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 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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