Year Released: 1935
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft
(Not Rated, 80 min.
"Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead." Benjamin Franklin
Take another look at the cold heart of espionage and check out the Hitchcock film considered his first masterpiece. The 39 Steps takes you on a whistle-stop tour of the Scottish moors with only two slight annoyances – a ruthless band of spies as well as the entire British police force out to get you.
The innocent bystander caught up in circumstances he can’t control, first doubted and then helped by a beautiful blond who reluctantly joins him to prove his innocence – the template of so many of Hitchcock’s later works, most notably North By Northwest - got its start in this 1935 gem.
Visiting Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is enjoying his night at a London music hall as he listens to Mr. Memory awe the audience, his Google-sized brain filled with facts about everything from geography to Mae West’s age, which he says he knows but refuses to reveal. Suddenly shots ring out and there is chaos. Everyone flees the hall and in the ensuing panicked exit, a mysterious brunette somehow ends up in Hannay’s arms. “May I go home with you,” she asks him as they reach outside. “It’s your funeral,” Hannay tells her, not ever believing that these words will come true.
(As they walk to catch the bus across the street, watch for Hitchcock’s cameo, but you’ll have to be quick to catch it.)
Asked her name, the brunette tilts her head and says “Smith?” with the hint of smile at this not so creative alias, but he can call her Annabel, she smiles demurely. When Annabel enters Hannay’s furnished bachelor pad, she behaves very strangely, pinning herself against the wall and asking him to turn the large mirror against the wall. It is obvious that if this is her version of a one-night stand, it will involve a rather peculiar if not kinky courtship dance. In the small talk banter that Hannay tries to initiate, she says she is a sort of a freelance actress, but the forced lightness disappears when the phone rings. She begs Hannay not to answer it, finally telling him everything.
As he fries up a haddock for her in the mercifully windowless kitchen, she tells him she is an “agent” ( a word she prefers to spy) on the run from two men sent to kill her. In fact, it was she who fired the shot at the music hall to create a diversion so she could escape.
Hannay cannot take her seriously, laughing at her “persecution mania,” until she directs him to look for the two men lingering in the shadowed street below. Even convinced that she is being followed, Hannay doesn’t lose his wry humor. “Have you ever heard of the 39 steps,” she asks.
“No, what’s that – a pub?’’ he counters. Before they go to bed in pre 007 fashion– he takes the couch and she his bed –she dangles a few tidbits of information – the enemy spy mastermind is missing part of his little finger, and there is a man in Scotland she must see tomorrow. Perhaps she will tell him more in the morning.
That morning never arrives, not for Annabel Smith, at least. Sometime during the night, she staggers into the living room and tells Hannay to clear out, then does a wonderfully melodramatic collapse that reveals a knife plunged in her back.
Clearing out is not so easy, as the two shady men are still lurking below. They register their menace with a ringing phone again –though how they get Hannay’s number so quickly is beyond me. He manages to sneak out in the borrowed clothes and gear of the milk man, who laughs at Hannay’s stories of murderous spies and but eats up his impromptu lie about evading a jealous husband across the street.
The high pitched train whistle of the Flying Scotsman pierces the dawn right along with the landlady’s onscreen silent scream as she discovers the body. Belying Annabel’s description of a slow to react police force, the Bobbies and Scotland Yard are out in full force, and innocent bystander Hannay is the prime suspect with his face plastered over every newspaper around. They are so close on his heels that he barges into a train carriage and plants a desperate kiss on the pretty blond reading there to evade the detectives on the train. But she doesn’t buy the spy story any more than he did when he first heard it and unceremoniously turns him in.
With a catlike spring, he jumps thought the outside door, pulls the emergency stop cord, and flattens himself against the girders of Forth Bridge, which looms like an alien beast astride the river below.
What follows is a soggy chase through the Scottish countryside where he is alternately befriended and betrayed by an array of characters ranging from a penurious farmer and his gentle wife, a highly esteemed professor, an innkeeper, his romantic spouse, and the suspicious blond he encountered on the train. Along the way, he slips into a hall to evade the ever-present police and is mistaken for the principle speaker. His at first bumbling and then eloquent words about what it is like to be lonely and helpless with the world against him could be the prototype for the world’s best political speech ever, and indeed, the audience rises to its feet and cheers him on even as the detectives cart him out.
Some of the film’s best scenes are those between Hannay and the reluctant blond, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who is forced to participate in yet another of his breakaways because she is handcuffed to him, perhaps giving us a glimpse into Hitchcock’s somewhat jaded view of the relationship between the sexes.
By the end of the film, you will ultimately discover the identity of the 39 steps, but it is the getting there, one step at a time, that is the best part.
Not just once, but twice Hannay dines on fried haddock, first cooked up in his kitchen and then in the humble cottage where he takes what he hopes to be a night’s refuge. Somehow I think there is an inside joke or deeper meaning here, but I have yet to discover it.
At any rate, here is a recipe for the simple dish that will suit a London bachelor pad or a humble Scottish cottage.
1 lb. haddock
1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 c. milk
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 beaten egg
Cut haddock into small serving pieces, mix remaining ingredients into a batter. Dip fish into batter and cook in deep hot fat (375 degrees) for 5 minutes, turning once. Serves 2 people.
Recipe Source: cooks.com