(director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: Charles Bennett/based on the novel by John Buchan; cinematographer: Bernard Knowles; editor: D.N. Twist; music: Louis Levy; cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter’s Wife), John Laurie (Crofter), Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory), Frank Cellier (Sheriff Watson); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michael Balcon; Criterion Collection, The; 1935-UK)

“This film couldn’t be more entertaining, even if it had 40 steps.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This film couldn’t be more entertaining, even if it had 40 steps. It’s loosely adapted from a 1915 John Buchan (the British Governor General of Canada) novel entitled The 39 Steps and tells about an innocent Canadian who tries to break a spy ring in Scotland after he is suspected of murder. The title is a McGuffin, a deception to throw the viewer off the obvious track. Alfred Hitchcock (“Vertigo”/ “Psycho”/The Birds”) lives up to his rep as “The Master of Suspense” for this implausible by highly entertaining comedy thriller. Charles Bennett turns in a spiffy screenplay.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian living in London for the last two months, attends a music hall vaudeville act of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson). When a scuffle breaks out and there’s a gunshot, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) attaches herself to Hannay for protection when they reach the sidewalk. They go to his apartment and she tells him a fantastic story about being a paid spy for England and that two men are aiming to kill her because she’s trying to stop a top-secret formula from being shipped out of England by a man in Scotland with a piece of his pinky missing. The code name for the spy ring is The 39 Steps. Hannay believes her when she turns up in the morning with a knife in her back and clutching a map of Scotland. To escape the thugs waiting outside his building, he sneaks out of the house dressed as a milkman and catches a train, the Flying Scotsman, to the Scottish moors and heads to a town she circled on the map. Hannay tries to foil the police on the train by running into a private car and kissing a passenger named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), but she doesn’t believe his story and turns him over to the police. He makes a daring escape and is helped again to escape the police by a sympathetic crofters’ wife (Peggy Ashcroft), despite her stern husband’s (John Laurie) warnings not to. On the run through the moors, he knocks on a door where there’s a party and meets the spy with the missing finger, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), who fails in his attempt to kill him because a hymn book in the coat the crofters’s wife gave him stopped the bullet. When Hannay escapes from the professor’s house and tells the sheriff, he doesn’t believe him and calls Scotland Yard. Hannay escapes from them by jumping out the window and ducks into an assembly hall election meeting, where he’s mistaken for the guest speaker. While delivering a rousing impromptu speech backing a candidate he has no idea of what his political views are, Pamela enters the hall and calls the police. But the ones who arrest him and take Pamela along to the station are not cops but work for the professor as assassins. The two escape while handcuffed, and finally Pamela learns that Hannay is telling the truth when she overhears the phony cops calling their spy boss from the hotel they are staying at. It ends in the same London music hall where it begun, as the professor returns to visit Mr. Memory and Scotland Yard is there to arrest Hannay but instead uncovers the spy ring.

It was the first use of Hitchcock’s trademark theme of “the innocent man, framed by circumstantial evidence, who must go on the run.” For some strange reason The 39 Steps was later remade in 1959 and 1978 — both without Hitchcock’s involvement and both were stinkers.