Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, has an innocent man on the run from the law and his nefarious pursuers, trying to unravel a mystery and clear his name. He’s pretty darn cool about it too. Despite being a Canadian, he maintains a British devil-may-care lightheartedness through it all. And he navigates some pretty racy situations as well.
He gets into the mess when an attractive woman bumps into him as the audience flees a theatre, and she asks to go home with him – she’s frightened. At home, over dinner, she reveals that she is a spy, motivated by cash, not patriotism. Somehow, she gets stabbed in his apartment, and he has to flee and uncover the murderers to clear his name. In the course of his run for freedom, he encounters a train compartment with two traveling salesmen of ladies undergarments. Then, to elude the police, he breaks into a compartment where the sole occupant is a pretty woman, and proceeds to kiss her passionately after begging her not to give him up. The cops are reluctant to interrupt their embrace, but finally do, and she…so unromantic…tells them, “Here’s the man you want.”
Later, by chance, he finds himself joined up with her again, by the wrists in which they are handcuffed. There are many amusing and sexy passages in which they must occupy a bed together, she peels off her wet, cold stockings, which he solicitously hangs to dry by the fire, and posing as eloping lovers for a credulous innkeeper. I thought this woman was married to a minor player in the drama, but maybe she was always an available love interest.
A few images:
After she turns him in to the cops, they pull the emergency break and he has a narrow escape on the Firth of Forth Bridge, “that marvel of Scottish engineering,” as he remarks in an off the cuff speech he finds himself required to give.
Holed up in a country inn, he tells tall tales of his criminal past. She begins to think he might be telling the truth. Could a murderer be so charming and funny?
Another Hitchcock climax in a theatre, but a little down-market from the Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Led away by the cops, the hero demands of Mr. Memory, “Tell us, what is the meaning of the 39 Steps?”
He replies automatically, and the denoument is almost done…
At one point in his flight, the hero finds himself in the wings of a theatre while a speaker who is expected momentarily is introduced. The chairman of the meeting mistakes him for the speaker, and to escape his pursuers, he takes the podium and gives a rousing political talk without knowing whom he is endorsing or what topic he is to speak on. [Surely, an acerbic take on Depression Era politicos.] The sequence is echoed, intentionally or not, but The Third Man, when the hapless Holly Martins finds himself spirited away to a literary meeting – at first he thinks he’s being kidnapped – where he has to speak about modern novels, something about which he knows next to nothing. And finally, I am reminded of the sequence in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie when the characters find themselves on stage in a theatre, apparently the characters in play before an audience, but they don’t know their lines.