The Thirty-Nine Steps

Humor alternating with suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s trademark, are on display in his 1935 thriller, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The opening vaudeville act in the music hall, with Mr. Memory being heckled by the crowd:

Heckler: How old is Mae West?

Mr. Memory: I know, sir, but I never tell a lady’s age.

Man in audience: What causes pip in poultry?

His wife: Don’t make yourself so common.

Man in audience: Our fowls have it, haven’t they?

This delightful anarchy is disrupted by gunshots, and the next thing you know, our Canadian hero, played by the suave Robert Donat, is escorting a lady (Lucie Mannheim) from the theater. A woman of mystery with a foreign accent, this lady turns out to be a spy. She’s the very person who fired the gun, hoping to escape her pursuers by creating a diversion, and Donat’s character will soon discover her with a knife in her back. Serious stuff, but Hitchcock still can’t resist playing with us in their first encounter outside the theater.

Mannheim: May I come home with you?

Donat: What’s the idea?

Mannheim: I’d like to.

Donat: It’s your funeral.

We see Donat on the run, evading both the police (who suspect him of Mannheim’s murder) and the true killers, hopping onto the train to Scotland, sharing a compartment with a pair of corset salesmen and a clergyman who can’t resist ogling their wares. Another tense moment as he is spotted in the Edinburgh station, this one ruptured by a stolen kiss as Donat foists himself on the unsuspecting Madeleine Carroll, pretending to be her lover. Carroll promptly turns him in, but we know she’ll end up as his romantic interest, although it takes awhile for the two to get together (handcuffs are involved).

But, hey, what’s the hurry? You wouldn’t want to miss Donat delivering a political address on behalf of some Scottish candidate for M.P., improvising madly to stay on stage because the police and the bad guys are in the wings, ready to nab him. He does such a good job of giving the audience what they want to hear that he gets a standing ovation.

Mixed in with the comedy is a bit of melodrama reminiscent of the silent movie era. Donat takes refuge with a Scottish farmer and his wife (played by the young Dame Peggy Ashcroft). Ashcroft’s character believes his story and helps him to escape, knowing full well that she will incur her jealous husband’s wrath. Donat suspects as much, but allows himself to be persuaded otherwise. It’s a poignant scene that deepens the story and raises the stakes, somehow. A moment of real communication between two fine actors, well worth watching again all on its own.