The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It is very loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It concerns an everyman civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organisation of spies called “The 39 Steps” from stealing British military secrets. After being mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland and becomes tangled up with an attractive woman while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name.
Since its initial release, the film has been widely acknowledged as a classic. Filmmaker and actor Orson Welles referred to it as a “masterpiece”. Screenwriter Robert Towne remarked, “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.”
At a London music hall theatre, Richard Hannay is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of “Mr. Memory” when shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, Hannay finds himself holding a seemingly frightened Annabella Smith, who talks him into taking her back to his flat. 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 information, masterminded by a man missing the top joint of one of his fingers. She mentions “The 39 Steps”, but does not explain their meaning.
Later that night, Smith, fatally stabbed, bursts into Hannay’s bedroom and warns him to flee. He finds a map of the Scottish Highlands clutched in her hand, showing the area around Killin, with a house or farm named “Alt-na-Shellach” circled. He sneaks out of his flat disguised as a milkman to avoid the assassins waiting outside. He then boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. He learns from a newspaper article that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith’s murder. When he sees the police searching the train, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, Pamela, in a desperate attempt to escape detection. She alerts the policemen, who stop the train on the Forth Bridge. Hannay escapes.
He walks toward Alt-na-Shellach, staying the night with a poor crofter (farmer) and his much younger wife. Early the next morning, the wife sees a police car approaching and warns Hannay; she also gives him her husband’s coat. Hannay flees. The police chase after him, using a Weir autogyro, but he eludes them. He eventually reaches the house of Professor Jordan. The police arrive, but Jordan sends them away and listens to Hannay’s story after ushering out his guests (including the local sheriff). Hannay states that the leader of the spies is missing the top joint of the little finger of his left hand, but Jordan shows his right hand, which is missing that joint, then shoots Hannay and leaves him for dead.
Luckily, the bullet is stopped by a hymn book in the crofter’s coat pocket. Hannay goes to the local sheriff. When more policemen arrive, the sheriff reveals that he does not believe the fugitive’s story, since Jordan is his best friend. The police handcuff Hannay, but he jumps through a window. He tries to hide at a political meeting and is mistaken for the introductory speaker. He gives a rousing impromptu speech—without knowing anything about the candidate he is introducing—but is recognized by Pamela, who gives him away to the police once more. He is taken away by the policemen, who insist Pamela accompany them. When they drive the wrong way, Hannay realizes they are agents of the conspiracy. When the men get out to disperse a flock of sheep blocking the road, Hannay escapes, dragging the unwilling Pamela along, as they have been handcuffed together.
They make their way across the countryside and stay the night at an inn. While he sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of the handcuffs, but then overhears one of the fake policemen on the telephone, confirming Hannay’s assertions. She returns to the room and sleeps on a sofa. The next morning, she tells him what she heard. He sends her to London to alert the police. No secret documents have been reported missing, however, so they do not believe her. Instead, they follow her.
Pamela leads them to the London Palladium. When Mr. Memory is introduced, Hannay recognizes his theme music—the annoyingly catchy tune he has been unable to forget. Hannay, upon seeing Professor Jordan signal Mr. Memory, realizes that Mr. Memory is smuggling the Air Ministry secrets out of the country. As the police take Hannay into custody, he shouts, “What are The 39 Steps?” Mr. Memory compulsively answers, “The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the Foreign Office of …” at which point Jordan shoots him, before being apprehended. The dying Mr. Memory recites the information stored in his brain: the design for a silent aircraft engine.
Robert Donat as Richard Hannay
Madeleine Carroll as Pamela
Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Smith
Godfrey Tearle as Professor Jordan
Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret, the crofter’s wife
John Laurie as John, the crofter
Helen Haye as Mrs. Louisa Jordan, the professor’s wife
Frank Cellier as Sheriff Watson
Wylie Watson as Mr. Memory
Gus McNaughton as Commercial Traveller
Jerry Verno as Commercial Traveller
Peggy Simpson as Maid
Matthew Boulton as Fake Policeman
Frederick Piper as Milkman (uncredited)
Ivor Barnard as Political Meeting Chairman (uncredited)