The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, 1935. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Watched on YouTube, so you don’t have to.

1.  The credits are all at the beginning. Which seems like a chore, until you think that nowadays you have to wade through a half dozen production company logo animations – and then the same production names in simple black and white – even before you get to the main actors and whatnot, and then the obligatory looking-down-from-a-drone-on-New-York-at-night, even if it’s a film about turtles or whatever. So all in all, I think The 39 Steps wins on that. 

2.  Maybe they put the credits at the beginning because people were still in the lobby buying cigarettes. When it’s over, they wouldn’t wait for the credits, because they’d be rushing out to buy more cigarettes. In the film, EVERYONE smokes. EVERYWHERE. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a baby toss a rattle out of the pram and reach a hand out for someone to pass it a Woodbine. Maybe that could’ve been an early Hitchcock cameo. He’d be a shoe-in for the role of: ‘sinister smoking baby in pram’. 

3.  The production crew is pretty limited, given today’s enormous list. Back in 1935 they made a film with about ten people, including wardrobe, lighting, sound and fish handler (there’s a lot of fish in The 39 Steps). 

4.  I read a little about the film before I saw it. Apparently they blew most of the budget on Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, so that explains a lot of the shade and fog, stock footage of trains, people pretending to be sheep &c.  

5.  The film starts in a music hall. Hannay goes in to watch the show in an enormous great coat. He’s GOT to be hot in that, but he doesn’t seem bothered. I’d want to roll it up and stuff it under my seat, whether or not it got covered in ash. No doubt people then were used to things being covered in ash. No doubt at the end of an evening out you’d have to beat yourself off with a carpet brush before you went in the house. Which sounds more fun than it probably was.

6.   Everyone in the film talks either RP or cockney. It’s a handy device. You can tell immediately what class they are. The middle class detectives try to talk proper but no-one’s fooled. They talk poshney, which is basically cockney, but with your chin up.  

7.   Almost immediately the MC comes on the stage with Mr Memory. They’re both dressed and move like robot butlers with worrying, clip-on moustaches. The MC has some banter with the audience, who are rowdy in a beery, knees-up, cor blimey kinda way. 

8.  There’s some chippy shit about whether Mr Memory has prodigious feet, or whether he is capable of prodigious feats of memory. (It’s the latter).

9.  The questions are all pretty low class, about football and horse racing and whatnot. One elderly guy wants to know what causes pip in poultry (I think that’s what he says – I don’t know anything about chickens). His wife digs him in the ribs because she doesn’t want to look common. Too late. They smoke.

10.  Every time Mr Memory answers a question he does a little shoulder-duck, finger-pointy thing and says ‘Am I right, sir?’, which is quite cute and v quotable. You can use a catchphrase too much, of course, although shooting to death is probably an over-reaction.

11.  The gig ends with someone firing a gun and everyone scrambling for the exit. There’s a fight, too. ‘Gentlemen, please! You’re not at home…’ says the MC. Says more about him, I think.

12.  Out in the street, Hannay is just about to light up (because it’s been at least five minutes and he’s gasping; I’m guessing his great coat is stuffed full of cigarettes; he’s like a walking kiosk). He’s grabbed by a Dietrich wannabe who’s mysteriously direct: 
‘May I come home with you?’ she says.
‘What’s the idea?’ says Hannay. 
‘Well – I’d like to’ she says.
‘It’s your funeral’ says Hannay.
They jump on a bus that takes him straight to his front door.

13.  The Mysterious Woman doesn’t like the fact that there are no curtains in Hannay’s flat. I’m guessing he’s decorating, although maybe he’s just an exhibitionist (which might explain the coat). 

14.  ‘Would you think me very troublesome if I asked for something to eat? I’ve had nothing all day.’ says the Mysterious Woman. Hannay gets out a haddock and a loaf of bread. Starts frying the haddock, standing over the pan with a fag on. (Again – they were probably all used to a quantity of ash in their food back then; they didn’t have much in the way of seasoning). 

15.  The Mysterious Haddock-Eating Woman tells him her story, all about spies and stolen secrets, professors with missing digits and whatnot. She says there are some spies down in the street if Hannay doesn’t believe her. He goes back into the lounge to check. There are – a couple of them – standing under a streetlamp, which is like Chapter 1 in the basic handbook for spies. Hannay is smoking (of course). When he comes back into the kitchen to see how The Mysterious Woman is doing with the haddock, and does she need another loaf, he puts the lit fag in his pocket. No joke. I replayed it a couple of times. So of course the rest of that scene I’m waiting for him to burst into flames.

16.  This is a plot point I don’t get. Later that night The Mysterious Woman ends up staggering into Hannay’s bedroom with a knife in her back. Hannay spends the next few scenes wondering how to leave the flat without being caught by the spies. But they’ve already been in the flat! They killed The Mysterious Woman! Why didn’t they get him then?

17.  Hannay has to think quickly. He grabs a milkman down in the lobby (ouch), and tells him the truth – there are spies after him, a woman has been murdered, he’s completely out of haddock. The milkman doesn’t believe him (especially about the haddock – it’s 1935 after all). Hannay changes tack. Says he’s been seeing a married woman and her husband and brother are waiting outside. ‘Why dincha say so!’ says the milkman, giving Hannay his hat and coat. ‘Leave the pony round the corner…’

18.  Hannay makes it to the train station. He’s sitting in a carriage halfway to Scotland (The Mysterious Woman had given him a map with Scotland circled). The other people in the carriage are underwear salesmen, so there’s some gratuitous flashing of bras and corsets for a minute or two, to lighten the tone. Hannay couldn’t act more suspiciously if he was wearing a huge badge on his lapel that says: Looking for a Murderer? Stop me and I’ll Confess. He borrows the salesmen’s newspaper to read about himself, then stares anxiously over the top at them. They stare back. One of them smokes a pipe, which is different. 

19.  About a hundred police and a couple of detectives get on at Edinburgh. They go from carriage to carriage, looking for Hannay. In desperation he climbs out of one carriage and into another where he tries to persuade a glamorous blonde woman that he’s not a murderer by kissing her. Of course, she shops him to the cops. Someone pulls the emergency stop and the train screeches to a halt on the Forth Bridge. Hannay hides behind a girder. The train and the plot moves on. 

20.  Hannay walks about a hundred miles whistling annoyingly till he comes to a crofter’s place. The Crofter, (is Crofter a word? What’s a Crofter? I’ve said it too much now. It’s lost all its meaning). The Crofter is a crazy looking geezer with lowering brows who rolls his eyes suspiciously at everything – especially the croft – but despite that seems quite happy to take a stranger in off the moor at night, no questions asked, all in for 1 and 6. 

21.  The Crofter is married to Peggy Ashcroft, who tells him all about Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, and how full of life it is there, and how she’d like to know if London women paint their toenails, as she gets out a pan the size of a small paddling pool ready to cook some herring. 

22.  Before they tuck in, The Crofter says Grace like a warlock casting a death spell. Then he goes outside to peer at them through the window.

23.  Hannay tells Peggy Ashcroft everything (in mime). The Forth Bridge is tricky, but he improves with a coat hanger. 

24.  Peggy Ashcroft wakes Hannay up in the night. The police are coming and he has to go. She gives him The Crofter’s coat, because she knew as soon as she saw him that here was a man who appreciates a really big coat. 

25.  About a hundred cops and two detectives chase Hannay across the moors. Mostly in silhouette, mostly speeded-up. Some of the cops fall into streams, some into bogs. It’s fair to say they’re not at their best in the country. No doubt if they were chasing Hannay through Piccadilly they’d be on him in a second. 

26.  Hannay knocks on the door of an isolated mansion. There’s a cocktail party going on where all the women have names beginning with H. It’s quite niche. Maybe a country thing, who knows. 

27.  Hannay talks to The Professor, a sly, slow-talking man who is missing a digit – exactly as The Mysterious Woman had said. Hannay suddenly has the same expression on his face as he had on the train. Think constipated llama. With a tache.

28.  The Professor produces a teeny tiny gun that looks about as threatening as a cigarette lighter, shoots Hannay in the chest, and Hannay falls down dead. Which seems to throw the film off a bit. I mean – what?  

29.  Next thing you know, we’re back in The Crofter’s croft. He’s furious because he can’t find his bible. The bible was in the breast pocket of his jacket. His jacket isn’t on the hook. Peggy Ashcroft admits she gave it to Hannay when he ran away. The Crofter’s eyes pretty much roll out of his head and off down the street. 

30.   Cut to: Hannay in an office saying how the crofter’s bible stopped the bullet. Apparently, after Hannay was shot, The Professor dragged him into another room and left him there whilst he went away to attend to something or other. I don’t know what. I’m guessing The Professor isn’t a Professor of anything medical, because it turns out Hannay was only stunned like a …. like a herring. He came to, jumped in a car and drove to Edinburgh? Glasgow? I’m not sure. The thing is, he went straight to the authorities – which was a bad move, as they immediately called the police. About a hundred cops come through the door with two grumpy detectives. 

31.  Hannay jumps through the window. The next thing you know he’s giving an impromptu political speech at the town hall, which goes down well with everyone but the police. For some reason the blonde from the train – whose name is Pamela – is there, too. Hannay appeals to her to ring the Consulate and warn them about all the spy stuff, but she says no. She’s probably come all the way to Scotland in the hope she might run into him again so she can say No. The police take them both away for questioning in Stranraer (I think – can’t be bothered to check). 

32.  The two cops who take them both away aren’t cops at all but spies. One of them punches Hannay in the mouth for being smart, which confirms his suspicions, although of course normal police will do that, too. When the car gets stopped on a bridge by some sheep – although what the sheep are doing out on a bridge at night in the fog is anyone’s guess. The spies handcuff Pamela & Hannay together. So naturally, as soon as the spies have got out of the car to confront the sheep, the two of them haul it out of there. 
‘Where the devil could they have gone?’ says one of the spies, looking over the side of the bridge. In the dark. In the fog. Surrounded by sheep. 

33.  Pamela and Hannay check into a hotel as Mr & Mrs Henry Hopkinson of The Hollyhocks, Hammersmith. More H’s. Maybe this is a Hitchcockian thing. Haddock. Herring. All these are probably clues but really I’ve no idea. 

34.  After eating an enormous sandwich and drinking some milk and whisky, and after a long and chippy monologue about how Hannay is related to pirates and how he’ll end up in Madame Tussaud’s and whatnot (where’s the punchy spy when you need him?) Pamela ends up totally believing his story. They have to get to London to stop the plan from working! Although I still don’t get how they know to go there. I was never good on plot. Or fish. But in my own defence, I’m not as dumb as The Professor, who shoots a guy then doesn’t bother to check if he’s wearing kevlar, or a bible, or both. 

35.  Back at The London Palladium. Somehow, the police know that Hannay will try something (see no. 34). They’ve flooded the place with about a hundred cops, some of them lounging in the expensive boxes, laughing at the comedy dancers, generally oblivious to the fact that Hannay is sitting in the stalls wearing the giant badge that says: Looking for a Murderer? Stop me and I’ll Confess. With a spotlight on him. Pamela, who’s only just come into the theatre, sees him straight away. So I take back what I said in point no. 25

36.  Mr Memory is brought back onstage – to the tune Hannay has been whistling all this time! Hannay borrows someone’s opera glasses to look up at the top box. He sees a hand on the balcony with a missing digit! The Professor!

37.  Just before the cops arrest Hannay, he shouts out ‘Where are the 39 Steps?’. Mr Memory glazes over (which I totally sympathise with) and starts saying something about secrets, whereupon The Professor shoots him (not that we think he’s any good at THAT), then leaps down onto the stage, where he’s surrounded by about a hundred cops, who finally and miraculously get their man.

38.  Instead of giving poor Mr Memory any kind of first aid, he’s dragged backstage, where Hannay asks him again about the 39 Steps. Mr Memory reveals that he memorised a bunch of plans about a new kind of jet engine, says Am I right, sir? then dies. 

39.  The last scene is a close-up of the handcuff hanging from Hannay’s wrist. I’m expecting Pamela to grab his hand fondly, but she doesn’t. I guess she’s not that fond of haddock after all. 

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