Alfred Hitchcock had a successful directing career in Britain that preceded his American super-stardom. Hitchcock fans rightfully consider the 1935 comedy-romance-thriller The 39 Steps among the very best works of the Master’s “British period”.
Robert Donat cuts a dash as Mr. Hannay, the hero of the film, who tries to save England from the threat of nefarious and crafty foreign agents. As in other Hitchcock films (e.g., North by Northwest, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Knew Too Much,), the central character is an innocent who is pulled into a web of intrigue and danger which he doesn’t understand. But unlike in those darker films, it doesn’t seem to bother him a jot.
“Did this beautiful woman just fire a gun in a crowded theater to evade her pursuers and then tell me that she is an international spy for hire? Well then, let’s go back to my flat for a large whiskey and soda and I’ll cook her up some haddock while she tells me all about it.”
“I seem to have walked into a political rally focused on I know not what and I have been mistaken for the distinguished guest speaker. Well then, jolly good, I’ll give it a go.”
“Am I really handcuffed to yet another beautiful woman as I run through the Scottish Highlands with people trying to shoot me? Well then, I wonder if she’s married or at least broad-minded.”
Madeleine Carroll, she of the other half of the handcuffs, is a perfect match for Donat in scene after scene of witty banter and growing affection. The sequence in which she goes from thinking that Hannay is a villain from whom she must escape to realizing that he is telling her the truth about the danger they both face is a clinic in how to convey emotion and character on screen with no dialogue at all.
Hitchcock has been imitated so often that when viewers see his films today they sometimes say “What a cliché! It’s been a done a million times before!”. Done a million times yes, but before, no. You may have that reaction to some elements of this movie. If so, be merciful: Hitchcock got there first, and no one who copied him later was as good as the original.
p.s. The opening scenes with Donat and the mysterious “Miss Smith” (Lucie Mannheim) was later parodied hilariously and affectionately by Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn in High Anxiety.