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The 39 Steps (1935 film)

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Title: The 39 Steps (1935 film)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Alfred Hitchcock, Madeleine Carroll, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, List of unproduced Hitchcock projects
Collection: 1930S Crime Films, 1930S Mystery Films, 1930S Spy Films, 1930S Thriller Films, 1935 Films, Black-and-White Films, British Films, British Mystery Films, British Spy Films, British Thriller Films, Chase Films, Films Based on Adventure Novels, Films Based on British Novels, Films Based on Thriller Novels, Films Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Films Produced by Michael Balcon, Films Set in Scotland, Films Set in the 1910S, Films Shot in Edinburgh, Gaumont Film Company Films, Rail Transport Films
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

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
  • June 1935 (1935-06) (UK)
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 and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, the film is about a man in London who tries to help a counter-espionage agent prevent an organisation of spies called The 39 Steps from stealing top secret information. When the agent is killed and he stands accused of the murder, he goes on the run with an attractive woman to save himself and stop the spy ring.

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;[1] 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.[2]


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Adaptation 3
  • Production 4
  • Reception 5
  • Hitchcockian elements 6
  • Adaptations to other media 7
  • Copyright status 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


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.[3] 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 secrets, 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 bursts into Hannay's bedroom, fatally stabbed, 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 Rail 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 Anabella 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 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



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 [4] 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, James G. Weir commuted to work daily in an autogyro, and worked the aircraft into the film.[6]


It was voted the best British film of 1935.[7]

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. Towards 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.[5]:p. 45

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.[5]: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.[8] 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".[9]

Adaptations to other media

  • The 2005 West End and Broadway play The 39 Steps is adapted from both the Buchan novel and the Hitchcock film.[13]
  • In the Sesame Street segment "Monsterpiece Theater" Alistair Cookie (Cookie Monster) introduces the audience to the thriller film, "The 39 Stairs" ("By a guy named Alfred..."). Grover in a film noir setting climbs a set of stairs counting each one as he ascends. Once he reaches the top he finds a brick wall. Instead of climbing back down, Grover slides down the banister.
  • In chapter 10 of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye", the protagonist Holden Caulfield recounts the admiration that he and his younger sister, Phoebe, have for the movie: "Her favorite [movie] is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I've taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he's running away from the cops and all, Phoebe'll say right out loud in the movie--right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it--"Can you eat the herring?" She knows all the talk by heart..."

Copyright status

On January 18, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution doesn't 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.[14] Despite this, there are versions of film in the internet continuing to leak online.[15]

The rights to the film are currently owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.[16]

See also



  1. ^ The BFI 100
  2. ^ "50 Best Book To Movie Adaptations". Total Film
  3. ^ 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.  
  4. ^ Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo. p. 145.  
  5. ^ a b c Glancy, Mark. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide. 
  6. ^ "Travelling at the edge of space".  
  8. ^ "From Hollywood starlet to wartime angel". Daily Mail. Retrieved 16 February 2014
  9. ^ October 13 1996Vertigo,Roger Ebert, review of . Accessed 16 February 2014.
  10. ^
  11. ^ OTR.NETwork
  12. ^ Kirby, Walter (March 2, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 42. Retrieved May 28, 2015 – via  
  13. ^ New York Magazine 13 January 2006
  14. ^ "Supreme Court Takes "39 Steps" Back From Public Domain". 19 June 2014. Retrieved 27 June 2014. 
  15. ^ Rapold, Nicholas (14 February 2014). "Even Good Films May Go to Purgatory: Old Films Fall Into Public Domain Under Copyright Law".  
  16. ^ The New York Times company credits at The 39 Steps


  • 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

External links

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