1935's The 39 Steps is the film that really put Alfred Hitchcock on the map as a world-class movie director. With its mixture of classic Hitchcockian wit, dark (and light) humor, and suspense, it brought to the fore the man's genius and set the stage for many a classic thriller to come. Robert Donat is excellent in the role of Richard Hannay, a young Canadian who finds himself in between a rock and a hard place after his encounter with a young female spy in London, while Madeleine Carroll brings beauty, grace, and a sense of romance to Hannay's increasingly harrowing quest to not only prove himself innocent of murder but to safeguard the defense of Great Britain from foreign agents. All he has to go on are a cryptic reference to something called "the 39 steps," a name of a town in Scotland, and a warning to stay away from any man missing the upper digit on his right pinkie finger.
When the mysterious Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) invites herself home with him and tells him her fantastic story of intrigue and danger, Hannay doesn't quite believe her - until, that is, she turns up in the night with a knife in her back. Knowing that the killers are waiting for him outside (and also knowing how likely the police would be to find him guilty of the murder up in his flat), he quickly adopts the classic mantle of the innocent man on the run, desperate to ultimately prove his innocence. The journey he makes from London to a little town in Scotland is not an easy one, as Hannay finds himself running from the bad guys who want to kill him as well as the cops pursuing him for murder. Deceit and double-crossing as well as assistance from unexpected quarters keep things very interesting - particularly after he finds himself on the run yet again (after one of several narrow escapes), now handcuffed to the lovely and initially unsympathetic Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). The romantic element thus introduced into the film deviates from the original novel on which the screenplay was based, but it clearly strengthens the film, setting the stage for a most climactic conclusion.
One of Hitchcock's best-known British films, The 39 Steps doesn't prove as gripping or dramatic as many of the master's later movies, but the exquisite dialogue and direction do make for some memorable moments (none more so than Hannay's improvised speech at a political meeting, which definitely qualifies as a classic in my book), and the twists and turns along the way continuously ratchet up the suspense, with everything working in concert toward a finish that does not disappoint.