Relentless, witty and ribald, with a locomotive plot so busy that I never remember all its stops no matter how many times I see it, Alfred Hitchock’s The 39 Steps (1935) opens, aptly enough, at a London music hall, where the audience is so rowdy that a fight breaks out for no apparent reason during a performance by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a precursor to the doomed protagonist in Borges’ great story ‘Funes, the Memorious,’ who strikes a triumphant bowling pose every time he answers a question from the crowd and follows it with “Am I right, sir?” In the audience sits one Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian, supposedly, with a smart moustache, and our hero, one of Hitchcock’s “wrong men.” In the hubbub following the brawl he befriends a mysterious woman with a funny accent, a spy, it turns out, who, wasting no time, asks if she can come back to his place. “It’s your funeral,” he says, and he ain’t kidding. All she wanted was some food and a map of Scotland, but she winds up dead with a knife in the back. What’s going on? Who knows? Not Hannay, but he’d better find out since the guys who killed his guest want him dead and all of Great Britain figures him for a murderer. So he gets on a train bound for the hauntingly photographed Highlands, a train he’ll have to jump off of, but not before having his first run-in with an elegant and opinionated blonde named Pamela (Madeline Carroll). She rats him out, but in Hitchcock’s universe ratting can be the first rung on the ladder to romance.
The Spanish word for handcuffs is esposas, which is also the word for spouses. Which provides another layer of foreshadowing to the key moment in 39 Steps when a not very smart cop decides to handcuff Hannay to Pamela (one of many opportunities for Hitch to focus his camera on hands). Marriage is generally maligned in The 39 Steps (Hannay convinces a milkman to help him elide some nasty spies only by telling the milkman that he’s an adulterer), but through the unintended courtship of Hannay and Pamela, which involves deception and trust, resourcefulness and mutual respect—not to mention a delicious scene in which Pamela tries to remove her stockings and eat a sandwich at the same time—it becomes something to celebrate, something hard-earned and requiring of an adventurous spirit.
Criterion has released The 39 Steps in a new, beautifully transferred blu-ray edition, stuffed with supplements, including another solid audio commentary from Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. It’s one of the great entertainments of its era, of any era, actually, and, especially when it looks this good, rewards repeat viewings.