“The 39 Steps”. A British Film Guide

Mark Glancy,
“The 39 Steps”. A British Film Guide.
London: I.B. Tauris, 2002
ISBN : 1 860 64614 X
£12.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by I.B Tauris)

The author of this often stimulating monograph is a lecturer in History and Film at Queen Mary, University of London. Indirectly at least, his “guide” owes a debt to Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho” (London, Boyars, 1990) which was something of a trail-blazer in covering all aspects of a film from background and pre-production to reception and legacy. Rebello, though, had access to people still living who had been connected with the film, and he went out and interviewed them. The result was a particularly lively book reinforced by its author’s writerly skills and his insight into what would, and would not, “play” on the screen (apparent, for example, in Rebello’s discussion of the original Psycho script by one James Cavanagh). Glancy’s monograph is quieter, and with just the author’s scholarship and powers of description to carry it. He has found out, for example, that even as filming of The 39 Steps (1935) began, the script was unfinished and there was speculation that the film’s climax might take place on Big Ben rather than at the London Palladium (36). Shades of the British Museum climax of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929)!

For me, a highlight of the monograph is Glancy’s comments on Hitchcock’s alleged misogyny. He notes of The 39 Steps:

Much has been written about the rough treatment that Madeleine Carroll received while filming the scene set on the Scottish moors at night. Her character is dragged along in handcuffs by [Robert] Donat, pushed behind a waterfall, over a stream, through fences and so on until she is exhausted and bedraggled. (38)
Glancy points out that the film’s official press book played up the alleged harsh treatment of the actress: her “golden hair and beautiful clothes” got ruined; her “slim wrists” were bruised by the handcuffs she had to wear (83). Obviously someone in 1935 thought that all of this made good advertising copy! And to judge by results, they were right! As Glancy puts it, “the idea that Carroll was Hitchcock’s archetypal terrorized blonde has entered the mythology that has surrounded the director and his films since the 1960s”(85). After The Birds came out in 1963, critics such as Molly Haskell and Laura Mulvey were quick – indeed, perhaps too quick – to see in the earlier film evidence for the “excruciating ordeals” and “long trips through terror” that Hitchcock’s heroines might have to endure (97) [1]

In truth, I believe that Hitchcock fits well Keats’s argument about the poetic character: that it is essentially amoral and unprincipled, and capable of turning every which way. (This is exactly John Storey’s point about the novelist Charles Dickens) [2] . Consider Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). That film is all about its very capable heroine Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) blossoming into her true self and crucially intuiting the truth about the evil patriarch who is running “Green Manors”. If ever a film valorised womanhood in its fullness, it is Spellbound.

And there are direct links to The 39 Steps …

Certainly, says Glancy, “the roughness of the scenes on the moors was meant to strip Carroll of her poise and dignity, and to establish a more modern and less class-bound character than she had played in the past. … What seems to be forgotten … is that the indignities are a part of a story that puts both of its characters, male and female, through the wringer. Moreover, no one has suggested that Carroll was seriously hurt.” (38) All perfectly true! And Glancy supports the latter part of his argument with some delightful anecdotal evidence from the film’s set – which is good to have. I once advanced a position like Glancy’s to a professor-friend of mine, drawing largely on observations about the lady-like Carroll circa 1929 in Michael Powell’s A Life in Movies (1986) but I also suggested that Hitchcock may actually have sought to liberate British middle-class women generally, who in the 1930s were certainly much less “spontaneous”, as a class, than, say, their American counterparts or, for that matter, lower-class British women. But my (archly conservative!) professor-friend felt that the feminist theorists, such as Mulvey, couldn’t be overruled … [3]

I know of one piece of evidence that does go against Glancy’s picture of Carroll cheerfully accepting the treatment Hitchcock meted out to her. In the Melbourne The Sunday Age a few years ago, Dr Brian McFarlane wrote of interviewing Carroll and of how she had been less than complimentary about some of Hitchcock’s methods. For a scene early in the filming – I suspect it was on the train – the director needed a dismayed expression to cross Carroll’s face, something which, despite repeated attempts, she seemed unable to manage. Finally Hitchcock said, “We’ll do it one more time”. After consulting with his cameraman, Hitchcock turned back to Carroll and “exposed himself” to her. The resulting take was used in the film.

There I suppose you have the poetic character exemplified with a vengeance. In creating “pure cinema” – which I take to be ultimately about the nature of the poetic character itself, or something very like it, to which I’m coming – Hitchcock no doubt felt that the rule was, “anything goes”. He did after all tell François Truffaut that no considerations of morality would have stopped him making Rear Window (1954), adding, “[I]sn’t the main thing that [a film’s content] be connected with life?” [4]
That may bring me back to Glancy, for a moment at least. He suggests that The 39 Steps is about raising the consciousness of 1930s audiences in yet another way than the class one, namely, to the new threat from fascism. For example, he writes:

At nearly every stop on Hannay’s cross-country journey we find complacency and venality. It is a vision of a country without confidence, unity or purpose. (18)

What struck me on reading that was how well it fits, too, Hitchcock’s wartime propaganda thriller Saboteur (1942) [5] Accordingly, I would say that Glancy’s claim for deliberate political intent in The 39 Steps is reasonable. However, I’m less sure about whether he ever manages to suggest what is surely the essence of Hitchcock’s special form of entertainment. Despite some splendid description of individual scenes and moments (I can agree that there’s a Laurel and Hardy feel to parts of the moors scenes [6] , but the real issue may be why is music-hall comedy being evoked?), I’m left unsatisfied. Glancy’s analysis settles for telling us that, more than “a mere thriller” (79), The 39 Steps is a deft blend of political implications and entertainment, incorporating the “understatement of highly dramatic ideas”(103) [7] So it is, but there is something else again, I think.

If I had to suggest what Hitchcock hoped to give his audiences first and foremost – before any kind of “propaganda” took effect – I would nominate a palpable “quickening” of each viewer’s heart, mind, and senses. I mean this both literally and in an almost Bergsonian sense. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) was in the 1930s hugely fashionable, and The 39 Steps seems to me the film in which Hitchcock first consciously took upon himself the task of “shaking up” and invigorating his audiences, whom he characterised as “sluggish and jellified”. In an article at the time, he wrote:

[O]ur civilization has so screened and sheltered us that it isn’t practicable to experience sufficient thrills at firsthand [sic]. So we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this. [8]

Hitchcock’s words fit well the picture Glancy paints of The 39 Steps showing “a country without confidence, unity or purpose”. And when, on page 56, he speaks of Hannay’s “resourcefulness and speed” being established by the train scenes (and maintained for the rest of the picture), I see evidence for how Hannay and Pamela together undergo a “quickening” process that leads them to an intuitive grasp of “life” in its fullness, and to which the spies alone have been privy. (“These men move quickly”, the doomed Annabella had warned a sceptical Hannay at the start). Of course, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) provides the ultimate example of the process I’m describing. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant, in a Hannay-type role) refers to the desirability of “togetherness” and is finally heard to exclaim, in a pine forest, after a succession of breath-taking escapades, “I never felt more alive!”

“Life” in its abstract significance, or, more particularly, a life-death force whose counterpart, I suggest, is the poetic character, finds expression in the music-hall scenes that open and close The 39 Steps. Together they help define what “pure cinema” is about. The opening sequence is characterised by shots of the unruly, disorganised audience of East End Cockneys which breaks up into chaos after Annabella fires a gun as a distraction. By contrast, the audience at the London Palladium, in the West End, scene of the film’s climax, stays relatively sedate, even when another gun is fired. (Shadow of a Doubt [1943] is again a Hitchcock picture which designedly spans “East” and “West”, and it even includes a line of doggerel on the soundtrack to that effect.) But at the centre of both sequences is the tragic automaton-figure of Mr Memory, who knows only “facts”. He is Hannay’s opposite number, and he is used by the spies to smuggle secret data out of the country inside his head. Significantly, his signature tune, which resembles the famous “Cuckoo” tune of Laurel and Hardy, is what leads Hannay back to him. The allure of the music hall, of life and art at their most elemental and appealing, is what Hannay and Pamela finally respond to, and embody. [9]

Obviously there’s an irony here. On the one hand – returning to Glancy now – the film’s story-line relentlessly pushes [Hannay] into the thick of things, and as he becomes more engaged and dynamic, the cinema audience is increasingly encouraged to identify with him. (43)

On the other hand, despite the liveliness of Mr Memory’s signature tune, defining his music-hall status, he is a one-sided individual. As Glancy says, Mr. Memory does not have (or understand) the appeal of an Everyman (43). Accordingly, the final scene is full of pathos. Dying in the wings of the Palladium, that is to say, surrounded by life in its abstract significance (aptly, the chorus-line in the background are performing a number from the 1934 film called Evergreen), Mr. Memory seeks redemption, and the newly invigorated Hannay gives it to him. “Am I right, sir?” Memory asks. “Quite right, old chap”, Hannay replies. It could, I feel, be a moment from Luigi Pirandello’s Right You Are(If you think so) which the theatre-goer Hitchcock had almost certainly seen. The play received its first London performance in 1925, when it starred Claude Rains. [10]

Finally, Hannay and Pamela spontaneously hold hands. Something more than their handcuffs now unites them. Call it intuition. Thus the moment corresponds to the ending of Spellbound, set in “Green Manors”, where the aptly-named Constance, inspired no doubt by her love for the wrongfully incarcerated Ballyntine (Gregory Peck), suddenly discerns who the villain is. Equally, the moment corresponds to the pine-forest scene in North by Northwest in which Thornhill finally avows his love for Eve Kendall (and soon receives a sock on the jaw from a forest ranger for his pains – life wasn’t meant to be easy!).

Another likely influence on this final scene – Hitchcock was nothing if not creatively eclectic, which was suitably Bergsonian of him – is the moment in E.A. Dupont’s Variete (1925) in which the cuckolded husband, played by Emil Jannings, pauses backstage to watch the show’s chorus-line perform, and feels his age creeping upon him. Now, while Glancy notes none of these particular “show-business” borrowings (the ersatz Laurel and Hardy tune, the number from Victor Saville’s Evergreen, Hitchcock’s recurrent borrowings from Dupont[11] ), it’s fair to say that he makes up for it by noticing other influences on Hitchcock’s film, including Fritz Lang’s Spione (1928), W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934), and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). (27)

Staying with Glancy now, I do have quibbles with a few of his interpretations, but I probably need to discuss only one of them here. Glancy says of the Palladium sequence, in which a knockabout stage act is intercut with shots of the police encircling the building, that “[t]he effect is to suggest that the entertainment itself is causing disorder … and that the police are here as the agents of repression”(73). I see the matter somewhat differently. The point about the stage business is, I think, that essentially the same things entertain audiences everywhere, whether in the East End, the West End, or one’s own local cinema. After all, the poetic character itself is no respecter of boundaries and indeed is practically identical (being amoral, protean, “blind”, etc.) to the life-death force which the philosopher Schopenhauer called the world’s Will. (Arthur Schopenhauer [1788-1860], a major influence on Pirandello, is very likely Bergson’s most significant predecessor. [12] ) Causality, then, in Glancy’s usage, doesn’t arise, as both the stage entertainment and the police’s actions in the Palladium sequence proceed from, or manifest, the ultimately unknowable Will – which in a sense the whole film, and our involvement, have been about.

There are also a few things that Glancy should have been aware of. For instance, he complains that no copy of the film’s screenplay exists, just two dialogue-only scripts (109-10, n. 46), but this is incorrect. (For a commercial supplier of the full screenplay, visit www.AlfredsPlace.com.) And, despite my mentioning the fact in my Hitchcock book, and on the Web, [13] (and sharing the information with Charles Barr, author of English Hitchcock [1999]), [14]  Glancy clearly doesn’t know about the indebtedness of Hitchcock’s most famous extended sequence – when Hannay and Pamela are handcuffed together – to a novel! The latter is Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927), a comic-adventure story by none other than Anthony Berkeley (Cox) who later wrote the novel on which Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) was based. (The relevant chapter of Mr Priestley’s Problem is Chapter VI: “Adventures of a Pair of Handcuffs”.) Shakespeare had his Holinshed; Hitchcock had his “prodigious” eclecticism! [15]
[Reviewer’s note. I am grateful to Michael Walker for feedback on a draft of this piece.]

Ken Mogg,
Melbourne, Australia


[1] Both phrases quoted here are from Haskell via Glancy (97).
[2]See John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination (London and Boston: Faber paperback, 1979), 9.
[3] I leave it to others to discern the exact status these days of Mulvey’s theory of “the male gaze” as formulated in her celebrated 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16, No. 3 (1975), 6-18, and whose argument was later partly disavowed by her in “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Duel in the Sun“, Framework 15-17 (1981), 12-15. For what it’s worth, I have lately read this assessment of the position currently held by Mulvey’s colleague of Screen days, Stephen Heath: “In a sense, one of the results of Heath’s approach is to free a specific film text from being merely the exemplification of a set of codes and to allow it to be addressed in its particularity – not a particularity that is wholly free of pre-existing codes, but not one that is wholly determined by them.” Nicholas Tredell, ed., Cinemas of the Mind. A Critical History of Film Theory (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2002), 152. (Note: I don’t recall that Glancy’s monograph refers to Mulvey at all.)
[4] François Truffaut (with Alfred Hitchcock), Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 240-41.
[5] I have previously described Saboteur in very much the terms used by Glancy. See Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story (London: Titan Books, 1999), 82-83.
[6] Glancy, 68. An episode singled out by Glancy is the one when Pamela and Hannay become caught up in a fence.
[7] The quoted phrase was Hitchcock’s own when describing what he admired about John Buchan’s novel, originally published in 1915.
[8] Alfred Hitchcock, “Why ‘Thrillers’ Thrive”, in Sidney Gottlieb, ed., Hitchcock on Hitchcock (London: Faber, 1995), 109. Originally in Picturegoer, January 18, 1936, 15.
[9]To varying degrees, all of the other characters are denied access to life and art. One such character is the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft), pining for the lights of Glasgow on a Saturday night (cf. the music-hall lights in the film’s opening shot), and wondering aloud whether all London ladies are beautiful.
[10] Hitchcock appears to have borrowed the ending of the Pirandello play – its narrator’s mocking laughter, commenting on the assumption by some of the play’s characters (and its audience) that truth is simple and knowable – for the last scene of the sound version of Blackmail (1929), where ringing laughter is accompanied by the image of an accusing jester pointing at us, the film’s audience.
[11] I detect borrowings from Variete in at least three other Hitchcock films: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Ring (1927), and Murder! (1930). The very story-line of The Ring owes a huge debt to Dupont’s film.
[12] Cf. Robert C. Solomon, Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 108.
[13] The book reference is: Mogg, 78; my “Hitchcock Scholars” website at http://www.labyrinth.net.au/~muffin.
[14] In email correspondence, Barr agreed with me that Mr Priestley’s problem is very definitely a source for the handcuffs scenes in Hitchcock’s film.
[15] Pardon my joking reference to the film’s line about Mr Memory’s “prodigious feats”! As for Hitchcock’s eclecticism – a particular interest of mine – I note that Peter Ackroyd has recently attributed such a trait to the English in general. See Peter Ackroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), passim. For example, Ackroyd writes on page 448: “Englishness is the principle of diversity itself. In English literature, music and painting, heterogeneity becomes the form and type of art.” And so on.
Created on: Tuesday, 4 May 2004 | Last Updated: 4-May-04

About the Author

Ken Mogg

About the Author

Ken Mogg

Ken Mogg lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Alfred Hitchcock Story (Titan Books, London, 1999, 2008). His monograph on The Birds is being published this year as an e-book by Senses of Cinema. Website: http://www.labyrinth.net.au/~muffin/news-home_c.htmlView all posts by Ken Mogg →