The 39 Steps (1935) is an intriguing film that encapsulates the paranoia and fear of a foreign power stealing British military secrets through devious means. Loosely based on John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which introduced the world to the dashing hero, Richard Hannay, a stiff upper lipped, quick thinking, gentleman hero. It was clear in the novel, published in 1915 — set one month before the outbreak of World War 1 — how critical Hannay’s mission was: the shadowy foreign spy ring, operating in the heart of Britain, had to be thwarted, to stop Britain’s military secrets falling into enemy hands. Only four years after the release of this film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, there would be another world war.
The 39 Steps is an early example of the conspiracy story, an innocent man is framed for murder and goes on-the-run, evading the police and attempts to prove his innocence by exposing the monster: a powerful covert spy ring.
In the story Hannay kisses an attractive female stranger in his train compartment, to avoid being detected by police. He is reunited with her later on when, and they’re handcuffed together. Gradually she accepts that he is not the criminal she believed him to be, and they fall in love. Hitchcock would later reuse a similar scenario in North by Northwest (1959) when the hero, another man-on-the-run, develops a relationship with another attractive blond woman.
Hannay is able to get out of sticky situations by using his initiative and improvising. To evade capture, for example, he assumes the identity of a local politician and successfully delivers a rousing speech to the disillusioned audience; he uses a pipe in his coat pocket to mimic a gun; he convinces a milkman that he’s a mischievous rogue attempting to avoid a jealous husband, borrowing the man’s uniform to enable him to slip out of the building undetected.
The story takes the hero on a thrilling adventure, where he will meet a beautiful woman (that he would never have otherwise met). Handcuffed together, Hannay and the woman experience a number of slapstick situations, and the resulting physical gags. The handcuffs open up the story to a number of tantalising taboos (like spending the night in bed with an attractive stranger). Eventually, Hannay must coax the invisible monster, lurking in the shadows, directly into daylight.
The 39 Steps is a celebration of a very British hero, an understated character, at times a cheeky charmer, but always classy, never vulgar, underhand or flashy (much like the mainstream perception of the British national character during that era). This ‘decent chap’ knows the difference between right and wrong, and ‘by jove’ he’s willing to stand up and fight, if necessary. And, because he is a classic hero, he will triumph over evil and win the hand of the ‘beautiful princess’, who herself is no pushover.