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The 39 Steps

original movie poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Michael Balcon
Ivor Montagu
(both uncredited)
Written by John Buchan (novel)
Charles Bennett (adaptation)
Ian Hay (dialogue)
Starring Robert Donat
Madeleine Carroll
Lucie Mannheim
Godfrey Tearle
Music by Charles Williams
Cinematography Bernard Knowles
Editing by Derek N. Twist
Distributed by Gaumont British
Release date(s) June 1935 (UK)
August 1 (US)
Running time 86 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the adventure novel The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan. The film stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.

There have been four major film versions of the book. Hitchcock's original has been the most acclaimed, and remains so today: In 1999 it came 4th in a BFI poll of British films,[1] while in 2004 Total Film named it the 21st greatest British movie of all time.



Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of "Mr. Memory" (Wylie Watson) at a London music hall theatre when shots are fired.[2] In the ensuing panic, he finds himself holding a seemingly-frightened Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who talks him into taking her back to his apartment. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins, and that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the "thirty-nine steps", but does not explain its meaning.

Later that night, Smith bursts into Hannay's bedroom, fatally stabbed in the back, and warns him to escape. He finds a map of Scotland clutched in her hand, with a house marked on it. He sneaks out of the watched apartment disguised as a milkman and boards a train to Scotland. He sees the police searching the train and learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith's murderer. Quickly, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, the attractive Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in an desperate attempt to escape detection. She however frees herself from his unwanted embrace and alerts the policemen. Hannay jumps from the train onto the Forth Rail Bridge and escapes.

He stays the night with a poor crofter (farmer) (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft). The next morning, Hannay leaves, wearing the farmer's Sunday coat (given to him by the young woman), and calls at the house Annabella had marked on the map. There he tells his story to the seemingly respectable Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), who then shows that he is missing part of a finger. Jordan shoots Hannay and leaves him for dead, but luckily, the bullet is stopped by the farmer's hymnbook, left in a coat pocket.

Hannay goes to the local police, but they refuse to believe his story, since they know Jordan well. Hannay jumps through a window and escapes into the crowd. He tries to hide himself in a political meeting, but is mistaken for the introductory speaker; he gives a rousing impromptu speech (without knowing a thing about the candidate he is introducing), but is recognised by Pamela, who gives him up once more. He is handcuffed and taken away by "policemen", who ask Pamela to accompany them. Hannay realises they are agents of the conspiracy when they bypass the nearest police station. Hannay is handcuffed to Pamela while the men try to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, but he still manages to escape, dragging the unwilling woman along.

They travel across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While he sleeps, she manages to slip out of the handcuffs, but then overhears one of the fake policemen on the telephone; the conversation confirms Hannay's assertions.

She returns to the room and sleeps on a sofa. Next morning, she tells him what she heard. He sends her to London to warn the police. No secret documents have been reported missing however, so they do not believe her. Instead, they follow her to get to Hannay.

She leads them to Mr. Memory's show at the London Palladium. When the performer is introduced, Hannay recognises his theme music - it's the annoyingly catchy tune he hasn't been able to forget for days. Hannay puts two and two together and realises that the spies are using Mr. Memory to smuggle the secrets out. As the police take him into custody, he shouts out the question, "What are the 39 Steps?" Mr. Memory compulsively begins to answer, "The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of ...." Jordan shoots him and tries to flee, but is apprehended. The dying Mr. Memory recites the information stored in his brain, a design for a silent aircraft engine.


The film's plot departs substantially from John Buchan's novel with many scenes, such as the scene on the Forth Railway Bridge, absent in the book. Hitchcock also introduced a love interest into the film as the spy who enters Hannay's flat in the book is a man. In this film, The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organisation itself, whereas in the book and in the other film versions, it refers to physical steps, albeit located in different places and with different significances to the plots.[3] When in the film Annabella (who is a man called "Franklin P. Scudder" in the novel) tells Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland, Hitchcock is avoiding one of Buchan's wild, unexplained implausibilities: the way in which Hannay, with the whole country to hide in, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.


Hitchcockian elements

The 39 Steps is the second film (after the silent film The Lodger) in a line of Hitchcock films based upon the idea of an innocent man on the run, including Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).

Alfred Hitchcock cameo: A signature occurrence in most of Hitchcock's films, he can be seen tossing some litter while Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim run from the theatre at the beginning of the film.

Adaptations to other media

  • The 2007 West End and Broadway play The 39 Steps is adapted from both the Buchan novel and the Hitchcock film.[6]



  1. ^ The BFI 100
  2. ^ St Pierre, Paul Matthew (2009). Music Hall Mimesis in British Film, 1895-1960: On the Halls on the Screen. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp. 62–63. ISBN 9780838641910. 
  3. ^ Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo. p. 145. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ OTR.NETwork
  6. ^ New York Magazine 13 January 2006


  • The Great British Films, pp 24 – 26, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 080650661X

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The 39 Steps is a 1935 film about a man in London who tries to help a counterespionage agent, and is soon finding himself in one jam after another.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Adapted by Charles Bennett from the novel by John Buchan.
Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him. taglines


Richard Hannay

  • The idle rich? That's kind of an old-fashioned topic these days, especially for me because I'm not rich and I've never been idle. I've been very busy all my life and I expect to be much busier quite soon....And I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel. And I ask your candidate and all those who love their fellow men to set themselves resolutely to make this world a happier place to live in, a world where no nation plots against nation. Where no neighbor plots against neighbor, where there is no persecution or hunting down, where everybody gets a square deal and a sporting chance, and where people try to help and not to hinder. A world from which suspicions of cruelty and fear have been forever banished. That is the sort of world I want! Is that the sort of world you want.
  • [a flock of sheep block the road as the car screeches to a halt] Hello, what are we stopping for? Oh, it's a whole flock of detectives.


  • Sheriff: And this bullet stuck among the hymns, eh? Well, I'm not surprised, Mr. Hannay. Some of those Calvinist prayers are terrible hard to get through.


Salesman: [holding up a bra] Put a pretty girl inside those and she needn't be ashamed of herself anywhere.
Traveller: All right. Bring it back to me when it's filled.

Professor: Did she tell you what the foreign agent looked like?
Hannay: There wasn't time. Oh, there was one thing. Part of his little finger was missing.
Professor: Which one?
Hannay: This one, I think. [He holds up his hand.]
Professor: [holding up his hand] Sure it wasn't... this one?

Hannay: There are twenty million women in this island and I've got to be chained to you. Now look here, miss. Once more, I'm telling you the truth...I'm telling it to you now for a third time. There's a dangerous conspiracy against this island. We're the only people who can stop it - what you've seen happen right under your very nose.
Pamela: The gallant knight to the rescue.
Hannay: All right. Then, I'm just a plain common murderer who stabbed an innocent, defenseless woman in the back not four days ago. How do you come out over that? I don't know how innocent you may be, but you're a woman and you're defenseless, and you're alone on a desolate moor in the dark manacled to a murderer who would stop at nothing to get you off his hands. And if that's the situation you prefer, have it, my lovely, and welcome.
Pamela: I'm not afraid of... [She sneezes]
Hannay: For all you know, I may murder a woman a week. So listen to one bit of advice. From now on, do every single thing I can easily do, and do it quick.
Pamela: You big bully!
Hannay: I like your pluck!

Pamela: What made you wake so soon? Dreams?
Hannay: What do you mean, dreams?
Pamela: I've always been told murderers have terrible dreams.
Hannay: Oh, but only at first. Got over that a long time ago. When I first did a crime, I was quite squeamish about it. I was a most sensitive child.


  • Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him
  • The "Monte Cristo" hero...
  • The MAN who put the MAN in roMANce.
  • A hundred steps ahead of any picture this year
  • The Most Charming Brute Who Ever Scorned A Lady
  • Fated to be Mated with the One Man She Hated


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