Spy Movies & Real-World Connections – Part 1

Podcast Episode

Spy Movies & Real-World Connections – Part 1

Have you ever thought about how events in the real world and other movies could affect and work their way into some of our favorite spy movies? Well, think about it a minute because that’s what we are going to explore today on Spy Movie Navigator. Join Dan and Tom as they explore the unique connections between spy movies and the real-world impact on what goes into a spy movie! This is Part 1 of a multi-part series! If you have any suggestions on what to include in a future podcast, send them to Dan@SpyMovieNavigator.com

Many movies get ideas for their scenes from either other movies or real-world events.  Think about the jet-pack in Thunderball or the dinner jacket that 007 reveals when removing the wet suit in Goldfinger.  Were these ideas made up for the movie or were they based on real events?  Spy Movie Navigator is starting an on-going series of podcasts that cover scenes like these.   We will tie the scene back to either another movie or a real-life event of which the scene may have been based.

In this episode, Dan Silvestri and Tom Pizzato will examine the first six James Bond movies and look at the roots of some of their scenes.  We’ll discuss those two scenes from Thunderball and Goldfinger and also look at many other scenes in these films to identify their roots.

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HOW EVENTS IN THE REAL-WORLD AFFECT WHAT GOES INTO SPY FILMS – Part 1

Have you ever thought about how events in the real world and other movies could affect and work their way into some of our favorite spy movies?  Well, think about it a minute because that’s what we are going to explore today on Spy Movie Navigator.  (MUSIC) 

Hi, this is Dan Silvestri and Tom Pizzato at Spy Movie Navigator.com – the Worldwide Community of Spy Movie Fans – Spy Movie podcasts, videos, discussions and more! 

Let’s start by looking at some of the Bond films –  the biggest success franchise in all of spy films and a few others. 

The first real fact is, of course, Ian Fleming got the name James Bond from one of his favorite books, Birds of the West Indies, by…. James Bond. 

Dr. No was written in 1957 by Ian Fleming, published in 1958, and was his 6th James Bond novel.   The movie Dr. No, EON Production’s first Bond movie, came out in 1962.   So, here is the first instance the real world affecting this spy movie: 

  1. By 1962, both the Soviet Union and the USA were launching astronauts into space, so far ahead of the theme in the novel where the USA was launching test missiles.   In the novel, Dr. No says he is working with the Russians to disrupt American test missiles, in the movie, he is disrupting American space flights.  Also, in the movie both the East and the West have rejected his services, and so he is a member of SPECTRE Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), and not working with the Russians.  The cold war between Russia (the Soviet Union) and the US in real life was heating up by the time the movie came out, so here, the movie was influenced by real world happenings.   
  1. And, in a subtle nod to life happening,  the painting of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya was stolen August 21st, 1961 from the National Gallery in London.   It was still missing when EON Productions was filming Dr. No.  So,  In Dr. No, when Bond is in Dr. No’s lair, he walks through the lair about to step up a couple of steps, stops and looks at a painting on an easel – it is the Duke of Wellington!  So, if you are watching Dr. No and don’t realize the painting he stops to look at is this real-life stolen Duke of Wellington, you just think, ah Bond finds that painting interesting.   Once you know the reallife incident, then this adds a brilliant glow to this scene, where the writers for EON Productions were indeed very clever and inventive.   By the way, the painting was eventually recovered in real-life and now hangs in Gallery A at the National Gallery in London once again – we saw it there while visiting Gallery # 24 where in SPECTRE, Bond meets the new Q. 

From Russia With Love – 1963 – released in 1963 by EON Productions as their second James Bond film, and Ian Fleming’s 5th James Bond novel published in 1957 (the year the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite), was heavily influenced by the times – and the Cold War.   The tensions between the US and the Soviets was at an all-time high.  Remember, the Cuban Missile Crisis (the showdown between Russia and the US) was in October 1962, the year EON was filming From Russia With Love.  So, once again, EON Productions was brilliant in their release of From Russia With Love! 

  • In addition, check out the book,  “For Your Eyes Only – Ian Fleming + James Bond” by Ben Macintyre.  Here he tells of the attempt to murder Bond on the Orient Express by SMERSH was based on a US Naval attaché in Romania, Eugene Karp, who was more than likely trying to escape from Russian agents.  He boarded the Orient Express in Bucharest in February 1950, and his body was found in a railway tunnel near Salzburg.  It was never proven the Soviet assassins did it, but it is highly probable.      
  • Even SMERSH is from the Russian Smyert Shpionam = “death to spies” – and we will see this is The Living Daylights 

 

 

Goldfinger – 1964 released in 1964 by EON Productions as their third James Bond film, based on Ian Fleming’s 7th novel of the same name, published in 1959.  In the pre-title sequence in the movie (not written in the novel) is James Bond in a wet/dry suit emerging from the water, setting explosives, and then removing his wetsuit (really a dry suit) to reveal a perfectly neat and crisp white dinner jacket, bow tie etc.    Ah, you are thinking like we were thinking – what is the chance of that really happening or being able to happen?!   

Well, let’s talk to MI6 about a similar WW-II operation!  In an article by David Harrison in April 2010 for The Telegraph, he reveals that a Jeremy Duns,  a British writer, was researching a new book.  He found out that a Dutch spy used a very similar technique to infiltrate a German-occupied mansion in the Netherlands during WW-II  From the water, he emerged in a wetsuit.  Underneath this specially designed wetsuit, he wore the evening wear.  His evening wear would make him look like he belonged, and he could slip past the guards into the party.   He was supposed to extract two comrades and escape.   Well, Jeremy Duns thinks that a Brit screenwriter, Paul Dehn, who was called in to polish up the Goldfinger script, knew about this WW-II incident, because he was a former intelligence officer in WW-II.  Hmm!   The original script did not have this scene, and, as said, it was not in the novel.     He feels it is too much of a coincidence that this scene was written into the screenplay by Paul Dehn, who most certainly was aware of this WW-II operation!  True real-life incident put into the movie! 

Skipping ahead, at the point in the film where Bond is captured by Goldfinger’s henchmeafter another great car chase scene, Bond finds himself strapped to a metal table, as Goldfinger is about to demonstrate his new toy – a laser beam.  Here in the film, the laser beam is directed at the base of the table and is guided to rise-up between Bond’s legs, into his crotch and eventually kill him.   In the book by Fleming, published March 23 1959, there were no lasers yet – and so this device was a table saw.   The laser was not invented until 1960.   The first working laser was built on May 16, 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories based on the theoretical work of Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow.   The term laser came to be an  acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”   Again, EON Productions was brilliant at integrating a real-life happening, the invention of the laser, into this film which was being shot in 1963 for release in 1964.  And at the time, this was a very high-tech scene in Goldfinger!  We cannot think of another film of any kind using a laser before Goldfinger, so here is another first for EON Productions!   

This scene is famous the world-over for the laser, and for the dialogue: Bond: “ You expect me to talk?”  Goldfinger” “No, Mr. Bond I expect you to die!”   

   

 

Thunderball – 1965 Thunderball was Ian Fleming’s 9th James Bond novel, published in 1961, and EON Production’s 4th James Bond 007 movie, which opened in 1965.   Thunderball probably would have been the first movie produced but there were some copyright issues that were delayed in settlement.  Kevin McClory and Fleming had worked on a script that never made it to production.   Fleming used part of it for Thunderball, and eventually a settlement was reached.  Thunderball is the only early EON production  movie where the producers are not listed as “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  Here they are listed as Executive Producers (which is a lesser status) and McClory is listed as the producer.   Also, McClory got the right to produce his own James Bond film based on his Thunderball contributions and eventually did Never Say Never Again which is basically the same story.   

But we digress!   In Thunderball, SPECTRE is at it again.  So, we get away from the US versus the Soviet Union and have this other entity as the enemy again.   Remember in Dr. No we were introduced to SPECTRE.   

Of course, by 1961 when the novel was published, we had lots of atomic bombs in the world, and there was an arms race between the Soviet Union and the US.  So, atomic weapons were on everyone’s minds.    

  1. The basis of this story is based in real life – people were worried about a nuclear war and atomic weapons.   Here, two atomic weapons are hijacked by SPECTRE who threaten to destroy a major city either in the US or in the United Kingdom.  So even though EON Productions did not make this their first Bond film, in 1965 the world was very aware of the threat from major powers building up supplies of nuclear weapons.    So, the topic was hot. 
  1. The sky hook, which recovers Bond and Domino at the end, is an actual real-life device developed by Robert Fulton for the CIA in the 1950s.  By letting up a line from the ground with a self-inflating balloon, a specially equipped plane can fly by and scoop up the line and the one or two personnel it was designed to retrieve.  Cool!  A real-life gadget at the time.   
  1. In 1956, a Soviet cruiser came to Britain, with Nikita Khrushchev on a state visit to Britain.   He was the former Premiere of the Soviet Union.  It was also in 1956 where, Khrushchev said: We will bury you” while addressing Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956.  So Soviet/Western relations were not good.   So on this visit to Britain, Britain wanted to get a look at this new Soviet ship – some reports say to examine for mine-laying hatches, or sonar equipment, and other reports, like from Peter Wright’s book, “Spycatcher,”  Britain’s Naval Intelligence  wanted information on the potential new propeller system this ship had.  So MI6 sent a scuba diver down (actually, two were reported as being sent) and one was a great diver, Lionel Crabb.  Crabb never returned from this mission, and a headless, handless body was found 14 months later dressed in the scuba gear he had worn on that date (April 15 1956).  MI6 covered up the mission, saying Crabb was lost in some underwater exercise.   Many theories floated about, one being that Soviet sentries were stationed underwater to guard the ship, caught Crabb, cut his air hose and brought him aboard and he later died.  Other theories say he was shot underwater by a Soviet sniper.   

Now, you will remember in Thunderball, Bond is sent to inspect the hull of the Disco Volante, Largo the villain’s boat.  Bond is discovered too by Largos frogmen, as Bond was taking photos of the hull to determine if there was an underwater hatch.   Bond, more luck than Crabb, escapes.  The photos showed an underwater hatch which leeds Bond to think Largo’s entire operation (the theft of the plane carrying to nuclear missiles) might be underwater – including the plane that was hijacked.  Is there a connection between the Crabb event and these scenes in Thunderball?  The MI6 officer in charge of the Lionel Crabb underwater deployment and mission was Nicholas Elliott – a friend of Fleming’s! 

  1. In the 1958 movie, Silent Enemy(based on a true story) – 2 British battleships are sunk in Alexandria by explosives set under their hulls.  The explosives, in real life, were being set by Italian scuba-divers, who were launched from a submarine using what they called, “underwater chariots” – which in Thunderball and other spy movies to come – were the underwater sleds used to transport the bombs, get divers to certain locations underwater, etc.!  In real life, they were using these underwater chariots to bring frogmen to the British ships where they would attach torpedoes and mines.  The British had to figure this out and stop it – and here, Lionel Crabb (who we mentioned earlier) was in charge of the operation to infiltrate the enemy shipdestroy their capabilities of continuing to blow up British ships!   So, in this movie we see real-life events.  Of course, we see in The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg’s (the villain) ship, the “Liparus,” has underwater bow hatches that capture the Soviet and US submarines (with nuclear weapons aboard).   

In the same movie, Silent EnemyALSO, there is a great underwater battle of frogmen, cutting breathing hoses and more – just like in Thunderball and additional spy movies to come.   The Thunderball underwater scenes, filmed in the Bahamas, were set the standard for future underwater battles, and the potential connections to real-life events from World War 2 makes Thunderball underwater hull investigations, and underwater battles with frogmen and underwater sleds even more grounded in reality.   

Also in Thunderball, the jet pack, was real and flown by Bill Suiter, who demanded using a helmet which is why Sean Connery as Bond puts on a helmet when he takes off.   

  1. Though the movie came out in 1965, Fleming’s 9th novel was published in 1961.  And it foreshadowed the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the US Florida cities (like Miami, Cape Canaveral etc).  

 

You Only Live Twice – 1967 Ian Fleming’s 12th novel published in 1964 (counting the For Your Eyes Only collection of short stories, and it’s the last novel published before his death), and EON Production’s 5th James Bond 007 film which opened in 1967.  The movie has little to do with the actual novel.   Here, the beginning of the movie depicts the death of James Bond, complete with obituary in the newspapers.   There is a burial at sea for Commander Bond, and when the body sinks to the bottom of the ocean, scuba divers retrieve the body and bring it to the awaiting submarine where it is taken aboard, the wrappings open, only to reveal a live James Bond who quips, “Request permission to come aboard, Sir.” 

Thank God Bond is alive – we were worried, right?   His death was faked to throw off the enemy .  Of course, that means they knew who James Bond was, which is often the case, but that’s another podcast! 

  1. The faked death of spies is definitely grounded in reality.  Google Arkady Babchenko, faked his own death because being very critical of Vladimir Putin, he was certain that he would be killed by the KGB.  In a huge real-life situation in World War-II, Operation Mincemeat (Google it!) the Allies floated the body of a dead man with fake papers identifying him as a Captain who the Germans had been tracking. With papers indicating an invasion of Sardinia Italy and Greece instead of Sicily, to mislead the Germans.  Some stories say the fictitious name of the dead man was Captain William Martin, while other reports say the Germans were aware of the supposed dead man and felt he really knew something.  Regardless, the deception worked.  And the source of the plan came from Rear Admiral John Godfrey and his assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming.    Yep!
  2. We all remember Henderson, the contact Bond meets in Japan and who has key information, was based on Richard Hughes, a reporter and double agent who worked for Ian Fleming at one point during WW-II.  Hughes did a lot of Bond-like things.  Hughes spent a great deal of time in Japan.   Hence, a great place to film this movie.  Google The extraordinary untold Japan story of ‘You Only Live Twice’ by Damian Flanigan, special to the Japan Times.   Great story!
  3. “Little Nellie,” the one-man autogyro that Bond flies to do surveillance in Japan was a real-life invention, developed by Ken Wallis, a Royal Air Force guy, in the early part of the 1960s.  The one used in the movie was modified, of course.  
  4. Of course, the Space Race played a part here too – the US and Soviet Union at the time were racing each other for outer space advantages and achievements.   So, SPECTRE capturing Soviet and US space capsules is a natural, given the times in 1967, two years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will land on the moon on the US Apollo 11. 

 

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – 1969 Ian Fleming’s 11th novel, published in 1963; and EON Production’s 6th James Bond 007 movie, showing in 1969.  The first Bond movies without Sean Connery, George Lazenby steps in to be Bond and to be bonded – married – to Teresa Di Vincenzo (Tracy) – played by Diana Rigg. 

In his mountain-top laboratory, posing as an allergy clinic, at Piz Gloria (Schilthorn, Switzerland  Blofeld is brainwashing young women to deliver a chemical agent that will stop plants and animals from reproducing- creating a tremendous food crisis.  The setting is spectacular – we have been to Piz Gloria about 10,000 feet up! 

  1. In 1968, there was an experiment done by the US Army at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.  Through a malfunction of a spraying nozzle, a toxic chemical was released and almost 30 miles away, over 6,000 sheep were found dead.   There was no definitive connection to the agent released and the sheep deaths, but traces of the toxic chemical were supposedly found on the carcasses.   So, draw your own conclusion!   So, when OHMSS comes out in 1969, chemical warfare and potential devastation to life through chemicals was very much real.
  2. The Soviet Union was ramping up chemical warfare research, while the US began to downgrade ours.  Again, what Blofeld was thinking was not out of the realm of possibility! 

 


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<em>The 39 Steps</em>

Podcast Episode

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, directed by Alfred Hitchcock is considered by many to the first spy movie ever made! If you came to our site as a Bond, Bourne, Hunt, Smiley, or other spy movie fan, you might not have seen this film. Join Dan Silvestri and Tom Pizzato as they examine how The 39 Steps, considered by many to be the first spy movie, has influenced other spy movies that came after it. We'll also look at what happenings in the real world that influenced this spy movie.

The 39 Steps, directed by Alfred Hitchcock is considered by many to the first spy movie ever made!  If you came to our site as a Bond, Bourne, Hunt, Smiley, or other spy movie fan, you might not have seen this film.

Released in 1935, this movie sets the table for future spy movies to come. From helicopter chases and train chases to pursuit through unknown lands, this film is a must for all spy movie fans!

Join Dan Silvestri and Tom Pizzato as they examine how The 39 Steps, considered by many to be the first spy movie, has influenced other spy movies that came after it.  We’ll also look at what happenings in the real world that influenced this spy movie.

 

Related Content

The 39 Steps

Hannay – Robert Donat
Pamala – Madeleine Carrol
Miss Smith – Lucie Mannheim
Professor Jordan – Godfrey Tearle
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Summary on Wikipedia

The 39 Steps, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, released in 1935, is considered by many to be the first spy film. So, if you are a spy movie fan, then we must take a close look at The 39 Steps to see exactly what this film is about, how it may have influenced other spy films to come, and what happenings in the real world influenced this spy film. 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.

A woman agent who has no affiliation with any country 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 film stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol.

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

More Details

The film opens in a theater, in London, where a man on stage is about to answer virtually any questions the audience may ask. He is, in a sense, Mr. Know-It-All, called in the film Mr. Memory, who every day commits to memory 50 facts in a variety of categories (science, history, geography, etc.). There is a haunting musical theme that is associated with Mr. Memory that sticks in Hannay’s head.

A man walks in in a trench coat and sits down. Later a woman is shown at the bar. The man in the trench coat, who turns out to be Hannay, asks how far Winnipeg is from Montreal – and Mr. Memory indicates that the gentleman is a Canadian. So, we see he is not a Brit. After a bunch of questions, an official-looking gentleman comes in (police) and there is a scuffle with a guy at the bar. During the commotion, Hannay finds himself face-to-face with a woman. After a while, she asks if she could go home with him. He says, “well, it’s your funeral.” Spoiler: He turns out to be correct.

They leave the music hall and go to his place, 122 (looks like) Portland Place: Portland Mansion. He has a furnished flat as he is from Canada here for only a few months. He asks her name: “Smith.” She looks Eastern European, has an accent – Smith? Ok, now we are a little suspicious of her and who she is.

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. She collapses and dies. Hannay does not know what to do next. The local police think he has killed her – it was in his flat. And he flees, remembering what she said about Scotland.
Not so easy to get out of his flat. The men are still there waiting for him now.

Hannay’s Getaway from his Flat – the Milkman Scene

Because Hannay is now being watched – and he does not know who wants to get him – the police for the murder he did not commit, or the people who killed the spy – he must devise a clever way to get out of his flat. The milkman scene is a classic, and we see other bait and switch scenes in future spy moves too, like in James Bond’s The Living Daylights where the enemy spy kills the milkman, then disguises himself as the milkman so he can get into the safe house where a Russian agent is kept who are defecting to the West. Here, Hannay needs the milkman’s uniform as a disguise to try to escape the two guys waiting to kill him.

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.
This is the first of many train scenes (chases, fights, key meetings) we will see in spy movies to come! (Just a few to think about: Secret Agent, From Russia With Love, Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, Mission: Impossible 1, Casino Royale, Skyfall, and others). Here, for the first time, is the original chase scene on the train – with tense moments, intense drama, and a man, Hannay, trying to escape from the officials who are after him, who think he killed the woman spy in his flat.

Just pay attention to the clanging of the wheels, the lighting on the train, the bridge, the pursuit – all part of the blueprint for future spy movies. Two gentlemen read a newspaper across from him on the train about the murder and how Hannay is wanted by the police. The police are aboard the train after a stop and are looking for him. He enters a compartment and kisses a strange woman, who turns him in – but later becomes an ally after a while. The bridge in the movie is the Forth Bridge in Scotland, which opened in 1890, and it is still around and can be visited. The foot chase on the train creates tension and distress. Hannay, while innocent, is trying to escape. The chase is a foreshadowing of future chase scenes and fight scenes on trains as we will see in Spy Train, From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, Mission Impossible 1 and others. His escape to the bridge, Forth Bridge, is electrifying and for the viewer, a relief. The train is stopped on the bridge as the police look for him. This somewhat foreshadows View to a Kill bridge scene in San Francisco for Roger Moore’s Bond. Here, the police re-board the train thinking Hannay got back on, but Hannay did not.

Wandering now around Scotland, he stops and talks to a man, and asks if there are any newcomers around – he says yes an Englishman, a professor, and yes, he is near the town that the spy was to go to. Hannay must stay the night at this farm, meets the man’s wife, who misses Glasgow where she is from. He flatters her. She seems to like him. This scene is important because, as Hannay reads the newspaper he sees that the murder has been traced to Scotland. He knows they are on him. The wife knows that he is the man they are after. In fact, she awakes in the middle of the night, her husband notices, and she tells Hannay the police are coming and he better hurry. The husband thinks they are making love, but he tells the husband the police are after him and pays the man 5 pounds. But when the police come to the door, the wife knows her husband will turn Hannay in. Margaret (she reveals her name) gives him her husband’s “Sunday” coat.

With police still in pursuit, he runs. A small helicopter is looking for him too – ah, remember we will see more helicopter pursuits in spy films, like in From Russia With Love! He runs and is running along a river – the Forth Bridge transverses the estuary (Firth) of the River Forth – so this is probably the River Forth, not far from Alt-Na-Shellach (now we think it is called Achnashellach) – a large estate that he was looking for.

Hannay finds the estate, rings the bell, asks for the Master, and says to ask him if he knows Miss Annabella Smith (the spy). He enters, the police show up, and the maid answering the door denies any strangers are there. Hannay introduces himself as Mr. Hammond and he is from Miss Smith. The people know about the murderer being in Scotland, so know he is Hannay and asks if Annabella was killed and why he is here in Scotland. He says she was coming to see you. That the foreign agent who killed her is headed up by a man who had part of his little finger missing. He reveals that part of his (Professor Jordan ) little finger is missing and that he is about to convey some very vital information out of the country.

He shoots Hannay, and he falls. Turns out the bullet hits the hymnbook that was in the farmer’s “Sunday” coat. Hannay escapes to the sheriff. He turns him into the police who have been after him. The other two men who killed Smith are outside the police station. Hannay escapes through the window. He loses himself in a parade and the woman on the train (Pamela) turns him in again and Hannay tells her to call England and Scotland Yard. She says no. She and Hannay are in a car being taken somewhere. It is a suspicious situation. Pamala and he are now wondering – and Hannay says I bet your Sherriff principal has the top joint of his little finger missing. Pamela overhears something that makes her believe Hannay is telling the truth.

Handcuffed together, Pamela and Hannay escape.

The police are still on his tracks as he stays at an inn with Pamela and they show up to ask the innkeeper about new travelers. But they are supposedly in the good graces of the wife and she sends off the police. Pamala now decides Hannay has been speaking the truth. Eventually, they make it back to England. The haunting Mr. Memory musical theme is still in Hannay’s head as he has been whistling it in various scenes. Is Pamela the first Spy Girl (ala “Bond Girl”)? If so, she is tough and self-sufficient, and a model for future spy women. Think Ursula Andres as Honey Rider in Dr. No.

For spy movie fans, this movie has continuous action – not the kind of special effects action scenes in modern spy films – but continuous action that creates tension onscreen and in the viewer’s mind.

The Theater Finale

Back in London, Pamela goes to Scotland Yard – she had phoned from Scotland (unbeknownst to us). Scotland Yard is not believing her. They want Hannay. She goes to the theater. They follow. Hannay is in the theater too. The tension is police are following her to get to Hannay. Hannay sees someone up in a box, borrows specs and sees a hand with the top knuckle of the little finger missing!

Mr. Memory is now on stage! Hannay figures it out – Mr. Memory has committed all the secret plans to memory and Hannay thinks Professor Jordan will get him out of the country after the show. Hannay is cornered by the police and he shouts out to Mr. Memory, ”What are the 39 Steps?” Mr. Memory starts to speak, “The 39 Steps is an organization of spies collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of . . .” and he is shot by Professor Jordan, who leaps from the box and eventually onto the stage (ala John Wilkes Booth) and is caught. Hannay: “Mr. Memory – what is the secret formula you were taking out of the country?” Mr. Memory: “The first feature of the engine is….renders the engine completely silent.” And he dies. The secret is safe! Hannay is innocent!


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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.  He is, in a sense, Mr. Know-It-All, called in the film Mr. Memory, who every day commits to memory 50 facts in a variety of categories (science, history, geography, etc.).    A man walks in in a trench coat – you only see the man from the waste-down purchase a ticket and walk in – much like James Bond will be introduced to us 27 years later in the film, Dr. No, at Les Ambassadeurs in London, when we just see his hands, arms, and chest before revealing his face. Then this man walks to a seat, and we see his face.   Later a woman is shown at the bar.   The man in the trench coat, who turns out to be Hannay, asks Mr. Memory how far Winnipeg is from Montreal – and Mr. Memory indicates that the gentleman is a Canadian.   So we see he is not a Brit.    There is a haunting musical theme that is associated with Mr. Memory that sticks in Hannay’s head.   After a bunch of questions, an official-looking gentleman comes in (police) and there is a scuffle with a guy at the bar.   2 shots are fired – we only see the gun.  During the commotion, Hannay finds himself face-to-face with a woman.  After a while, she asks if she could go home with him.   He says, “well, it’s your funeral.”   Spoiler: He turns out to be correct. They leave the music hall and go to his place, 122 (looks like) Portland Place: Portland Mansion.   He has a furnished flat as he is from Canada here for only a few months.   He asks her name: “Smith.”  She looks Eastern European, has an accent, hesitates and says – Smith?  Ok, now we are a little suspicious of her and who she is.  Later she says her first name is Annabella. She is nervous, thinks she has been followed, there are a couple of men outside.  She is pulling shades down, and telling Hannay not to answer the phone.  There is mystery all around her – and we don’t know why.  She admits she fired the shots at the theater to create a diversion because there were a couple of men there who wanted to get her.

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps - first spy movie Robert Donat Madeleine CarrollTaking 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 exactly 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 seen, like Bond in Dr. 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 on iTunes!

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The Death of the Spy

Hannay is sleeping, when he 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. She collapses and dies. Hannay does not know what to do next. He knows just enough about her to know he should do something to prevent this information from getting out of the country, which she alluded to, and that Scotland was going to be her intended destination.   Here, she dies with a piece of paper, a map, with a town in Scotland circled.   The local police will think he has killed her – it was in his flat, and he is a foreigner. And the two mysterious men, are still there.  Who killed her?  How?  Did she leave the apartment to find a map? So he must flee - head to Scotland?  And he flees, remembering what she said about Scotland. Not so easy to get out of his flat. The men are still there waiting for him now.  Police and spies after him!

Hannay’s Getaway from his Flat – the Milkman Scene

Because Hannay is now being watched – and he does not know who wants to get him – the police for the murder he did not commit, or the people who killed the spy – he has to devise a clever way to get out of his flat.   The milkman scene is classic.  We see other bait and switch scenes in future spy movies too.  Like in James Bond’s The Living Daylights where the enemy spy kills the milkman, then disguises himself as the milkman so he can get into the safe house where a Russian agent is kept who is defecting to the West.  Here, Hannay needs the milkman’s uniform as a disguise to try to escape the two guys waiting to kill him. He tries to tell the milkman the truth - there has been a murder in his apartment, and two mysterious men are waiting to get him next, but the milkman is not buying it.   So, Hannay makes up a story that he is having an affair with a woman, and one of the men outside is her husband.   Ah, this the milkman understands, and he lets Hannay have his uniform! This scene demonstrates Hannay is quick on his feet and can think of ways out of jams and pressure situations with relative ease. It is a great scene, with tension and some comic relief built-in, as the milkman calls to Hannay he forgot the empties!

The Trains Scene, Flying Scotsman

After escaping his apartment, Hannay heads for the train, the Flying Scotsman.   In this clip, see Hannay is aboard the train in the station, and two men are in pursuit of him.  But they stop as the train is pulling away.  Again, no faces are shown, and the camera focuses on their legs as they come to an abrupt halt as the train moves away.   Are they police?  The evil agents? Somehow, police get aboard the train at another stop, and Hannay enters a compartment with a woman and kisses her, then explains to her that she must help him and tells her his situation.   The police come into the car and ask her if she saw any strangers, and a moment passes and she turns in Hannay and says he is the one they are after.   Hannay climbs out the door of the train, hanging on tot he outside of the train enters in another compartment and starts running down the narrow halls to escape once again.   The woman will become an important player in the film. This is the first of many train scenes (chases, fights, key meetings) we will see in spy movies to come!  (Just a few to think about: Secret Agent, From Russia With Love, Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, Mission: Impossible 1,  Casino Royale,  Skyfall,  Mission: Impossible Fallout and others). Here, for the first time, is the original chase scene on the train – with tense moments, intense drama, and a man, Hannay, trying to escape from the officials who are after him, who think he killed the woman spy in his flat. Just pay attention to the clanging of the wheels, the lighting on the train, the bridge,  the pursuit – all part of the blueprint for future spy movies.  Two gentlemen read a newspaper across from him on the train about the murder and how Hannay is wanted by the police.  The police are aboard the train after a stop and are looking for him.   He enters a compartment and kisses a strange woman, who turns him in – but later becomes an ally. The bridge in the movie is the Forth Bridge in Scotland, which opened in 1890, and it is still around and can be visited.  The foot chase on the train creates tension and distress.  Hannay, who is innocent, is trying to escape. The chase is a foreshadowing of future chase scenes and fight scenes on trains as we will see in Spy Train, From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, Mission Impossible 1 and others.   His escape to the bridge, Forth Bridge, is electrifying and for the viewer, a relief.  The train is stopped on the bridge as the police look for him.  This somewhat foreshadows View to a Kill bridge scene in San Francisco for Roger Moore’s Bond.  Here, the police re-board the train thinking Hannay got back on, but Hannay did not. Wandering now around Scotland, he stops and talks to a man, and asks if there are any newcomers around – he says yes an Englishman, a professor, and yes, he is near the town that the spy was to go to.  Hannay must stay the night at this farm, meets the man’s wife, who misses Glasgow where she is from.  He flatters her.  She seems to like him.  This scene is important because, as Hannay reads the newspaper he sees that the murderer has been traced to Scotland.  He knows they are on him. The wife knows that he is the man they are after.  In fact, she awakes in the middle of the night, her husband notices, and she tells Hannay the police are coming and he better hurry.  The husband thinks they are making love but Hannay tells the husband the police are after him and pays the man 5 pounds.  But when the police come to the door, the wife knows her husband will turn Hannay in.   Margaret (she reveals her name) gives him her husband’s “Sunday” coat.  Her husband is a religious man, and his "Sunday" coat will play a significant role in saving Hannay's life! With police still in pursuit, he runs.  A small gyroplane/helicopter is looking for him too – ah, remember we will see more helicopter pursuits in spy films, like in From Russia With Love!  In the book, it is a plane that is heading toward him.  He runs and is running along a river  - the Forth Bridge transverses the estuary (Firth) of the River Forth – so this is probably the River Forth, not far from Alt-Na-Shellach (now we think it is called Achnashellach) – a large estate that he was looking for.

Professor Jordon’s House

Hannay finds the estate and 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.   He enters, the police show up, and the maid answering the door denies any strangers are there.  That's a clue to the audience only that perhaps Hannay is in trouble. Hannay introduces himself to Professor Jordan as Mr. Hammond and that he knows Anabella Smith, and is coming on her behalf.  There is a party going on, and Hannay is introduced as Mr. Hammond to a variety of people, including the local sheriff.    The people know about the murderer being in Scotland.  And Professor Jordan knows he is Hannay and asks if Annabella was killed.  He also asks why Hannay is here in Scotland.  He answers by saying she was coming to see you.   That the foreign agent who killed her is headed up by a man who had part of his little finger missing.   He reveals that part of his (Professor Jordan’s) little finger is missing and that he is about to convey some very vital information out of the country. Jordan shoots Hannay, and Hannay falls with a thump, presumably dead.   It turns out the bullet hits the hymnbook that was in the farmer’s “Sunday” coat.   Hannay escapes to the sheriff.    He turns himself in to the police who have been after him.   The other two men who killed Smith are outside the police station.  Something is fishy.  Professor Jordan obviously controls lots of people in this town, including the sheriff.    Hannay escapes through the window. He loses himself in a parade and the woman on the train (Pamela) turns up again, and turns him in again.   Hannay pleads with her to call England and Scotland Yard.  She says no.     She and Hannay are in a car being taken somewhere, by the police, because the police need her at the station to identify Hannay.   It is a suspicious situation.   They miss a turn that would go to the station they said they were heading to and Pamela, familiar with the territory, knows this.,   Hannay does not, but she tells the police they missed the turn,  Hanny figures out that they are not the police, but part of Professor Jordan's agents. Pamela and he are now wondering – and Hannay says "I bet your Sheriff principal has the top joint of his little finger missing."  Pamela overhears something that makes her believe Hannay is telling the truth.  Handcuffed together, Pamela and Hannay escape. The police are still on their tracks as he stays at an inn with Pamela, posing as newlyweds or lovers,  and the police show up to ask the innkeeper about new travelers.  But they are supposedly in the good graces of the wife and she sends off the police.  Pamela now decides Hannay has been speaking the truth.  Eventually, they make it back to England.  The haunting Mr. Memory musical theme is still in Hannay’s head as he has been whistling it in various scenes.  Is Pamela the first Spy Girl (ala “Bond Girl”)?  If so, she is tough and self-sufficient, and a model for future spy women.  Think Ursula Andres as Honey Rider in Dr. No. For spy movie fans, this movie has continuous action – not the kind of special effects action scenes in modern spy films – but continuous action that creates tension onscreen and in the viewer’s mind.

The Theater Finale

Back in London, Pamela goes to Scotland Yard – she had phoned from Scotland (unbeknownst to us or Hannay).   Scotland Yard is not believing her.   They want Hannay.  She goes to the theater.   They follow.  Hannay is in the theater too.   The tension is high, and the police are following her to get to Hannay.   Hannay sees someone up in a box, borrows specs and sees a hand with the top knuckle of the little finger missing! Mr. Memory is now on stage!  Hannay figures it out – Mr. Memory has committed all the secret plans to memory and Hannay thinks Professor Jordan will get him out of the country after the show.  Hannay is cornered by the police and he shouts out to Mr. Memory, ”What are The 39 Steps?”  Mr. Memory starts to speak, “The 39 Steps is an organization of spies collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of . . .” and he is shot by Professor Jordan, who leaps from the box and eventually onto the stage (ala John Wilkes Booth) and is caught.  Hannay: “Mr. Memory – what is the secret formula  you were taking out of the country?” Mr. Memory:   “The first feature of the engine is….renders the engine completely silent.”   And he dies.  The secret is safe!  Hannay is innocent! Again, this is considered by many to be the first spy movie.  And here we see an innocent man, not a spy, as the leading character in the movie, along with a strong female ally.   The photography is spectacular, the directing by Hitchcock flawless, and the impact on future spy movies is deep.   Of course, other Hitchcock movies will have similar themes – like North By Northwest, Notorious, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is a great watch for all spy movie fans.   The entire movie is available on YouTube.  We at SpyMovieNavigator would highly recommend every spy movie fan to view this film.  It’s less than an hour and a half long and is must-see for spy movie fans. From the book, “The 39 Steps,” by Mark Glancy – a British Film Guide – he indicates that in 1999,  The 39 Steps was voted 4th in the top 100 British Films of the 20th century – one of only three films made before 1940 to be on the top 100 list. It was an instant success in Britain because the stars, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol were huge stars there, and Hitchcock was extremely popular.  It did well in Canada too, and in the US was successful too, but it took time since it was in competition with huge Hollywood films of 1936. In the movie, The 39 Steps is the spy organization, and maybe the steps to build a secret engine, in the book, they are actually 39 steps leading down to a beach where the spies will meet – but it really does not matter to the story.   The film version, we think, is a lot more of a thriller than actual steps! As the first spy movie, The 39 Steps is a must for all spy movie fans.   It is a fast-paced story, that holds your interest, and prepares the way for many more spy movies to come.

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