Cine-East Film Club Presents #61: 1935, The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)

by George_East on December 20, 2014

Richard Hannay: ‘Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen, it sounds like a spy story’

Annabelle ‘Smith’: ‘That’s exactly what it is’

A few weeks ago I went to a talk at the wonderful Barts Pathology Museum (sadly not open to the public, but accessible if you attend an event there) entitled Hitchcock’s London by Dr Mark Glancy.   As well as a biographical guide to the various parts of London that Hitch has connections with, Dr Glancy examined how Hitchcock’s films portray London and Londoners.

Glancy’s thesis was that in Hitchcock’s British films (before his departure for Hollywood in 1940) the London portrayed was one that reflected the director’s own lower middle class background (Hitchcock’s father owned a grocery shop), suspicious of the rich and powerful but not particularly interested in the working lass.   Later, the London portrayed by Hitchcock in his American films would be an upper middle class one, with working class Londoners portrayed as criminals or ciphers. This would change with Hitchcock’s last London-set film, the truly disturbing Frenzy (1972) in which he returned to the class milieu of his early British films.

This week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation is inspired by that fascinating talk. It also makes Alfred Hitchcock the first director to have had three of his films presented, hardly surprising given he probably is the most consistently brilliant director of all time.

The 39 Steps, very loosely based on the 1915 John Buchan novel of the same name (well strictly speaking the novel is The Thirty Nine Steps), actually has very little of London in it. However, that which it does, in book-ended musical hall scenes at the beginning and end are interesting when considering Glancy’s thesis, but more about that later.

The 39 Steps is one of five films that Hitchcock made in the mid-late 1930s about secret agents and espionage. These films capture the growing sense of threat in Britain from Nazi Germany and the increasing sense that the nation’s security was at threat from foreign spies and terrorists in our midst.     At its most terrifying this would manifest itself in an out and out masterpiece that has already featured in the Cine-East Film Club, Sabotage (1936) – a film in which London’s power and transport systems are targeted and in which the bomb plot at its centre isn’t thwarted and in which the main terrorists get away. In some senses The 39 Steps sits next to Sabotage (or the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the first of this sequence of films) as say North By North West does to Vertigo in Hitchcock’s peak American period: it is a fun caper-y film rather than a deeply fucked up work of art.

Indeed if you have never seen The 39 Steps, North By North West makes a great reference point (and what a great double bill.) Both films feature suave leading men (Robert Donat and Cary Grant respectively) who find themselves mixed up in a spy plot accidentally but who will ultimately prove to be the heroes who save the day.   Further both films feature key sequences at iconic landmarks: the Forth Bridge in the case of The 39 Steps, Mount Rushmore in North By North West.

Yet if The 39 Steps is a fun film (one in which you never really believe that the hero, Richard Hannay, is in any real jeopardy), that is not in any way to diminish how great it is.   Part of the joy of it is how Hannay, who has been dragged into the whole thing for no other reason than he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, brushes pretty much everything he encounters off with total insouciance.   Even though he spends 80% of the film wanted for a murder he didn’t commit and running from the both the police and the secret spy organisation (the 39 Steps of the title) he tries to expose for planning to take a top air defence secret out of the country, he takes it all completely in his stride.

In truth the quest to find the 39 Steps and their leader with the distinctive missing top joint of one of his little fingers, Professor Jordan (a brilliantly patrician Geoffrey Tearle) and to unravel the secret of the 39 Steps, is the quintessential Hitchcockian MacGuffin (as coined by the Master of Suspence himself) – a plot device which the film is notionally about, but isn’t really. Although the method by which the secret was stolen – by using music hall act Mr Memory’s prestigious feats of recollection to remember the blueprints (‘the hardest job I’ve ever had’) is ingenious Hitchcock isn’t really interested in how serious the leak is to British security, something that is almost entirely skirted over.

No, what Hitchcock is primarily interested in as the starlingly self-aware (and post-modern some 40 years before the term had even been thought of) quote from the dialogue at the top of this post indicates are the mechanics of the amateur sleuth spy story.   Hannay is glamorous, full of savoir faire, brave and solves the case almost without any official assistance.   By contrast the police are portrayed as clunking fools – allowing Hannay to escape from under their noses when they have him seriously out-numbered twice: once from the Flying Scotsman and once by jumping out of a sheriff’s office window, and not believing Hannay’s story when he explains it to them.   The thugs from the 39 Steps sent by Jordan to kill Hannay because he knows too much are no brighter.

By his charm Hannay will get both the wife (a young Peggy Ashcroft) of the money-grabbing and severe crofter (played by John Laurie – later Private Frazer in Dad’s Army) and Pamela (Madeliene Carroll), the woman who first gives him up to the police on the Flying Scotsman, to help him.

This has proven to be the model for such films pretty much ever since.

The scenes between Hannay and Pamela pushed the then strict censorship rules to their limits. In particular the scene when having escaped from the clutches of the 39 Steps the pair end up in a guest house, at a time when Pamela still thinks Hannay story is a lie and that he is a murderer.   Hannay tells the guesthouse owners that they are runaway newlyweds. Hitchcock places Hannay and Pamela still hand-cuffed in a bedroom at the guest house.   Pamela’s clothes are wet and she takes her stockings off with her hand still handcuffed to Hannay’s with the pregnant thought of what the sleeping arrangements might be hanging over them,   it is sexy, funny and brilliantly played by the two leads.

Which brings us back to London. The film starts in a music hall. It is not entirely clear where in London it is located but the clientele, Hannay aside, are solidly working class. The music hall has a bar at the back with pints flowing and is smoky and rowdy. The questions asked of Mr Memory by the audience are primarily about horse racing, football and (from one particularly persistent man) chickens, including this great exchange:

Boy in audience: What won the Cup in 1926?

Mr. Memory: Cup? Waterloo? Football? Or Tea, Sir?

Boy in audience: Football, silly

Heckler in Audience: When did Chelsea win it?

Mr. Memory: 63BC in the presence of the Emperor Nero!

Hannay lives in Portland Place, in the West End and there is brief scene there. Finally there is the last scene, again at a music hall show, but this time in the more salubrious London Palladium theatre, just off of Oxford Street.

Now, as I said, Glancy’s theory was that Hitchcock was not much interested in the working class, and that his British films with London settings primarily focus on the lower middle class (like Hitchcock himself); whereas the later American films (Fenzy aside) tend to focus on the upper middle classes.   Although there isn’t much by way of the London working class in The 39 Steps, confined as they are to the initial music hall scene, they are portrayed sympathetically – they are shown as funny, warm and real, without it coming across simply as caricature. So although the 39 Steps is undoubtedly not about the working class, it does not condescend to them.

The 39 Steps is a great way into the underseen British Hitchcocks in general and his espionage cycle in particular if you haven’t seen it (the 1978 remake is by the way ok and far closer to the book), and if you have seen it, always worth revisiting.  Its lightness of touch and sheer enjoyability should not detract from the fact that it is a work of art (deservedly voted 4th best British film of all time by the British Film Institute in 1995).

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