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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.