Top critical review
"Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?"
on April 29, 2003
Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" is a rough template for much more superior efforts that the director would produce in the years to come. Yet this does not detract from the fact that it is still a quality film on its own.
"The 39 Steps" begins with Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) attending a show featuring the recall talents of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson). At the conclusion of the show, a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim) approaches Hannay and asks if she could accompany him home. Hannay agrees and soon finds himself embroiled in an espionage operation when the woman reveals her true identity. Matters become worse when she is killed and Hannay becomes a suspect in her murder. He flees and circumstances lead him to another woman (Madeleine Carroll) and a valuable "state secret" that must not fall into the arms of the enemy. The key to stopping its export is to figure out how the "39 steps" fit into the picture.
"The Wrong Man" premise that Hitchcock would employ later in his career can trace its early roots to this film. The "MacGuffin" also is here in the form of the state secret. What is not here is the thematic complexity, symbolism, rousing music, and technical sophistication that would characterize Hitchcock's later films. "The 39 Steps" is a simplified straightforward suspense film that amuses but does measure up to "North By Northwest," "Psycho," "Rear Window," "Vertigo," and "The Birds." It is an example of the first baby steps Hitchcock would take in establishing his cinematic legacy. However, it must be remembered that early Hitchcock is still better than the efforts of many seasoned directors. In this regard, "The 39 Steps" is not classic cinema but is definitely entertaining cinema.