Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Charles Bennett from the novel by John Buchan, with Ian Hay writing the dialogue
Produced by Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu, who both went uncredited
Released in 1935
The 39 Steps stars Robert Donat as the dashing and debonair Canadian businessman Richard Hannay. Madeleine Carroll plays his exceedingly reluctant love interest, Pamela, who works as an assistant to a politician. This spy thriller has some lovely touches of humour, fun farcical elements and great performances giving the film plenty of emotional depth and character appeal. The story, which explores one of Hitchcock’s key themes – the wrongly accused man – twists and turns at a rapid-fire pace, keeping the viewer guessing until the last frame, which is typical of both the genre and Hitchcock’s body of work.
The book the film is based on was significantly reworked in the adaptation, reducing the feeling of it being a blokey boy’s own adventure story by introducing the character of Pamela who initially clashes with Richard when they meet but eventually becomes a staunch ally and helps Richard uncover a spy ring by the film’s end. Carroll was cast just before filming began as she was a big-name actress who, along with Donat, was expected to deliver bigger box office appeal, especially in the US and among female audiences.
Caroll was added to the cast list late in the production process, and only met Donat on the day filming started. She was heavily involved in reworking the script during filming, with Hitchcock saying that the role of Pamela “turned out to be considerably more important at the end than we had originally intended. For this, much of the credit must go to Madeleine Carroll herself for the way in which she played up to the part.”
While the pairing of Donat and Carroll really worked I was also seriously impressed by Peggy Ashcroft’s performance as Margaret, the crofter’s wife, who assists Hannay to escape the police in Scotland. Margaret is a lonely Glaswegian woman whose bible-bashing farmer husband treats her poorly. Sadly, I felt that Hitchcock – if he was looking to really engage the female audience – failed to effectively leverage Ashcroft’s character as she’s only on-screen for a short time. Ashcroft’s distinguished career – including a best actress Oscar win for 1984’s A Passage to India – suggests I wasn’t the only one to pick up on her wonderful performance and screen presence.
The third significant female actor in the film, Lucie Mannheim, plays the mysterious double agent Annabella Smith, who dominates the first act. Her and Donat deliver impassioned, whimsical and entendre-filled dialogue and I loved every minute of her extravagant performance.
While this is Hitchcock’s 22nd film it followed on from his first truly big box office performer, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and finally allowed him to crack the US market.
Exceedingly clever, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps ensured that a good book became a great movie – perhaps one of Hitchcock’s best – because a master film maker wasn’t afraid to tackle an adaptation in a new and unique way, welcoming other voices to the process.