Overview: A man wrongfully accused of murdering a spy who reveals military secrets to him goes on the run. 1935, distributed by Gaumont British Distributors, 86 minutes.
You Might Miss A Step: Most spy espionage movies can be broken down into two categories: 1.) the ones that take their time setting up and playing the game, moving pawns, watching and waiting, and 2.) the ones that take off in a frenzy, leaving it up to you as the viewer to keep up and simply enjoy the ride. Hitchcock is the master of the latter, and it’s never more apparent than in The 39 Steps. It hits the ground running and doesn’t slow down to breathe or explain. If you’re not careful you’ll be swiftly kissed and left behind, just like Margaret the crofter’s wife. Blink and you’ll miss a step. Blink twice and you might miss the explanation for what “the 39 steps” actually is. But does it really matter? Survey says, absolutely not. The origin of the term “MacGuffin” is often traced back to Hitchcock, particularly to The 39 Steps, because the driving force behind Richard Hannay’s adventure is much less significant than the adventure and what (or who) he encounters along the way. After all, it’s not where you’re going, but how you get there that really matters.
A Red Herring: In reality, The 39 Steps is a comedic romance disguised as a spy thriller. Although it’s exciting to see Hannay (played by the dashing Robert Donat) evade the bad guys and get shot in the chest, the best moments in the film come in the form of simple banter and flirtation. The chemistry between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (Pamela) is just plain fun to watch, particularly as we witness Caroll’s evolution from exasperated forced companion to willing and able co-conspirator. Hitchcock has always been known for his glamorous leading ladies, and Madeleine Carroll was one of his original blonde bombshells. She plays the role with the precise mix of poise and playfulness. She’s the perfect balance to Donot’s cocky and engaging, yet erratic portrayal of Hannay, a man desperate to clear his name, but not too distraught to have a little fun while he’s at it. Once the two come together, everyone else is just a pawn as the pair traipse across their own personal game board. And we eagerly root for them to win, without understanding or really caring why.