a compendium of interchangeable master plots, into which he freely inserted elements he liked. Film historian Patrick McGilligan comments, “Never mind that sometimes the inserts were implausible. ‘I’m not concerned with plausibility,’ Hitchcock liked to boast. . . . ‘Must a picture be logical, when life is not? ’” (McGilligan, 2003, p. 158) For this film, Hitchcock chose an informal group of collaborators whom he dubbed the “Cromwell Road Group;” Buchan was not among them, as Hitchcock preferred.
Finding fidelity to literary sources confining, Hitchcock had previously adapted both novels and plays but resented authors’ intrusions into his work, particularly in the case of the latter. Says McGilligan, “Novelists never claimed the same control over film adaptations as playwrights – and Hitchcock was through with plays, for the time being. . . . Hitchcock had more power now, and he preferred the freedom of working with novels” (McGilligan, 2003, p. 170).
His group included writers Alma and Charles Bennett, as well as humorist Ian Hay – the only collaborators credited for the screenplay, though only for “continuity” in Alma Bennett’s case (McGilligan, 2003, p. 172). From them he fielded ideas about how to flesh out the thin plot and develop its themes. In this early phase, Hitchcock began developing the film’s themes and motifs. Most importantly, he chose to sexualize what film historian Thomas Leitch calls “Buchan’s adventure yarn for grownup boys” (Leitch, 2002, p.333) by adding two romantic subplots, neither of which appeared in the novel. The first involves Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who at first tells the police about protagonist Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) but ultimately falls in love with him, after he convinces her of his innocence.
The second concerns the loveless marriage between the Scottish farm couple who hide Hannay during his pursuit; this part, borrowed from a contemporary novel called The Shulamite (McGilligan, 2003, p.171), offered a counterpoint between the love developing between Hannay and Pamela. Hitchcock often offered contrasts as part of his motifs; for example, in this film he contrasts brunette actress Lucie Mannheim’s mysterious spy character (whose stabbing death is wrongly blamed on Hannay) against blonde Madeleine Carroll, the film’s virtuous heroine. Here, these characters obviously symbolize darkness and light, evil and good. Another contrast he explores is the disparity between appearance and reality, which persists throughout the entire film.
Hannay is pursued by the British police and must assume false identities throughout his travels, while also encountering members of the spy ring who pursue him while keeping their own identities secret. Another key Hitchcock motif involved the use of handcuffs, since Hannay and Pamela are handcuffed together for a portion of the film. Reappearing in subsequent films, the handcuffs are thought to have a strong sexual connotation. Film scholar Slavoj Zizek writes that the handcuffs motif is sexual but also used “to put the love couple to the test . . .[by] maturing [them] through a series of ordeals” (Zizek, 1992, p. 4).
Indeed, Hannay and Pamela move from mistrust and betrayal to trust and eventually love. Also, he uses the “double chase” motif, in which the protagonist is pursued (often under the assumption of guilt) but also pursues the agent of his misfortune, who can also release him from his predicament. (This appeared in Buchan’s novel but also recurs in numerous Hitchcock films, such as Saboteur and North by Northwest. ) Hannay flees from the authorities but is also pursuing the spies responsible for the murder for which he is wrongly accused.
Incorporated with this is what film historians dub “the MacGuffin,” an unseen or little-seen object that matters vastly more to the film’s characters than to the audience. This device serves primarily as a catalyst for the film’s action (in this case, a set of plans for fighter planes). To a lesser extent, Hitchcock shows a prescient warning about the dangers of fascism. The spy ring hails from an unnamed nation, but, given Hitchcock’s own liberal sentiments (and the more leftist leanings of co-producer Ivan Montagu), the film functions as a warning against Hitler.
Scholar Ina Rae Hark cites the conclusion, where Mr. Memory’s audience rises to its feet and helps apprehend the spy who shoots the vaudeville performer. Hark claims that “only after the citizens’ liberation from the social codes of spectatorship that the . . . guardians of democracy can eliminate the external threat” (Boyd, 1995, p. 100). Even before shooting began in January 1935, Hitchcock faced issues with even getting the film made. When Gaumont-British studio chief Michael Balcon took an extended leave of absence to visit the United States, he left control to board member, C. M.
Woolf, who had a clear personal and artistic antipathy toward Hitchcock. A financier and film distributor with decidedly conservative tastes (he favored light comedies and lowbrow adventures, which were safe and profitable), Woolf disdained anything “artistic” and tried to block the film’s production, trying to assign Hitchcock (who relished his creative freedom) to another, less adventurous project. However, co-producer Ivan Montagu managed to stall this until Balcon returned and overruled Woolf’s decision, allowing work on The 39 Steps to proceed and rescuing the film from oblivion (Chandler, 2005, pp.96-97).
Another issue involved Hitchcock’s famously brusque treatment of actors, which he considered merely a method for preparing them to assume their roles. According to McGilligan, “Adopting an attitude toward his actors that the story took toward their characters: it was a Hitchcock strategy rarely expounded upon; perhaps it was subconscious, but it was effective. . . . The iron fist was always there, lurking in reserve” (McGilligan, 2003, p. 174). This film provides a fairly illustrative example of how Hitchcock achieved this.
As his second choice for the female lead, Hitchcock hired Madeleine Carroll, whose looks and onscreen charm matched those of start Robert Donat, though he was initially uncertain about her acting ability, which he had previously considered lacking. On the first day of filming, Hitchcock handcuffed Donat and Carroll together, as was required in the script, but claimed to have misplaced the key, leaving his lead performers shacked together for an uncomfortable length of time.
Donat apparently accepted it, though Carroll grew annoyed and eventually let down his cool, dignified exterior in order to convey her character’s discomfort and initial disdain for Hannay. Hitchcock began shooting the film in January 1935, making certain to hire the right personnel to realize his vision and, more importantly, follow his specifications (as past crew members had sometimes failed to do).
In particular, he chose longtime acquaintance Bernard Knowles as cinematographer, because Knowles specialized in creating the kind of atmospheric lighting The 39 Steps would need as a mystery thriller, and because he would comply with Hitchcock’s precise instructions, as other cinematographers had failed to do in the past (McGilligan, 2003, p. 172). Due to a relatively slim budget of less than sixty thousand pounds, a figure that would pale in comparison to the large budgets he received in Hollywood, Hitchcock shot the film mainly at Gaumont’s Lime Grove studios in London, with two brief forays into Scotland to shot location scenes.
He finished in less than four months, and the film was released in Britain in June 1935 and in the United States on 1 August (Leitch, 2002, p. 331). The film’s trailers left much to the imagination, not hinting at the story to come. The original focuses only on the initial performance of “Mr. Memory,” the vaudeville performer who, in the end, reveals that the Thirty-nine Steps are actually a spy ring (in the presence of numerous witnesses and the authorities), resulting in his on-stage murder; it shows nothing of the plot or subsequent action.
A later one is shorter and more sensationalistic, showing Pamela’s betrayal of Hannay to the police, a bit of his chase, and Hannay asking Mr. Memory “What are the Thirty-nine Steps? ” This one promises “MURDER! MYSTERY!! TREACHERY!!! ROMANCE!!!! ” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Trailers) Hitchcock himself promoted the film by suggesting that filmgoers see it “at least three times, in order to pick out all the details and the intention behind them, and in order to get deeper into things” (Spoto, 1992, p. 46).
The 39 Steps was instantly successful on both sides of the Atlantic and considered by some contemporary critics to be Hitchcock’s best work to date (McGilligan, 2002, p. 175). It certainly furthered Hollywood studios’ interest in the director; apparently, American studios had courted Hitchcock prior to the film’s release, but offers appeared in greater numbers after mid-1935. Gaumont-British director Michael Balcon fended off most of them, aiming to keep Hitchcock within his fold as long as possibly. However, lured by larger budgets and promises of the creative freedom he prized, Hitchcock left for the United States in 1939.
Today, the film is still highly-regarded, though perhaps less so in light of Hitchcock’s Hollywood films, made between 1940 and 1976. Critics maintain that it is the best of his career’s British years. Film scholar Donald Spoto comments: “Some critics have dismissed the film as little more than a pleasant diversion . . . but a merely pleasant diversion does not continually generate fresh interest and disclose new richness after multiple viewings and the passage of decades. The 39 Steps . . . improves with age and familiarity” (Spoto, 1992, p. 42). The 39 Steps remains in various ways an example of how Alfred Hitchcock’s creative process.
Beginning with a literary work as his inspiration, he transformed it significantly by working loosely with a group of collaborators who supplied ideas that helped him reshape the story into a film that reflected his own favorite themes and sensibilities. He inserted his own themes into the story, particularly the romantic/sexual subplots, and used his somewhat harsh style of shaping actors’ performances. Audiences’ and critics’ opinions of the film have remained high for the last seven decades, giving it even greater stature within the body of the master filmmaker’s work.