The 39 Steps (1935 film)

The 39 Steps

British theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Michael Balcon
Screenplay by
Based on The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan
Music by
Cinematography Bernard Knowles
Edited by Derek N. Twist
Distributed by Gaumont British Distributors
Release dates

6 June 1935 (Premiere, London)

2 August 1935 (USA)
Running time
86 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £60,000

The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Very loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, the film is about an everyman civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organization of spies called the 39 Steps from stealing British military secrets. After being mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland with an attractive woman in the hopes of stopping the spy ring and clearing his name.


At a London music hall theatre, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of "Mr. Memory" (Wylie Watson) when shots are fired.[1] In the ensuing panic, Hannay finds himself holding a seemingly frightened Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who talks him into taking her back to his flat. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins, and that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military information, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the "39 Steps", but does not explain its meaning.

Later that night Smith, fatally stabbed, bursts into Hannay's bedroom and warns him to flee. He finds a map of the Scottish Highlands clutched in her hand, showing the area around Killin, with a house or farm named "Alt-na-Shellach" circled. He sneaks out of the watched flat disguised as a milkman and boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. He learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith's murderer. When he sees the police searching the train, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in a desperate attempt to escape detection. She frees herself from his unwanted embrace and alerts the policemen, who stop the train on the Forth Bridge. Hannay escapes, however.

He walks toward Alt-na-Shellach, staying the night in the house of a poor crofter (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft). Early the next morning, she sees a police car approaching and warns Hannay. Hannay flees, wearing the crofter's coat. At a bridge, he finds a sign for Alt-na-Shellach. He arrives at the house of the seemingly respectable Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) and is let in after saying he has been sent by Annabella Smith. The police arrive, but Jordan sends them away and listens to Hannay's story. Jordan then reveals that he is missing part of a finger; he shoots Hannay and leaves him for dead.

Luckily, the bullet is stopped by the crofter's hymn book in the coat pocket. Hannay drives into town and goes to the sheriff, who does not believe the fugitive's story since he knows Jordan well. Hannay's right wrist is handcuffed, but he jumps through a window and escapes by joining a Salvation Army march through the town. He tries to hide at a political meeting and is mistaken for the introductory speaker. He gives a rousing impromptu speech — without knowing anything about the candidate he is introducing — but is recognised by Pamela, who gives him up once more. He is taken away by "policemen" who ask Pamela to accompany them. They drive past the police station, claiming they have orders to go directly to Inveraray, but Hannay realises they are agents of the conspiracy when they take the wrong road. When the men get out to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, Hannay escapes, dragging the unwilling Pamela (to whom he is handcuffed) along.

They make their way across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While he sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of the handcuffs, but then overhears one of the fake policemen on the telephone, confirming Hannay's assertions. She returns to the room and sleeps on a sofa. The next morning, she tells him what she heard. He sends her to London to alert the police. No secret documents have been reported missing, however, so they do not believe her. Instead, they follow her.

Pamela leads them to the London Palladium. When Mr. Memory is introduced, Hannay recognises his theme music—the annoyingly catchy tune he has been unable to forget for days. Hannay realises that the spies are using Mr. Memory to smuggle the secrets out. As the police take him into custody, he shouts, "What are the 39 Steps?" Mr. Memory compulsively answers, "The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the Foreign Office of ..." Jordan shoots him and tries to flee, but is apprehended. The dying Mr. Memory recites the information stored in his brain—the design for a silent aircraft engine—and is then able to pass away peacefully, saying "I'm glad it's off my mind."

The film fades to an image of Hannay and Pamela's clasped hands as they stand at the side of the stage while the hurriedly ushered-on chorus line dance to an orchestrated version of the Jessie Matthews song "Tinkle Tinkle Tinkle".

(Hitchcock had worked with Jessie Matthews on the film Waltzes from Vienna and reportedly did not like her very much, but as well as the fade-out music to "The 39 Steps", he also used an orchestrated version of her song "May I Have The Next Romance With You" in the ballroom sequence of his film Young and Innocent.)



The script was originally written by Charles Bennett, who prepared the initial treatment in close collaboration with Hitchcock; Ian Hay then wrote some dialogue.

The film's plot departs substantially from John Buchan's novel, with scenes such as in the music hall and on the Forth Bridge absent from the book. Hitchcock also introduced the two major female characters, Annabella the spy and Pamela, reluctant companion. In this film, The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organisation, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps, with the German spies being called "The Black Stone" .[2] By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with Alt-na-Shellach house circled) Hitchcock avoids the coincidence in Buchan's novel where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.


The 39 Steps was a major British film of its time. The production company, Gaumont-British, was eager to establish its films in international markets, and especially in the United States, and The 39 Steps was conceived as a prime vehicle towards this end. Where Hitchcock's previous film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, had costs of £40,000, The 39 Steps cost nearly £60,000. Much of the extra money went to the star salaries for Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Both had already made films in Hollywood and were therefore known to American audiences. At a time when British cinema had few international stars, this was considered vital to the film's success.[3]:p. 29 Hitchcock heard Scottish industrialist and aircraft pioneer James G. Weir commuted to work daily in an autogyro, and worked the aircraft into the film.[4]


It was voted the best British film of 1935.[5]

It was the 17th most popular film at the British box office in 1935-36.[6]

Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock's film has been the most acclaimed. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century;[7] in 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British movie ever made, and in 2011 ranked it the second-best book-to-film adaptation of all time.[8]

The 39 Steps was one of Orson Welles' favorite Hitchcock films, and of it he said: "oh my God, what a masterpiece." In 1939, Welles starred in a radio adaption of the same source novel with The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

The film currently holds a 98% rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 44 reviews.[9] Its critics' consensus reads: "Packed with twists and turns, this essential early Alfred Hitchcock feature hints at the dazzling heights he'd reach later in his career."

Hitchcockian elements

The 39 Steps is the second film (after the silent film The Lodger) in a line of Hitchcock films based upon an innocent man being forced on the run, including Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).

Alfred Hitchcock cameo: A signature occurrence in most of Hitchcock's films. About 6 minutes and 33 seconds toward the beginning of the film, both Hitchcock and the screenwriter Charles Bennett can be seen walking past a bus that Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim board outside the music hall. The bus is on London Transport's number 25 route, which runs from Oxford Street through the East End and on to Leytonstone. As Glancy points out, this was familiar ground to Hitchcock, who lived in Leytonstone and then in Stepney (in the East End) as a youth. The director's appearance can thus be seen as an assertion of his connection with the area, but he was by no means romanticising it. As the bus pulls up he litters by throwing a cigarette packet on the ground.[3]:p. 45 Hitchcock is also seen briefly as a member of the audience scrambling to leave the music hall after the shot is fired in the opening scene.

In the middle of the film, Hannay is shot in the chest with a revolver at close range, and a long fade out suggests that he has been killed. This jarringly unusual development – the main character is apparently killed while the story is still unfolding – anticipates Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), and the murder of Marion Crane in the Bates Motel. Hannay, however, was not truly dead. In the next scene it is revealed that a hymn book in his coat pocket prevented the bullet from killing him.[3]:p. 63

The film established the quintessential English 'Hitchcock blonde' Madeleine Carroll as the template for his succession of ice cold and elegant leading ladies.[10] Of Hitchcock heroines as exemplified by Carroll, film critic Roger Ebert wrote: "The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerised the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated".[11]

Although most of the film is shot on location, there is the occasional unconvincing painted backdrop reminiscent of other Hitchcock films, and the accuracy of the actors' accents is very variable.

Adaptations to other media

Copyright status

On 18 January 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution does not prevent the United States from meeting its treaty obligations towards copyright protection for foreign works. Following the ruling, notable films such as The 39 Steps and The Third Man (1949) were taken back out of the public domain and became fully protected under American copyright law.[16] Despite this, there are versions of the film on the internet continuing to leak online.[17]

The rights to the film are currently owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.[18]

See also



  1. St Pierre, Paul Matthew (2009). Music Hall Mimesis in British Film, 1895–1960: On the Halls on the Screen. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp. 62–63. ISBN 978-0-8386-4191-0.
  2. Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo. p. 145. ISBN 030680932X.
  3. 1 2 3 Glancy, Mark. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide.
  4. "Travelling at the edge of space". University of Strathclyde. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
  5. "BEST FILM PERFORMANCE LAST YEAR.". Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 – 1954). Launceston, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 9 July 1937. p. 8 Edition: LATE NEWS EDITION and DAILY. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  6. "The Film Business in the United States and Britain during the 1930s" by John Sedgwick and Michael Pokorny, The Economic History ReviewNew Series, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Feb., 2005), pp.79-112
  7. The BFI 100
  8. "50 Best Book To Movie Adaptations". Total Film
  9. . "The 39 Steps (1939): Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved 28th November 2016.
  10. "From Hollywood starlet to wartime angel". Daily Mail. Retrieved 16 February 2014
  11. Roger Ebert, review of Vertigo, October 13 1996. Accessed 16 February 2014.
  13. OTR.NETwork
  14. Kirby, Walter (March 2, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 42. Retrieved May 28, 2015 via
  15. New York Magazine 13 January 2006
  16. "Supreme Court Takes "39 Steps" Back From Public Domain". 19 June 2014. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  17. Rapold, Nicholas (14 February 2014). "Even Good Films May Go to Purgatory: Old Films Fall Into Public Domain Under Copyright Law". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
  18. The 39 Steps company credits at The New York Times


  • Glancy, Mark (2003). The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide. London: Tauris, ISBN 1-86064-614-X
  • Vermilye, Jerry (1978). The Great British Films. London: Citadel Press, ISBN 0-8065-0661-X

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