The 39 Steps

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Taking the first step in spy movies, The 39 Steps sets the bar for all future spy movies!

The 39 Steps, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, released in 1935, is considered by many to be the first spy movie.   So, if you are a spy movie fan, then we must take a close look at this film to see The 39 Steps - first spy movie Robert Donat Madeleine Carrollexactly what it is about.   How did it influence other spy movies to come?  What happenings in the real world influenced this spy movie.  As in many Hitchcock movies, like North By Northwest, Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much – an innocent bystander is thrust into the world of espionage.  So, sometimes the star of a spy movie is not a spy!

Based on the novel by John Buchan, there are a lot of differences from the novel to the screen. Hitchcock pretty much said he ignored the book when working on the screenplay.  Yet,  there are still many key elements in the movies derived from the book.

In this curation (and in the podcast), we discuss things beyond the scope of the movie, and its interrelationship with other movies and events:

  • The first spy movie!
  • Mysterious opening with leading man’s face not scene, like Bond in No 27 years later!
  • Other movies mentioned: No; The Living Daylights; Secret Agent, From Russia With Love;  Live and Let Die;  The Spy Who Loved Me;  Octopussy;  Mission: Impossible 1;,  Casino Royale (2006); Skyfall;  Mission: Impossible Fallout; North By Northwest; Notorious; and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
  • The milkman scene, and The Living Daylights; A View to A Kill;
  • The train chase – the first significant one of many! Other films discussed with train chase scenes
  • The first helicopter chase in a spy movie!
  • Is Pamela the first “Spy Girl” or Spy Woman?”
  • “The 39 Steps – A British Film Guide” by Mark Glancy

Very much like EON Productions does brilliantly with the James Bond 007 movies, the books influenced both filmmakers.   As such, they take both major and minor elements from the book.

We have a podcast that discusses this movie in detail.   You can listen to it here.   Check out all our podcasts! If you use an Apple device, Subscribe to our channel at iTunes!

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In the book, “The 39 Steps,” the spies (who were German but can pass as Brits) are planning to assassinate the Greek prime minister, hoping to start a war.  But they also want to attain detailed plans about the nature of the British naval fleet.   So, that in case there was a war, Germany could wipe out British naval power quickly.

On the other hand, in the film, the spies (no nationality identified) want to get critical information out of Britain.  Information about the manufacture of silent airplane engines. In the novel, the evil spy organization is The Black Stone, and in the film, it is called The 39 Steps. In the novel, there are no female characters, but in the movie there are, with a romance too.

You can get a great background of the novel and film from the book “The 39 Steps,” by Mark Glancy – a British Film Guide.

The authors, here for “The 39 Steps” John Buchan, and for Bond, Ian Fleming, have some similar pedigrees as well.   Fleming served in British Naval Intelligence in World War – II.  And John Buchan, during the first World War, worked at the Foreign Office and War Office before moving to the new Ministry of Information.  There, he was the Director of Intelligence. So they both knew real spy stuff.

From Glancy’s book, he discovered that the character of Richard Hannay was based on an intelligence officer in the Boer War. In the novel, Hannay is much more spy-like.   He had skills like code cracking, escaping from the enemy agents, getting out of tight situations.  So, in many ways, he was like Bond. But this is like 1914 for the book, and 1935 for the movie.

In the novel, Richard Hannay was a character who first appeared in this novel, “The 39 Steps,” but this was the first book in a series of books with him as the main character: “Greenmantle” in 1916, “Mr. Standfast” in 1919, “The Three Hostages” in 1924, and “The Island of Sheep” in 1936.

In both the book and the movie, spies are killed in Hannay’s flat, are pursued by both the police and the evil spy agents, and are chased through the countryside. Certain scenes are virtually the same too, like the escape from his flat disguised as a milkman.

The brilliance of the novel, which becomes very Hitchcock-like in other films, is what Glancy highlights in his book as the “double pursuit.”  This is where the innocent main character s wrongly accused of a crime or assumed to be the criminal.  Therefore, he must run from both the police and the real criminals, here the evil spies. Glancy says that the “double pursuit” serves two purposes:

  1. “the tale of the innocent man who has been wrongly accused builds ‘tremendous sympathy’ for the man on the run” and
  2. “it means that the man cannot simply phone the police to solve his problems, thereby ending the story.”

As we said, we will see Hitchcock direct future similar “spy” movies like North By Northwest, Notorious and The Man Who Knew Too Much – all with a similar footprint.

So let’s get to the film, The 39 Steps!

A woman agent who has no affiliation with any country, is the centerpiece.  She is trying to stop England’s secrets of air defense from falling into the hands of some certain brilliant agent of a foreign power who wants these secrets. Not because she loves England but because they will pay her better.

This is what she tells Hannay – that at the theater where they had just come from, there were two men who wanted to kill her.  She and Hannay went back to Hannay’s flat. And he looks to the street from his flat window, he sees two men – waiting.  She tells Hannay that he is in just as much trouble as her now – and if he ever heard of The 39 Steps.

Their chief has a dozen names, and can look like a 100 people.  But the one thing he cannot disguise is he has the top part of his right-hand little finger missing. She wants a map of Scotland because that is where the man she must visit next is.

This films starts Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll – who were big stars in Britain at the time.

If you are a spy movie fan, you can watch the entire 1935 film on YouTube.

Always check our podcast page and be sure to subscribe through your favorite provider – Look for SpyMovieNavigator and Subscribe!

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Curated Videos:

  • The 39 Steps Opening Scene

    The film opens in a theater, in London, where a man on stage is about to answer virtually any questions the audience may ask.

  • The Death of the Spy

    Hannay sees Smith come into his room in this flat, with a piece of paper, stumbling, and saying, “You’re next!” She falls, revealing a knife sunk halfway into her back.

  • Hannay’s Getaway from his Flat – the Milkman Scene

    Because Hannay is now being watched the police for the murder he did not commit

  • The Trains Scene, Flying Scotsman

    He heads for the train, the Flying Scotsman. In this clip, we see the death scene, but cuts to the train scene – Hannay is aboard and two are in pursuit of him.

  • Professor Jordon’s House

    Hannay finds the estate, rings the bell, the maid answers the door, he asks for the Master, and says to ask him if he knows Miss Annabella Smith (remember, she is the spy who was murdered in his flat in London). 

  • The Theater Finale

    Back in London, Pamela goes to Scotland Yard – she had phoned from Scotland (unbeknownst to us).