All the things we love about Hitchcock are on display here: the unusual camera angles, unorthodox framing, the early death of a key character, the oddly comical bit players, and of course, the director's cameo (about seven minutes into the film, in this case). Alfred Hitchcock's films are practically a genre unto themselves. And like so many film legends, his reputation has actually become more deeply entrenched since his 1980 death. So how, you may ask, did said reputation come about? 'The 39 Steps,' made in 1935, is an early example of the Hitchcock style, and shows that his methods were already firmly in place.
All the things we love about Hitchcock are on display here: the unusual camera angles, unorthodox framing, the early death of a key character, the oddly comical bit players, and of course, the director's cameo (about seven minutes into the film, in this case).
The story is one of Hitchcock's classic 'wrong man' themes -- in which an innocent man is sucked into a series of unfortunate events -- that he refined in later features like 'North By Northwest' and 'Strangers on a Train.' Here, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat,) a Canadian working in London, befriends a woman (Lucie Mannheim) and takes her back to his apartment after a brawl breaks out at a music hall show.
Turns out she's a spy, and when he awakens the next morning to find her stabbed to death, he becomes the police's prime suspect, and goes on the lam through the moors of Scotland. By a strange turn of events, he winds up handcuffed to a woman who intensely dislikes him (Madeleine Carroll), and the mismatched pair continues his escape even while shackled to each other, with results that are often dangerous but sometimes hilarious.
This was the urbane Donat's first role after starring in 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' and a few years before his Oscar-winning role in 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips.' Carroll later made her mark in 'The Prisoner of Zenda' alongside Ronald Colman. But here their chemistry is palpable, with Donat's veddy British reserve cracking under the pressure of being hunted, and Carroll establishing the template for a long line of icy-cool Hitchcock blondes.
The real star, of course, is Hitchcock, who, even in this early work, is already a master of balancing suspense, comedy and intrigue. And what other director would give us a comic scene involving a lingerie salesman and a vicar?