Hitchcock’s 1935 film The Thirty-Nine Steps was based on the Scottish author John Buchan’s novel of the same name. In this prototypical spy story, we follow a man named Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat, who accidently gets involved in a spy plot to smuggle national secrets out of England. He meets a woman at a club who tells him spy secrets and then gets killed in the middle of the night at Hannay’s apartment. Hannay is then accused of her murder, but being the hero he is, he worries not as much about getting caught as he does about getting the information to the right authorities.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, the book by Buchan, was written during the build-up to WWI. So, when Hitchcock modernized it for his movie The Thirty-Nine Steps, the world was leading up to WWII. The movie is fundamentally about the fear of fascism and the growing paranoia of what the Germans represent, and about the fact that England feared that they were being spied on by foreign powers. Pretty much every spy story is about being spied on by foreign powers, but this is a paranoia fueled by the prominent Fascist movement in England itself. We need to remember that the King of England himself, Edward VI, had Fascist leanings. 1935, the year in which the film was produced, was a time in which Hitler was starting his takeover rumblings in Europe.
Interestingly, the book was written by a Scottish politician, who had had the position for a number of years of Governor General of Canada. This likely explains why the main character, Hannay, was Canadian, arguably the most unlikely country to produce an action hero.
There is also a subtext going on. Hannay is a rich city boy, and part of the reason that people don’t believe him when he tries to explain his innocence is because he comes off as too posh. Especially this is a problem in Scotland where most of the people that he has to deal with are working class. However, his poshness does not seem to be a problem at a political rally into which he escapes to get away from the police and is mistakenly identified as the leading speaker. Hw uses some very famous words in his discourse, including the ‘Square Deal’. His discussion and manner of speaking are those of a man with a priveleged upbringing, but he puts forth the theory that people should not be made poor. The people at the rally love him, though, as they relate to his theory rather than feeling jealous of his poshness. Also his well-to-do well-meaning character is in contrast to the abusive Scottish farmer at whose house he tries to take temporary refuge. The man’s wife dreams of living in the city, and is entranced by Hannay, who says that he prefers to also live in urban areas as opposed to country areas. The husband then counters with, “Well, God made the country.” This subtext is interesting, as it makes the audience wonder if they are seeing into a side of Hitchcock’s political beliefs that they were not necessarily familiar with, although there is somewhat of a mixed message as to what exactly the political message is: is he a Conservative or is he a Liberal?
An important detail also to notice about the movie, when trying to analyze Hitchcock’s political message, is that the Scottish ringleader of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the man with part of a finger missing, is an aristocrat. The audience, though, is supposed to identify with the action hero, Richard Hannay.
We have learned several things about Hannay. He is Canadian; he is living in England, and he is posh. When the movie opens, however, he is living in a lower-class neighborhood. The movie takes on a more political tone as it moves to Scotland, for as soon as he gets to Scotland, we start seeing more Fascists. The main politician who Hannay has gone to support is clearly a boring politician, but Hannay comes off as an Everyman, talking about that the people need this and this. The crowd loves him, but they cannot stand their own candidate.
Hannay keeps telling the truth, but nobody believes him, and perhaps what Hitchcock is saying is that people immediately believe the worst about him because he comes off as posh. The writer himself, John Buchan, has been accused of being nationalistic, of placing Scotland above all else, and it is interesting how tthis aspect of Scottish people putting other Scottish people above all others plays out in the film. It leads one to wonder if the Scottish poor farmer would have turned in a person asking for his help if he had been Scottish, rather than of another country, even though it was one sympathetic to Scotland.
Aesthetically, I found the film very pleasing, The filming in general is very well done. I particularly liked the scene with the poor Scottish farmer where Hannay is telling the wife about his situation. The farmer is outside looking in on them, and the shot of Hannay and the farmer’s wife is framed by the window pane, giving a sense that they are trapped in the kitchen, symbolizing that the wife is trapped in an abusive relationship. She is shot in the confines of the window pane with the husband staring in. To further demonstrate the roughness of the character of the farmer, he has on a very roughly-made suit, whereas in comparison Hannay has a meticulously-tailored suit. Also the farmer’s face has been darkened.
To describe the filming of this particular shot in more detail, and to demonstrate the cinematographer’s highly-honed skill, we need to look at how the shot was set up. The audience naturally looks from left to right, so by putting her in the left side of the shot, and by literally framing her, by trapping her in a square within another square, we literally follow the farmer’s eye movement towards her, and it indicates his power over her. This is an excellently designed frame. Also this scene is silent, as it covers a plot-hole. If the farmer had heard what his wife and Hannay were saying, he would have had to immediately call the police, which would have not fitted into the plot.
Another excellent shot occurs when Hannay starts running away from the police after the Scottish farmer has turned him in. It starts out with Hannay beingalone on the foggy moors of Scotland and he is distant in the shot. This occurs at about 37:11 in the film. We will look at distance, and what it does, and how framing against the mountains makes the shot stronger. As a side note, the original shot looks like a beautiful painting, which is a characteristic of Hitchcock’s films, as Hitchcock himself started out as a painter. So, when we analyze the shot in greater detail, we see that the cinematographer is essentially forcing the audience to look at Hannay. He does this by the eye-line. Humans typically look for patterns, and their eyes typically look from left to right and from top to bottom. Now in this shot, as we look from left to right, and from top to bottom, we are following the two-dimensional line that goes from the top of the mountain dynamically down to Hanley, who is centered between the high mountain on the left and the lower mountain on his right side. So either direction we look we are centered on Hannay. At 37:09 the inspector has pointed to the mountain, and then at 37:11 our eyes are drawn to Hanley. The message is that the moors of Scotland themselves are trying to catch Hannay.
Another interesting occurrence in the movie is a religious anecdote, which Hitchcock, a staunch Catholic, manages to find a place for in each of his movies. In this film, Hannay is saved by the hymnbook that was in the pocket of the farmer’s coat, which his wife had put on him to try to disguise him. The line used is, ‘Hymns that have helped me.’
The critical response to the film at the time it was released was very positive. It was voted the best British film of 1935. Its production costs were 60,000 pounds, which was high for the time, but the production company, Gaumopnt-British , paid high salaries to well-known actors Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll to try to attract international audiences.1 As stated in A British Film Guide: It “is both a crowd-pleasing box-office success and an extremely“ influential film that brought the famed director attention from US audiences”, and was considered his first masterpiece.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic tale of the wrongly convicted man. A typical Hitchcock theme is that a man gets mistaken for somebody else, and he has to go on the run to prove his innocence. Hitchcock always had a distrust of authority figures, and police in general. The police are never the good guys, and even if they are, they are never the main characters. Also, he often uses one of his well-known themes where the rich class has come in and corrupted the police. Hitchcock’s obsession with the wronged man and distrust of authority seems to have something to do with an instance in his youth in which his father had him jailed for a few moments. This appeared to leave a mark on him for the rest of his life, and even when he was older he said that he was still not sure what he had done wrong. This theme, coupled with the fear of Fascism that was present in the period leading up to the Second World War in England, makes for a fascinating movie.