Novel and Production
- The Master of Suspense delivers: the one where it all finally comes together
- Tracking the genesis and enduring success of his best known and loved British film
- Cinema’s best known purveyor of twisted thrills, drama, romance and comedy
- They’re in abundance in his first worldwide smash; even America lapped it up
- Based on one of his favourite authors’ most popular espionage novels
- But Hitchcock and his co-writers altered it almost beyond recognition
- Only the bare framework of Scot John Buchan’s source work remains
- Significant additions include pathos, sex appeal and sly digs at marriage
- One risqué double entendre is lost on those not well-versed in English slang
- Shocking finale features the most ‘memorable’ character in all Hitchcockdom
Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.
Part 2: Margaret’s Story | Part 3: Home video and soundtrack releases | Part 4: Remakes
“Brilliant, lively, shrewdly dramatic… One of Hitchcock’s best!” – New York Herald Tribune
Before Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, and all of Alfred Hitchcock’s more recent screen triumphs, there was The 39 Steps. A brilliant blend of shock and suspense, of exciting pursuit and sly, romantic wit, this is one of the first of Hitchcock’s films truly worthy of being designated a classic. In it are to be found all the hallmarks of the “Hitchcock Touch” – the ordinary man plunged into an extraordinary situation, the non-stop, edge-of-the-seat chase, the generous helpings of mystery, murder, and unexpected plot twists… It is timeless, flawless filmmaking at its best!
Robert Donat is pleasantly charming as the reluctant hero who becomes involved in a search for a master spy ring seeking to obtain British defense secrets. Wanted by the police for murder, nearly killed by the spies who are after him as well, he sets off on a wild run across England and Scotland. Along the way, he meets Madeleine Carroll, the equally captivating heroine who is also drawn into the intrigue. In one of the most delightful battles of the sexes ever put on the screen, the two bicker and squabble their way across the countryside, making one close escape after another before they finally warm up to each other and unravel the mystery of The 39 Steps.
A fast-paced, urbane thriller that ranks among the finest achievements of the Master of Suspense. The 39 Steps is “Outstanding entertainment!” (New York News) “One of Hitchcock’s most original, literate and entertaining dramas!” (The New York Times) “Filled with thrills and excitement…. An equally skillful combination of silky writing. satiny acting, and the best possible direction by Mr. Hitchcock!” (New York World-Telegram) “Full of eccentric humor, human observation, sexual innuendo, and cunning play on our nerves!” (Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear) – Mitchell Danow, US and UK CED (1982/1983)
Mirth, Sexuality and Suspense: AH’s Adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps – Stuart Y. McDougal, Literature/Film Quarterly, 1975
- Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan (2019, paperback) – Ursula Buchan
Many fans’ favourite British Hitchcock – it’s my favourite Hitchcock, full stop – is based on Scottish novelist-historian-politician John Buchan’s classic espionage novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), though little more than the framework of the original remains. Note the spelling: most subsequent adaptations, following Hitch’s lead, use the numerical form. Its protagonist, Richard Hannay, featured in six more novels by Buchan, though the last two were just guest appearances. But his initial outing remains the author’s most notable work. It’s been reimagined countless times, including as literary spoofs and tributes, and is still regularly revisited via film (thrice), radio (dozens of times), live old-time radio-style performances and in particular, the theatre. The latter is largely due to a hugely successful, riotous four-handed play that unashamedly plays up the film’s comedy aspects. It’s seriously funny and if you haven’t seen it yet, do so at your earliest opportunity; if you have, do so again! Most adaptations lean heavily on Hitch’s radically altered take for their title and plot, rather than the book itself. However, Hitch’s masterpiece remains the first and easily the best.
This Distracted Globe: The 39 Steps
If you’re after a copy of the novel, you’re spoiled for choice. Long out of copyright – Buchan’s 1940 death plus 70 years – it’s freely available from the likes of the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. Whatever you do, don’t pay for any of the numerous reprints or digital editions that are merely lifted straight from these sources (Amazon has over 200 such reissues listed). The best quality copies are Penguin’s many Buchan estate-sanctioned reprints (1956, 2004/alt/alt, 2010, 2018), not to mention their handy paperback compendium The Complete Richard Hannay (1993, alt). Even original publisher Blackwood’s 1915 first edition is surprisingly cheap and easy to come by, as are their other early pressings.
For the young ‘uns (in all of us) I recommend the 1950 US comic adaptation, part of the 13-issue series “Stories by Famous Authors Illustrated”. Here too, there’s a modern reprint and collection nicked from the free online copies but you can still plump for an original. Another fun illustrated adaptation was issued in 2010 as part of Usborne’s “Young Reading Series”.
One more favourite: an abridged version of the novel with lovely drawings by leading British artist Edward Ardizzone, part of Dent’s “Children’s Illustrated Classics” series (1964/alt, 1975/alt, 1992). Dent also gave it a particularly handsome reprint (alt) for their Everyman’s Library in 1999.
Buchan and Hitchcock – Jocelyn Camp, Literature/Film Quarterly, 1978
No mention of The 39 Steps’ adaptations would be complete without highlighting Kate Bush’s mini-remake of Hitchcock’s version for the video of the title track of her 1985 album Hounds of Love. Look out for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ‘director’ cameo; twice at the beginning and possibly again at the end.
My Favourite Hitchcock: The 39 Steps – Tony Paley, The Guardian
Steps to inspiration
Original publicity slogans:
- “A hair-raiser of suspense!”
- “He put the MAN in roMANce”
- “It’s Great… It’s Grand… It’s Glorious!”
- “A hundred steps ahead of any picture this year”
- “Fated to be mated with the one man she hated!”
- “Their bond of friendship… a pair of handcuffs!”
- “Their vow of love… to put each other behind bars!”
- “Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him!”
- “The most charming brute who ever scorned a lady”
- “Every step they took brought them closer to danger!”
- “So popular—He was wanted by everyone… Including the police!”
- Fun – romance and suspense in the Hitchcock manner
- “Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film!” – probably true
After the breakthrough international success of his previous film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitch was given pretty much free rein to choose his next project. He was a longtime admirer of author John Buchan and had originally planned to film Huntingtower (1922), after finishing his first cut of The Lodger. In the event, the novel’s adaptation was directed by George Pearson for Paramount and released in late 1927, but is now lost. This time around, rather than Buchan’s best-selling 1915 novel, in which Hannay makes his début, Hitch almost decided on Greenmantle (1916), the first of its four sequels. However, its plot meandered through several foreign countries, necessitating a high budget, which the director couldn’t command at the time. So thankfully, Hitch chose the UK-set first novel but adapted it quite freely, changing many elements of the story, both large and small.
Hitchcock and Buchan: The Art of Creative Transformation – Tony Williams
Incidentally, Hitch was clearly pleased with the way the way The Man Who Knew Too Much turned out, as he referenced it in The 39 Steps by displaying its three sheet poster when Hannay is boarding the Flying Scotsman. It’d also be good to ID the poster next-but-one to it on the right, which is presumably also circa 1934; any ideas?
Film historian John Belton, writing in “Charles Bennett and the Typical Hitchcock Scenario” (Film History Vol. 9, No. 3, 1997) related that Hitch’s regular screenwriter confirmed it was he who uniquely appeared alongside the director in his near-customary cameo. Bennett was initially responsible for reshaping the source text, with later input from Hitch, Alma Reville and playwright Ian Hay. All provided additional dialogue and story ideas via a series of informal workshops. The same quartet also worked on Hitch’s next two thrillers, Secret Agent and Sabotage. They altered Buchan’s novel almost beyond all recognition, dropping many elements and writing whole new ones. When speaking to François Truffaut in August 1962, Hitch said:
“What I do is read a story once and, if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema… When 39 Steps was a big success in New York, at that time Orson Welles was running… the Mercury [radio] Theatre. So, they decided to include 39 Steps in their repertoire. So, they bought the book and read it, and were horrified to find there was nothing in the book!”
Hitch elaborated when writing in “My Screen Memories” for Film Weekly, May 1936:
“I had been wanting to turn John Buchan’s novel into a film for over fifteen years. I first read the book round about 1919 or 1920, a long time before I started my directing career. I said that if I ever became a director I would make a picture of it. It was, therefore, on my suggestion that Gaumont-British decided to make the film so many years later. I hadn’t read the book again in the meantime. When I did so, with an eye to turning it into a film, I received a shock. I had learned a lot about filmmaking in the fifteen odd years that had elapsed. Though I could still see the reason for my first enthusiasm — the book was full of action — I found that the story as it stood was not in the least suitable for screening.
So many of the scenes, which were convincing enough in print, would have looked unbelievable on the screen — as, for instance, when Hannay saw a motor car approaching; realized that he would be captured if it reached him and he were spotted; saw some stonebreakers, and in a minute or two had disguised himself as one of these workmen. Dressed up in Buchan’s powerful art of description you could believe that in the book; but you wouldn’t if you saw it in a picture. The novel had Hannay running away from spies. For screen purposes I deemed it better to have him escaping from the police and searching for the spies so that he could clear his own name.”
- Robert Donat (1968) – J. C. Trewin
- Mr. Chips: The Life of Robert Donat (1985) – Kenneth Barrow
- 39 Steps to Stardom: The Life and Times of Madeleine Carroll (2010) – Derek Chamberlain
- Madeleine Carroll: Actress and Humanitarian, from The 39 Steps to the Red Cross (2019) – John Pascoe
Film historian Charles Barr, writing in English Hitchcock (1999), said:
“…analysis of The 39 Steps does not require much cross-reference to the novel, since it is virtually an original script. It takes from the novel the [altered] title, the name of the hero (but of nobody else), the structure of the journey from London to Scotland and back again, and the motif of the double chase: the hero is wanted for a murder he did not commit, and therefore cannot appeal to the police to save him from the spies who are also after him. It picks up some details from the novel, but only the escape from the flat in milkman’s clothes is really recognisable; other details are relocated and expanded, such as the visit to the music hall, the man with the finger-joint missing, the memorising of a document. Instead of being a literal flight of steps, which enables the spies’ house to be identified, the steps of the title are changed into the arbitrary code name for a particular ‘organisation of spies’. The novel contains no love interest, indeed, untypically for Buchan, virtually no women at all.”
Delineating all the changes would almost require a book in itself, but there’s a lot more general detail in British Film Guide: The 39 Steps (2003, KM review) by film historian Mark Glancy. It’s a concise, easy-going read, packed to the gills with insights and history surrounding this landmark film and its makers.
Just a few more examples are that the setting was updated from pre-WWI 1914 to the pre-WWII 1930s. Seemingly for no particular reason, quintessential Brit Richard Hannay was transformed into a Canadian despite the casting of English actor Robert Donat. Mind you, it does help establish him somewhat subliminally as an outsider, a stranger in a strange land. It was likely suggested by Donat himself, as years earlier his parents and three older brothers had all emigrated to Canada and America, leaving the young actor to pursue his burgeoning career on his much-preferred home turf. Hitch and his screenwriter conjured the entire brilliant opening music hall sequence from little more than a single line on the printed page. Written in the first person, it was described by Buchan/Hannay thus:
“About six o’clock I went home, dressed, dined at the Cafe Royal, and turned into a music-hall. It was a silly show, all capering women and monkey-faced men, and I did not stay long. The night was fine and clear as I walked back to the flat I had hired near Portland Place.”
A mysterious male in the book who precipitated Hannay’s flight had an extremely convoluted and improbable, unfilmably grisly and, most alarmingly, antisemitic backstory. None of which but especially the latter would have ever passed cinematic muster just two decades later, let alone now. He was mercifully transformed into the far more straightforward and sympathetic character of Anna the spy. Hitch then went yet further, spinning
loathe – sorry, love interest Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and Hannay’s Forth Bridge escape entirely out of whole cloth. Even his unforgettable encounter with the crofters arose from a remarkably thin premise:
“It was some hours since I had tasted food, and I was getting very hungry when I came to a herd’s cottage set in a nook beside a waterfall. A brown-faced woman was standing by the door, and greeted me with the kindly shyness of moorland places. When I asked for a night’s lodging she said I was welcome to the “bed in the loft”, and very soon she set before me a hearty meal of ham and eggs, scones, and thick sweet milk.
At the darkening her man came in from the hills, a lean giant, who in one step covered as much ground as three paces of ordinary mortals. They asked me no questions, for they had the perfect breeding of all dwellers in the wilds, but I could see they set me down as a kind of dealer, and I took some trouble to confirm their view. I spoke a lot about cattle, of which my host knew little, and I picked up from him a good deal about the local Galloway markets, which I tucked away in my memory for future use. At ten I was nodding in my chair, and the “bed in the loft” received a weary man who never opened his eyes till five o’clock set the little homestead a-going once more. They refused any payment, and by six I had breakfasted and was striding southwards again.”
As Barr states above, even the “The Thirty-Nine Steps” of the novel’s title are changed from actual steps to the name of the band of shadowy antagonists, who now also have a different objective. Barr again:
“Although The 39 Steps is not wholly consistent in its dialogue references to dates, it proceeds very clearly through four successive days, with each night spent in proximity to a new woman, each awakening bringing a new shock, and each day bringing new progress…
It is an exceptionally tight, symmetrical construction: four days, three nights, three women and a double chase, ending in a return to London, and to Mr. Memory. The structure can be broken down further into a succession of clearly defined locales and episodes, which Hitchcock later compared to a succession of short stories, and which has a structural precedent in the Buchan novel, divided as it is into ten discrete chapters, four of them entitled ‘The Adventure of…’ The film falls clearly into nine main episodes…”
Unfortunately, none of the above is enough to prevent know-it-all academics making silly, unsubstantiated claims like this one:
“Hitchcock will freely adapt the novels to suit his needs as a cinematic storyteller, but feels that the more important the writer or the book, the less lee-way [sic] he has to do a freer adaptation; tends to follow major books more faithfully than what he perceives to be minor works.”
Speaking of jokers, one particular running gag in the film is that Hannay is cast as something of a latter-day Cassandra: he’s continually disbelieved when telling the truth yet wholly believed, often by the very same people, when he’s lying to them! The sole exception to this rule is when he meets the sensitive and empathetic Margaret. Another is that no opportunity is lost to take a sideswipe at the institution of marriage, most poignantly observed in the atmospheric interlude with the Scottish crofters.
Unless you’re well-versed with English slang, you probably don’t know the music hall scene contains a very risqué double entendre! Mr. Memory’s unanswered question, “What causes pip in poultry”, fittingly asked by a henpecked husband, should have had the reply that it was due to “the fowl breathing through its mouth as a result of a respiratory disease, such as catarrh, roup or diphtheria.” So why did such a seemingly innocuous question earn its enquirer a sharp rebuke from his missus? (“Shh – don’t make yourself so common!”) Well, ‘pip’ was also slang for venereal disease. Old Hitch and his sly innuendo again, sneaking smut past the censors. This double meaning is also the origin of the common English expression “You give me the pip!” meaning to annoy or irritate someone. Though ironically also inspired by Hitch’s insalubrious tastes – “I based that on a dirty story…” – the film’s most touching scenes are those involving Margaret, the cruel crofter’s long-suffering wife. But what became of her?
It’s well known Hitch frequently reused cast and crew he liked. To wit, I’m pretty certain the actor who asked about “pip in poultry?” is also the cinemagoer who says “It’s a moot point!” in response to John Loder around seven minutes into Sabotage. Can anyone confirm this; who is he? While I’m at it, Albert Chevalier (1899–1959), not to be confused with his eponymous music hall entertainer-uncle, played the concierge in Sabotage. Albert junior looks suspiciously like the uncredited concierge of the music hall at the beginning of The 39 Steps, who gets into a fight while trying to silence the unruly punter demanding to know the age of Mae West. Again, does anyone know for sure? Also, what’s his “minor role” in Young and Innocent?
The adventure was originally intended to end in a taxi, but instead its final memorable scenes, like The Birth of a Nation, conspicuously blocked to resemble artists’ impressions of Lincoln’s assassination, centre on Mr. Memory. He was based on William Bottle (1875–1956), who performed as Datas: The Memory Man in similar settings to that depicted in the film. Actually seen onstage by the young Hitch, he also wrote two now rare books, Memory by Datas (1904) and Datas: The Memory Man by Himself (1932).
As the police and our dauntless pair gather around him in the closing moments, a line of chorus girls in the background are high-kicking to the tune of “Tinkle, Tinkle, Tinkle” from the 1930 musical Ever Green and its 1934 film adaptation. Of course, both iterations and their title song were the signature performances of Jessie Matthews, who was directed by Hitch in their previous outing, Waltzes from Vienna.https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/records/datas-the-memory-man-at-40-endymion-road-brixton-hill
Fun fact: The 39 Steps is the only Hitchcock film to feature all 15 of his favourite motifs, according to The 39 Stats infographic!
Though Hitch didn’t get to adapt/reimagine Hannay’s travails directly, he did have a later connection to the character. The Three Hostages (1924), the fourth of Buchan’s Hannay adventures, spawned two eponymous screen adaptations. The first was a six-part, 1952 TV miniseries which is MIA, and the second a 1977 TV movie starring Nottingham-born Barry Foster, who portrayed the disturbed antagonist of Hitch’s penultimate chiller, Frenzy.
On paper, what with Donat’s witty but dark verbiage, threats, physical and sexual assaults, etc, this film ought to have dated horribly, but conversely, nothing could be further from the truth:
“Together, Pamela and Hannay share adventures, swap lovely dialogue, bicker, flirt and scramble about a Scotland indistinguishable from Brigadoon.
Which brings me to why this film has probably slightly ruined my life. I watched it first when I was young and impressionable and, as a result, I will somewhere always believe a proper relationship begins with inexplicable kissing and a pure-hearted man in trouble, followed by running, a spot of shared peril and a happy ending.” – My Favourite Hitchcock, A.L. Kennedy, The Guardian
A final thought: if the quarrelling couple couldn’t stand the sight of each other, how on earth did they go to the toilet while handcuffed together? Now that’s artistic licence for you. I am right sir.
Part 2: Margaret’s Story | Part 3: Home video and soundtrack releases | Part 4: Remakes
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Setting the Scene
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous British Films
- Free the Hitchcock 9! Releasing the BFI-Restored Silents on Home Video
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much
- Alma Reville: The Power Behind Hitchcock’s Throne
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?
- Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Miscellaneous Releases
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.