“It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with ‘The 39 Steps”’ – screenwriter Robert Towne (ChinaTown)
It’s a sentiment that Alfred Hitchcock, the film’s director, would surely have shared. He regarded the 1935 release as one of his favourite pictures. He even remade it (in a fashion) as North by Northwest, itself often regarded as the ‘American’ version. So what’s so special about The 39 Steps? It’s true that it introduced many of the themes that were to preoccupy Hitch throughout the rest of his filmmaking career, including the innocent man, wrongly accused, a too-charming villain, an inept police force… and The Blonde.
The blonde in question is Pamela (played to perfection by Madeline Carroll), who our dashing hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) first encounters on the Flying Scotsman. He’s there because he’s evading the police – wrongly suspected for a murder – and is off to the bonny Highlands to ‘solve’ the mystery. From the very beginning the relationship is tempestuous, so of course you know that means (*spoiler*) they’ll end up together. But part of the thrill in watching The 39 Steps lies in knowing how it will end, but not caring. Hannay, desperate to evade his pursuers, stumbles into Pamela’s carriage, where she is the sole occupant. The resultant meet-cute is one of Hitch’s finest, but Pamela scuppers her place in history by revealing Hannay’s whereabouts to Scotland Yard’s finest.
Pamela is introduced in such a way – the most provocative spectacle removal you ever did see – that it’s clear that’s not Hitch’s only role for her. She’s too alluring for that. That’s another quality The 39 Steps has in spades, although that’s not all down to Carroll. Hitch was a master at sexual in-jokes and puns and they abound here, especially in the later scenes where, for various reasons, Hannay ends up being handcuffed to Pamela. Unwillingly bound together, they are forced to spend the night in a hotel, masquerading as a besotted young couple. Both leads play off each wonderfully, with Pamela by turns furious with Hannay, then surprised by his caring gesture to dry her wet stockings off by the fire. His concern for her welfare always falls on the right side of chivalrous, even when he’s helping her out of her hosiery.
In a scene full of subtlety, the pair are forced to share a bed – an awkward and intimate act familiar with newly-weds everywhere (well at least at the time of the film’s release). Under another director, this scene could have reverted to stereotyped gender roles, but focusing on the unwanted handcuffs and the enforced bond, Hitch created a partnership of equals, where a man wasn’t overawed by a sharp and intelligent female.
Of course, Pamela is an ice-cool Hitch blonde. Although she’s not quite as frosty as some of his later creations, she shares certain characteristics with Lisa Fremont, Madeleine Ester et al. – notably a certain un-ruffability, which extends to her attire. Ill prepared for prolonged handcuff action, Pamela spends most of the film in a series of pristine blouses, one with an enormous bow that frames her face, pencil skirts and low-heeled court shoes. Pamela’s look very much set the standard for the Hitchcock heroine, although the director would refine his ideal in subsequent films Carroll was the first. Interesting, Hitch wasn’t convinced that the actress was the right choice for the role, initially concerned she might be too prim for the role. One anecdote suggests that Hitchcock prepared Carroll and Donat for their handcuff scenes (some of the first to be shot) by leaving the duo bound together whilst he attended to an urgent technical matter. He didn’t return for hours, by which time they had ample time to get to know each other, and were better prepared for the shots.
It’s interesting to note that female characters drive the plot of The 39 Steps, which was based on John Buchan’s famous novel of the same name. The first, Annabelle (Lucie Mannheim) is an exotic mystery. Hannay meets her at a music hall, and she invites herself back to his apartment where he serves that well-known aphrodisiac haddock, only for her to be shot in the night, instigating the hero-on-the-run storyline. The second ‘driver’ is Pamela (she also returns in the closing ‘act’) followed by Peggy Ashcroft, a crofter’s wife who persuades her husband to offer Hannay a bed for the night then helps him to escapes once the police appear over the Highland hills.
These drivers have the effect of splitting the film up into shorter stories, and indeed the mood often changes with each new ‘story’. The early mystery angle is replaced with a borderline-screwball / romance, but Hitch gets away with it because the lead characters are so strong. The plot is never surprising – ponder it too long, and you’ll discover holes to sink the Marie Celeste. Muse about the ‘meaning’ and feel cheated. And lets not mention the discussion about whether The 39 Steps is Hitch’s most misogynistic film. Instead, watch for the humour, come for the characters, marvel at the implausibility’s (think: bullets dodged by concealed hymn books) and stay for the wardrobe that maintains elegance under fire.
This post is part of the Madeleine Carroll blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. Read all the posts celebrating the life of this wonderful actress here.