In what I first assumed to be a documentary on the origin of the 12 step program (England was apparently hardcore in those days, adding a whole 27 steps to a unfortunate drunkard’s hydration) I instead find Hitchcock adeptly continuing his fascination with the wrongly accused as seen in Young and Innocent. Major alterations are afoot however, with grand espionage at the heart of the murder and a vacationing Canadian at the center of a plot both personal and epic.
Our main character Hannay (aka nob, hoser) probably felt lucky when a beautiful yet mysterious foreign woman named Annabelle Smith abruptly asks for a visit to his home following a comedy show they attended. While he gets to know her and realizes the perceived pleasurable motives he saw were a facade, she delivers some minor information regarding her plight in an attempt to gain possible assistance and sanctuary. However, detailed information regarding this (or these) esoteric “39 Steps,” (some vital McGuffin that will soon leave the country of Scotland and is yearned for by evil-doers) is unfortunately not apparent to our lead when Miss Smith is murdered in the night. As is such, he must fight to clear his name when he is accused of murder by fighting to discover what the hell this invasive woman was talking about! Luckily, our main character (played by Robert Donat) can laugh at his dilemma, especially when running into a skeptical damsel who only adds to his turmoil.
As Young and Innocent seemed to first establish The Master’s association with the wrongly accused man (in that case not so obviously innocent), here we see that interest come to major fruition in a combination of his fascination with murder mysteries and espionage stories (the latter seen in Sabotage). What makes the film a pioneer in this aggregate field is the main character, locales, and light-hearted moments that add humor to the fairly dire situation at hand. With Donat’s Hannay we find a foreign vacationer visiting another foreign location in Scotland, where irony strikes humor due to the fact its simple denizens don’t evoke the malice provided by the film’s villains (though they do provide interesting obstacles/advantages for Hannay). Just as well, his antagonistic and brimming (yet happily not fully developed) romance with the previously mentioned skeptical damsel (played by Madeleine Carroll) gives a target for witty banter by our protagonist, who seems to have plenty.
Visually, the piece didn’t completely stand out, and I saw no phenomenal shots as seen in the previous films of the series so far, but it was still effective in its verisimilitude and overall consistency. If there were to be any nitpicking, it would be in the unclear actions taken between certain scenes: as Hannay is about to be taken away by police, he inexplicably escapes through a window, where the previous shot gave no such suggestion. While Hitch seems to generally work with a clear grasp on logic, there were a few moments where I questioned their believability.
Regardless, logic isn’t always vital and necessary here. The Master has proven again his grasp over the suspense genre by daftly combining elements from his previous films into this sourced story (based on an oft adapted novel by John Buchan). Anxiety rises to a point where all looks lost for the main character, but through wit and luck he escapes to continue on his mysterious quest. This is another common positive thread in Hitchcock’s filmography; he knows when to leave out vital details in order to make the story that much more enthralling.
Based on minor research, many film scholars regard this film as the turning point in Hitchcock’s career toward Hollywood. Based on the entertaining results here, it makes sense.