39 Steps, The (1935)

The 39 Steps (1935), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Richard Hannay, hero of several John Buchan adventures, picks up a nervous woman at the music hall and takes her back to his place. She tells of a spy ring and stolen military secrets. The next morning she's dead with a knife in her back (why is he still alive?) and Hannay is on the run, chased by the police while he chases spies in Scotland.

It's a cat-and-mouse thriller until he's handcuffed to a young woman who doesn't believe his tale. We move into a different type of story then, a romantic comedy thriller where we care more about the couple than the spies.

In a melancholy episode in the middle of the film we have a sad, lonely farmer's wife, the only person to believe Hannay and help him. This is young Peggy Ashcroft, last seen in A Passage to India (1984) 50 years later.

It begins and ends in a theater, just like the movie-goer. The show is part of the mystery, and the mystery is our show. Robert Donat is twice an actor: once as Hannay who is acting while pursuing his story, and again in playing Hannay for us. We have several instances of switching between the story and acting within the story, as when Hannay puts on another music hall performance at a candidates forum, and at the inn where the handcuffed couple pretend to be runaway lovers before becoming them in fact.

Hitchcock was often critical of his early films, but in the Truffaut interviews both men like this one. This is where the director says: "I'm not concerned with plausibility; that's the easiest part, so why bother? [...] A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow." Many good thoughts about relations with critics and audiences and the dangers of virtuosity for its own sake.

I don't remember much about the book. As usual, Hitchcock, a Buchan fan, picked out something that tickled him -- the double chase -- and wrote his own story around it. In the text the title refers to a physical location, and Hannay enjoys being on the run: he has a lively sense of adventure. In a later story he's a WW1 general.

Available on Blu-ray from Criterion, at best a modest upgrade over their DVD. The film is not in as good a shape as The Lady Vanishes (1938).

The commentary track has a film scholar analyzing composition and explaining why it's important. Also a bit of sexual politics.