- The director’s best known and imitated British film
- Many tantalising loose ends are deliberately left hanging
- Ironically, the most poignant part has insalubrious origins
- Who was Margaret, the sad yet sympathetic crofter’s wife?
- She played a pivotal role in harbouring the fugitive Hannay
- We know where she came from but whatever became of her?
- Fans of the film touched by her lonely plight need look no further…
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 1: Steps to inspiration | Part 3: Home video and soundtrack releases | Part 4: Remakes
Warning: spoilers abound, so please don’t even think of reading this article unless you’ve already seen the film. What’s that, you have? Good. Several times, you say? Even better.
No one who has seen and loved Hitchcock’s iconic spy-romance-comedy-thriller could fail to be moved by the poignant scenes involving the film’s protagonist Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat, and Margaret, the lonely, abused wife of a Scottish crofter. Their time together was all too brief, but meaningful and deeply moving. In a film replete with significant plot strands that are deliberately left hanging, theirs lingers longest in the memory.
- These Our Actors: A Celebration of the Theatre Acting of Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson (1983) – Richard Findlater
- Peggy Ashcroft (1988) – Michael Billington
- The Secret Woman: A Life of Peggy Ashcroft (1997) – Garry O’Connor
Margaret was played by her namesake, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who is widely regarded as one of the finest actors this country has ever produced. Unfortunately for filmgoers, the majority of her life’s work was devoted to her truly exceptional stage career. Among her many triumphs were several spells as “the outstanding Juliet of the 20th century”, including playing opposite Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, later star of Secret Agent, in the latter’s acclaimed 1935 London New Theatre production. The 39 Steps was only her second film, shot just after her 28th birthday, but she is better known to modern audiences for her later-life onscreen character roles, which continued until just a few months before her death in 1991 at the age of 83. Her husband John was also played by his namesake, John Laurie, who had a prolific career on both stage and screen. Prior to this, he’d given a standout performance in his first film, Juno and the Paycock, but is now, much to his eternal frustration, best known as Private “We’re doomed!” Frazer in Dad’s Army (1968–1977). Though in real life he and Peggy were born only nine years and nine months apart, a combination of heavy makeup, judicious lighting and his character’s bitter persona aged John considerably more, as with Jameson Thomas in The Farmer’s Wife. Incredibly, though their section is the highlight – perhaps lowlight is more apt – of the entire film, they are barely mentioned in the source novel:
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.
Though he was a long-time devotee of the book, Hitch and his co-writers altered it almost beyond recognition from beginning to (its completely different) end. In August 1962, Hitch revealed the couples’ inspiration to François Truffaut:
“What I find appealing in Buchan’s work is his understatement of highly dramatic ideas… Understatement is important to me. At any rate, I worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes [to equal or surpass the success of his breakthrough, The Man Who Knew Too Much]. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need another short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.
Anyway, despite my admiration for John Buchan, there are several things in the picture that were not in the book. For instance, the scene in the film in which Robert Donat spends the night with the farmer and his wife was inspired by an old story about a South African Boer, a black-bearded man, very austere, with a very young, sex-starved wife. On his birthday she kills a chicken and bakes a chicken pie. It’s a very stormy night and she hopes that her husband will be pleased with her surprise. All she gets for her pains is an angry husband, who berates her for killing the chicken without his permission. Hence, a grim birthday celebration. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there stands a handsome stranger who has lost his way and requests a night’s hospitality. The woman invites him to sit down and offers him some food, but the farmer, feeling he’s eating too much, stops him and says, ‘Hold on, there. This has got to last us the rest of the week.’
The woman is hungrily eyeing the stranger, wondering how she can get to bed with him. The husband suggests that they put him out in the barn, but the woman objects. Finally, the three of them go to sleep in the great big bed, with the farmer in the middle. The woman is trying to find some way to get rid of her husband, and finally, hearing a noise, she wakes him up, saying, ‘I think the chickens are out of the coop.’ The husband goes out to the yard, and the woman shakes the stranger awake, saying, ‘Come on. Now’s your chance.’ So the stranger gets out of bed and quickly gulps down the rest of the chicken pie.”
“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” – Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”, 1892
Here’s a spoiler-ridden précis of Hitch’s film:
Young and dashing temporary Londoner Richard Hannay by chance meets a beautiful, mysterious spy named Annabella, but wakes to find her murdered in his flat. In an attempt to prove his innocence, he becomes a fugitive, embarking on a chase across the country to find the “39 Steps” holding the key to the mystery. In Scotland, seeking a person who can help, he encounters Margaret and her husband, John. Stranded, he stays with them but is woken by her in the middle of the night, warning of the police hot on his tail. While John is busy selling him out, his wife helps Hannay escape. He leaves via the back door after giving Margaret a grateful kiss. Next, he meets a journalist who dislikes him because he forcibly kissed her earlier while on the run, and they become handcuffed to each other. Cue many more adventures, with her complaining a lot. Her initial antagonism eventually turns to affection, he clears his name and they end up together. But whatever became of Margaret?
The Tragedy of Margaret in The 39 Steps is a most eloquent analysis of the film’s most touching interlude.
Aspiring author Anjoli Samudio starred in the hugely popular, four-handed stage play based on both the book and film. Inspired by her experience, she penned Afterwords, a short sequel of sorts for Margaret, revealing a little of her fate. Superbly and evocatively written, it’s wholly in keeping with the spirit of her wistful portrayal in the film. I’m sure Hitch would approve.
Afterwords, chapter 1
She pulled her button-up blouse on, covering the bruises on her arm. People had long since stopped questioning why she wore long sleeves in the warm weather, although they weren’t above spreading rumours about her “skin condition” that supposedly made her arms look hideous. Many strange things were said about Margaret McTyte. Whispers passed in the street about the nervous city girl that had married John the crofter, whispers that fell in her wake when she made one of her infrequent trips outside her property. But she’d rather have them whisper than have them know the truth. The one person she had shown her heart to left her more alone than ever, her hope flickering more faintly with every passing day. Her hands trembled as she pulled her long, dark hair into a bun. It got worse each day, creating a vicious cycle. She wished it would stop, but he just kept making it worse, yelling and…
“MARGARET!” A loud, deep voice boomed through their little house. Her hair tumbled out of her hands as they shook. She took a few deep breaths, pulled her hair up, and exited her room quickly, coming to stand in the kitchen.
“Ay?” she questioned, timidly. She wouldn’t meet his eyes, so he grabbed her chin and forced it up to him.
“Did I tell ye to have breakfast ready when I got up, woman?” A trick question. He hadn’t, but if she said no, he would say she hadn’t listened, but if she said yes, he would say she’d lied. She quivered silently for a moment. “ANSWER ME!” he yelled, shaking her.
“I… I don’t remember,” she said, willing him to accept this. His fingers dug into her arms.
“‘I don’t remember’ what?” he said, smiling maliciously.
“I don’t remember… dear,” she muttered nervously, hoping to appease him.
“Ye don’t remember one simple request. I told ye to make me breakfast, I told ye to have it ready, and ye can’t remember. What’s the use of having ye?” He started to shake her again. “Lazy. Forgetful. Worthless,” He threw the words at her, punctuating each with another hard shake, throwing her to the ground. She pulled herself back up again, creating a little distance between them and holding her aching arms.
“I’ll go get eggs for breakfast then, if that’s all right with ye,” she said, grabbing a basket and backing out the door. She stumbled over her own feet in her haste to get to the hen house. Margaret then retrieved a few eggs, calming herself a little before going back into the house.
“How long does it take ye? Hurry yerself, woman.” Margaret nodded to him and hurriedly began to prepare breakfast. He sat with his feet propped up on the table, watching her movements. She quietly sighed to herself. It was exhausting to take this every day, but she had made a commitment. She could take this, another nine years if she had to. It wasn’t like she could just walk out. He wouldn’t allow her near the money, so she couldn’t go far, and in a small town like this one, everybody talked, so they would despise her if she left. And then there was John, who would kill her if she dared tell a soul about what happened at home.
How she wished things had turned out differently! How she wished that she had never given into the pressure from their families to marry him. But she had been getting older, and should have been married five years before that. There wasn’t room for a young city girl with little experience to get a job, so the only option seemed a husband. John was steady and skilled as a crofter, working the land. And he had been handsome, yes, before she found out that his smile was not kind, but cruel, and that his hands were capable of so much more than farm work. The bruises they left stayed for a while on her arms, but they never faded from her mind.
She regretted every day not leaving when she had the chance. It would have been so easy to say yes to this handsome stranger who took such an interest in her. Yet she chided herself each time the thought passed through her head. She had responsibilities here, she had the house and the animals and a steady life. This was her home; running from the police with some man she barely knew would have been ridiculous. Terrible things could have happened to her out there, she might have died, heaven only knew what else. Or… she might have lived… and then what? If she ran from her husband, she couldn’t go back, and she couldn’t have a life with him, by any means. John would have found her, she knew that. And, she reflected, it’s no good to dwell on the things that might have happened. It won’t do the least bit of good. Margaret shook her head to clear all offending thoughts out before she brought breakfast to the table.
Afterwords, chapter 2
Margaret brushed a strand of loose hair behind her ear as she attended to her chores. The tabby cat brushed around her legs as she walked, so she slowed to pet him. The poor thing was getting old and it was hard for him to catch mice like he used to. He stuck around, though, and Margaret was grateful for that small blessing. The animals never judged her scars or her tears, they just cared for her, as she did for them. She swiped at an unexpected tear that began to trail down her cheek. She was busy, there were chores to do and no time for self-pity – and yet the tears wouldn’t stop. Margaret tried to breathe deeply, tried to control herself, but the more attempts she made, the worse it became. She sat down in her corner of the barn, the one she always came to, sobs shaking her shoulders.
As the tears gradually subsided, she thanked the heavens that it had happened during her chores. These fits came more frequently now, but heaven forbid they should ever happen in front of her husband. She had made the mistake of crying in front of John before; it had happened too many times. She got better at controlling it as the years went by, making herself hold the emotions back until she had some time alone. But now she couldn’t stop them as easily, and she hated that. She hated being weak, being controlled, being helpless, but she couldn’t do a thing about it. Well, she could stop crying and get back to work. Margaret started to stand, but heard the rustle of paper under the hay. She wiped her cheeks, a hundred old memories bursting in her mind. Against her better judgment, she pulled out the newspapers hidden there.
One was from August, 1935. The front page showed a handsome face with dark, wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and a very attractive pencil moustache. MURDER IN PORTLAND PLACE, read the title. The article told the events of a date nearly four years previously, when Richard Hannay had supposedly murdered an unnamed woman in his flat in London. It had led to him running from the police, chasing after some secret organization called The Thirty-Nine Steps. It turned out later that he had been innocent all along. Richard Hannay had saved the world, it seemed.
This was the topic of the second article. RICHARD HANNAY – CLEARED! The news had spread around the world. He was given awards, money, a visit from the king! He seemed happy. Margaret had contented herself with those two papers for a long while. She was never mentioned in them, but he was happy, which made her glad. But then the third paper had arrived, a year later. ANNIVERSARY OF HERO’S VICTORY – a spotlight article about Richard Hannay, August, 1936. He got married, it seemed, to a young, ravishing journalist: “Wouldn’t have made it without her,” he said, smiling at her in that black-and-white, perfect smile. And their son, he was perfect, of course, a beautiful little boy, a shock of dark hair, just like his father. Mr. Hannay had everything, a perfect ending to an adventure story. She was happy for him, of course. Happy that he had got what he wanted. Margaret McTyte was, indeed, happy. Of course.
In a sudden moment of anger, she crumpled the last paper. He promised, she thought, throwing it down on the ground. He promised, she thought, kicking hay over it, that he wouldn’t forget me. “Never,” he said, “I’ll never forget you” and… and… Margaret balled her fists, and then slowly uncurled them. It’s not his fault, she thought. He did what he needed to, so can I. And right now, what I need to do is to finish my chores before I get shouted at.
With firm resolve, she finished covering the paper and returned to work.
© Anjoli Samudio, 2015
Part 1: Steps to inspiration | 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.