In which G.M. Norton hails a Hitchcock masterpiece.
Since I first foisted Norton of Morton upon your eager eyes, I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Sir Alfred Hitchcock films. One of my absolute favourites is the 1935 cinema classic, The 39 Steps.
Hitchcock really was the master of film-making, a man who crafted stories that blended technical inventiveness with aesthetic attractiveness.
The 39 Steps, which was adapted from a novel by John Buchan, stars Manchester-born Robert Donat as the chief protagonist, Mr. Richard Hannay.
The handsome Hannay, finds himself wrongly accused of murder. To save jolly old England from a master spy (and his neck from the hangman’s noose), he must flee the bright lights of London to the remote Scottish countryside.
Over the course of this thrilling film, Hannay encounters dastardly murders, double-crossing secret agents and of course, beautiful women. Fortunately, to aid him he has the prerequisite stiff-upper lip, plenty of gung-ho spirit and a rather fine pencil moustache.
The action begins with the Canadian-born Hannay visiting a London music hall. Watching a performance by Mr. Memory, a man who is able to answer any trivia question from the audience, shots suddenly ring out.
Causing mass panic, Hannay finds himself with a mysterious dark-haired beauty clinging to him, announcing that she’d like to go home with him in her strong German accent. Ever the gentleman, Hannay agrees to her request with a prophetic, “It’s your funeral.”
Once inside his bachelor flat at Portland Place, Hannay learns that the young lady is a secret agent being pursued by two men sent to follow and kill her. Not believing her far-fetched story, she challenges him to go to the window and look down where he spots two men stood suspiciously under a corner streetlight. “You win.”
The female spy goes on to explain that her mission is to thwart a ruthless chief spy from smuggling military secrets out of England to the enemy. Her plan is to travel to Scotland the following day as there is a man she must see.
Keen to “have a good night’s rest”, she sleeps in Hannay’s bed while he retires to the couch. During the middle of the night, she stumbles in from the bedroom, clutching a map of Scotland in her hands and a bread knife in her back.
Realising that unless he solves the mystery, he’ll be the prime suspect in her murder, Hannay removes the map from the dead spy’s tight grasp and notices a place circled in Scotland – his only clue.
Trapped in his flat by the two met out on the street, Hannay eludes his pursuers by masquerading as the milkman before boarding The Flying Scotsman train.
The police and spies are hot on his heels though. With police constables searching the train, Hannay cleverly avoids being spotted by embracing a young lady called Pamela (played by Madeleine Carroll).
The ruse fools the peelers as they don’t wish to disturb a couple enjoying a romantic clinch. Quickly apologising and explaining that he is in a spot of bother with the Old Bill, the lady ignores his pleas for help and alerts the officers.
Making a daring escape, Hannay avoids his pursuers when the train stops, with the dashing protagonist hanging precariously from the Forth Bridge.
A coincidence puts Hannay and Pamela together once more. After betraying him for a second time, they find themselves handcuffed to each other and traipsing across the majestic Scottish moors. The two leads, Donat and Carroll share a wonderful chemistry and the scenes where Hannay is chained to Pamela are simply splendid, with Hannay remaining the perfect gentleman throughout. Even helping his companion to dry her wet stockings.
One of my favourite moments is when Hannay is mistaken for the guest of honour at a political rally. Forced on stage to address an expectant crowd, he somehow delivers a passionate and inspiring speech.
“Let’s all just set ourselves resolutely to make this world a happier place! A decent world! A good world! A world where no nation plots against nation! Where no neighbour plots against neighbour, where there’s no persecution or hunting down, where everybody gets a square deal and a sporting chance and where people try to help and not to hinder! A world where suspicion and cruelty and fear have been forever banished. That’s the sort of world I want! Is that the sort of world you want?”
The 39 Steps is a classic Hitchcock effort, with themes that the director continued to explore throughout his film-making career.
It may be approaching eighty years old, but if you enjoy a cleverly written script, terrific acting and a frantic pace, then The 39 Steps is definitely one to watch.
Protagonist of 'Norton of Morton'
Protagonist of 'Norton of Morton'