Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps"

No spoiler boxes necessary, since it’s such an old (1935) movie.

Just saw this early Alfred Hitchcock movie for the first time in about 15 years, and enjoyed it all over again. A good dark comedy/romance/espionage thriller. I have a few questions, though:

  1. When Annabella Smith, the agent whom Hannay takes home, is stabbed and killed, why wouldn’t the bad guys just have killed Hannay in his sleep, as well?

  2. Why did Smith intend to go to a particular village in Scotland, since that is exactly where the top bad guy (the professor with the missing fingertip) lives? DId she intend to go there to stop him, somehow?

  3. When Hannay is on the train heading to Scotland, two men share a compartment with him. Try as I might, I couldn’t understand what they were saying (one shows the other the lingerie which is apparently his stock-in-trade as a traveling salesman, and they chat).


Just my tuppence, which may not be worth much as I don’t have the film to hand, but will check out the dialogue-on-the-train later.

The generally poor sound quality of copies of films made 70 years ago, combined with the accents that Hitchcock allowed/favoured/encouraged in those early films (think Peter Lorre in Secret Agent), plus the fact that he was finding his feet, means that some scenes are difficult to follow. This is exacerbated if the subject matter is arcane (eg Carruthers and Carstairs(??) talking cricket in The Lady Vanishes). Hitch is presumably trying to recreate a quasi-real world full of symbolism, and these dyads he uses create atmosphere as well as pushing the plot along. Weren’t the salesmen on the train reading the newspaper which had the headline of the murder of Smith plus the photo of Hannay?

My take on your questions

  1. Because this would have ruined the film! Hitchcock’s films are full of illogicalities. How on earth did Paul Newman outwit the Communists in Torn Curtain? Because of Julie Andrews?! Personally, I wished they had got him, so that the film could have been put out of its misery.

  2. I think the idea was that things were “pretty desperate, what, old boy”, so she needed to rush up there tout de suite. Of course, in films these days (and indeed then in real life), she’d have got back-up before walking into a murderous traitor’s mansion, but this was Hitchcock. It might be argued that in 39 Steps, the military secret is not the only MacGuffin. You could add Smith herself, the map she clutched and even the missing bit of finger. All irrelevant as the point of the film is a) to have a ball and b) to convey a political message (pro-openness, anti-totalitarianism).

As I say, just my tuppence. Perhaps a real critic will come along soon.