Why Did I Watch It? I am in a bookclub and this was September’s book, so a rewatch felt in order.
Hannay is enjoying a night at the music hall, doubly so when he thinks he has picked up an attractive young woman. But back at his apartment, she reveals she had an ulterior motive; she is tangled up with a spy ring and her life is in danger. Foreign agents are going to steal British military secrets, she was on to them, and now they are on to her. When she is found murdered shortly afterwards, Hannay scarpers to Scotland, hoping to clear his name and thwart the villains.
One of Hitchcock’s first hits helped establish him as a big time director. The film is based on a popular novel by John Buchan, but Hitch and screenwriter Charles Bennett jettisoned most of the book’s plot. In the original, our man Hannay is a resourceful, rugged colonial type, an expert outdoors-man with knowledge of weapons and explosives. He leads his pursuers on a merry chase, and is always one step ahead. He is also self sufficient, which underlines his abilities and which proved to be a popular archetype; it is a familiar enough trope now, but one lone man versus a team was a new idea in 1915, which helped the book’s popularity.
Hitchcock would replace this with something different, which proved just as enduring. In the film, Hannay is just a regular guy, pitched by accident into a dangerous situation; a structure the director would return to time and again. This is essentially the proto ‘North by Northwest’, although Hitch made a bunch of others in the same vein. He would also add a female lead character, who would get dragged into the heroes plight against her will; in this film they are handcuffed together, and she is forced to tag along. I mean, talk about a movie plot device! You could make a list of films that borrow this idea, that is infinitely long.
While this film is not fresh anymore, it remains fun and lively, even after 85 years. It barrels along at a pace you rarely see in a contemporary movie; we know nothing really about either of the main characters – in a current version, for certain one would have a troubled backstory revealed via flashback – nor do we find out what secrets everyone is chasing after. Hitchcock is not interested in these details, he frequently isn’t, and so leaves these out to focus on a propulsive narrative.
Every scene leads to the one that follows. If the plotting isn’t exactly watertight, it is energetic, and a lot of fun. This is another way this film helped set a trend; Spielberg and Lucas would dominate the blockbuster era by making ‘B’ picture homages that only included the good stuff; sacrificing set up and character development for a series of set pieces. And ‘The 39 Steps’ is exactly that, only without the technical wizardry.
The bookends of the movie are not strong – although they are even worse in the novel – but this remains a fast paced and exciting piece of cinema history. A treat for Hitchcock fans, that still stands on its own.