From 1935, this Hitchcock classic tells the tale of Hannay (Robert Donat) whose life is changed when he meets a beautiful woman at a local music hall. It turns out she’s a spy working to protect national secrets, much to Hannay’s shock. When she’s murdered by people trying to silence her, surprise surprise, Hannay is falsely accused of the crime and is forced on the run to prove his innocence, and work out the truth behind the mysterious 39 Steps.
It would be unfair of me to complain about this being yet another Hitchcock film where someone is accused of a crime they didn’t commit, as I recently wrote about, mainly because this film came well before the examples I gave in that blog post. The profound sense of deja vu I experienced when watching this is therefore not the fault of the film itself, but of its maker, who insists on repeating the same theme to breaking point.
Ignoring this it’s a decent enough film with some well made sets, a handful of very good scenes and a reasonably intriguing plot. Although it suffers from tonal problems and is massively over reliant on coincidence as well as being weak on explanation. A tune Hannay gets in his head is important to the plot, but this creates problems for the tone of the film as a man wanted for murder is also happy enough to whistle regularly. It also has a number of completely absurd moments which may or may not supposed to be funny.
If a thriller was this sketchy now it wouldn’t be heralded as a masterpiece and indeed this is far less fleshed out than many of Hitchcock’s better works. It’s like a more loosely scripted North By Northwest on a smaller scale, so if you’ve seen that film, The 39 Steps will only disappoint.
Far from Hitchcock’s best work, this film suffers in the writing department from the twin grievances of implausibility and uneven tone, resulting in a film which is surprisingly unfulfilling.