246. The 39 Steps (GB 1935)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Robert Donat, Madeline Carol, John Laurie, Peggy Ashcroft, Geoffrey Tearle, Lucie Mannheim

Cinematography: Bernard Knowles

Original Music: Charles Williams

Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay

Novel: John Buchan

FACT: Donat was one of the many terribly miscast actors cast as a Chinese person. His 'Chinaman' in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness* is as authentic as John Wayne's Genghis Khan in The Conqueror.

Lie: Donat had a brother, Duncan. (See also Sean Bean's brother, Les.)

In one line: Adventurer  is wrongfully accused of murder after getting caught up in a 'spy ring'.**

Richard Hannay (Donat) has returned to Britain after many years in Canada. A night out at the music hall to see 'Mr Memory' ends in violence and he is left hiding the mysterious Annabelle Smith. Smith tells him of a group of spies who are trying to smuggle secrets out of the country. She is murdered during the night after telling Hannay of the importance of a remote Scottish village and a man called Jordan

Hannay is accused of Smith's murder and flees to Scotland. He locates Jordan, a  local dignitary and foreign agent, but is arrested.

After escaping from police custody,  Hannay is trapped by foreign agents and is handcuffed to the attractive Pamela, a woman who had previously given him up to the police. Hannay and Pamela escape their gaolers and Pamela eventually finds out that Hannay is telling the truth.

They escape (again) to London to see another performance by the Memory Man - the key to the enigma of the '39 Steps' ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Absolutely splendid version of Buchan's excellent boys'-own novel. It has to be said that I do like the 1978 Robert Powell version; I'm in a bit of a minority with this one, but it's like Citizen Kane compared to the awful Kenneth More's terrible 1958 version.

Hitchcock's version is the classiest version by a mile. Robert Donat plays Hitchcock's 'wrong man' Richard Hannay with wit and verve and a certain self-deprecating modest style. Donat's Hannay must have been the model for many of Harry Enfield's gentle middle-aged man characters and there's a hint of quiet sadness in his unusual star persona.

                                        Laurie: Midge Ure sidies!

John Laurie is just great. Almost anticipating his Private Fraser persona by some 30 odd years, Laurie's 'crofter' is venality and Calvinist miserablism made flesh and his "Ah knew! Makin' love behind ma back!" (when his put-upon young wife shows some basic human kindness to Donat) is one of the linguistic highlights of this tremendous film.

Being a Hitchcock film, there's all sorts of rudeness and earthy behaviour on show - the initial 'Memory Man' music hall act degenerates into a riot because there are so many pissed punters at the bar shouting out smart arse comments to spoil the act. Hannay encounters a bra salesman discussing the contents of his wares with an equally lewd fellow traveller on the train to Edinburgh, and the famously saucy scene where the handcuffed Caroll removes her stocking whilst still attached to Hannay would have had them spraying the screen when it was first shown in the thirties.


My favourite scene involves Hannay being mistaken for a visiting V.I.P. whilst on the run from the police and the shadowy spy network. Inexplicably, he is introduced by a man who refuses to speak at a normal volume despite more verbal abuse from yet another rabble in the film. There is no plot explanation or narrative purpose for the MC's bizarre behaviour. It just seems to be Hitchcock having a laugh for no particular reason and is all the better for its lack of logic.

The film ends back where it started, with the Memory Man playing a central part in the mystery and the '39 Steps' is revealed in a manner totally unlike the novel or the subsequent film versions.

Impeccable acting from Donat, a clever, witty script (for its time), some excellent suspense scenes (obviously) and some nice shots of a near deserted Scotland.

A great film.

                                                Donat: Midge Ure muzzie!

*The Inn of the Sixth Happiness: nothing profound - just a cosy euphemism for wanking. (Possibly.)

**Spy ring: Anthony Blunt's anus (for example).