In 1915, John Buchan, a Scotsman, wrote a novel called The Thirty Nine Steps. It was a spy thriller, set in the days right before the outbreak of World War I. South African mining engineer Richard Hannay escapes to Scotland after a chance acquaintance, whom he befriends, discloses a threat to British national security to him. The acquaintance, who is a man, is killed and Hannay is accused of the murder.
Twenty years later, in 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called The Thirty Nine Steps. He made it in Britain at Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. The action was moved forward from 1915 to 1935, the chance acquaintance becomes a woman, Hannay becomes a Canadian, and, most importantly, Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, the screenwriters, interpolate a love story between Hannay and a woman he meets during his escape. The original novel didn’t have a love story.
The story has been retold on film at least three times – in 1959 and 1978 films as well as a very recent 2008 British television film. It is a mark of the power of this movie that the remakes more often than not follow the story of the 1935 film rather than the original 1915 novel.
It is a thriller, and it is a spy story, and the movie is visually striking. The reason it’s in this series, though, is the relationship between Robert Donat as Hannay and Madeleine Carroll as Pamela. Their relationship is very typical of thirties movies. Their interchanges feature battling lovemaking and fast-paced, wisecracking dialogue.
Hitchcock himself called it one of his favorite films. “What I liked about it were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity,” he said. “The rapidity of the switches, that’s the great thing about it. If I did The Thirty Nine Steps again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work.” I hope you enjoy watching The Thirty Nine Steps with me tonight.