The Hitchcock Universe: Thiry-nine steps and then some.

by George Perry

". . . in the dedication of The Thirty-Nine Steps to Tommy Nelson, Buchan said that his aim was to write 'romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. ' 'That's a pretty good formula for the thriller of any kind,' said Raymond Chandler when he read the passage."Janet Adam Smith. John Buchan: A Biography (Little, Brown, and Co. , 1965)

1 Let's start with a real pedant's quibble: Is it The Thirty-Nine Steps or The 39 Steps? Wouldn't it be cleaner/clearer if Buchan's novel was referred to as The Thirty-Nine Steps and Hitchcock's film was The 39 Steps? Unfortunately, critics and reviewers use both the number and the number spelled out when referring to Hitchcock's film. Foolish consistency, someone said, is the hobgoblin of little minds. But, I ask you, how does the title appear on the film? Isn't The 39 Steps the movie?

2 When The 39 Steps opened in New York City in September of 1935, Andre Sennwald reviewed it for The New York Times. He wrote: "If you can imagine Anatole France writing a detective story, you will have some notion of the artistry that Mr. Hitchcock brings to the screen version of John Buchan's novel."Why Anatole France, of all people, I wonder? Why not try to imagine John Keats writing a detective story? Or, Franz Liszt?And suppose I cannot imagine Anatole France writing a detective story? What then?

3 Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is the most romantic of all his movies. But what do we mean by "romantic?" Romantic, I think, means that when a handsome man and a beautiful woman are handcuffed together for a number of hours, neither of them has to go to the bathroom. That is one definition of romantic.

4 Dragnet, of course, is anti-romantic. "Just the facts, Ma'am. Just the facts."Going to the bathroom is a definite fact of real life but, as Alfred Hitchcock told Truffaut, "To insist that a story teller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representation painter that he show objects accurately."

5 My young son Matthew says, "Hitchcock likes trains, doesn't he?" The 39 Steps. The Lady Vanishes. Strangers On A Train. North By Northwest. The circus train episode in Sabotage. The list no doubt can be extended.Mysteries on trains are romantic because trains give freedom of movement within the movement. To be inside an automobile or airplane is to be trapped. Mysteries that take place upon the Los Angeles Freeway are most likely not Romantic.

6 A madman's thesis: Trains represent romanticism. Airplanes, classicism. Automobiles belong to realism. Bus travel is naturalism. Large ships are also romantic, as is the sea itself. The sky is classical. The earth is realism and naturalism. Am I going out of my mind?

7 Films almost always show objects accurately. Handcuffs, for example. What Hitchcock said about The 39 Steps (and quoted by Donald Spoto) was: "What interests me is the drama of being handcuffed." We might note, in light of Hitchcock's assertion that the sentence, "As the handcuffs clinked on his wrists I said my last word to him," occurs on the final page of Buchan's novel. (p. 126 of Penguin Books. It is a short novel).

8 Why must critics labor so mightily to give Hitchcock's works moresubstance than the films can bear? For example, when Rohmer and Chabrol discuss the final scene of The 39 Steps, they write: Here, in fact, Hitchcock shows us the mechanism of confession and how it works. Burdened with a bothersome and tormenting knowledge (it is absurd and meaningless: an incomprehensible physics formula) Mr. Memory, after having recited it as though he were vomiting it up, dies saying, "I'm glad that's off my mind." In itself, of course, this underlying theme is not enough to give value to The Thirty-Nine Steps, but it adds a precious stone to the construction of the Hitchcockian Universe, outlined in his very first film.

9 A number of points in the above quotation are open to dispute. First, Mr. Memory is not making a confession. He is telling the formula to a person to whom he has been assured it is all right to tell it to. The need to confess may well play important roles in later Hitchcock films (I Confess, e.g.), but not in this one. Memory's regurgitation is by no means a confession. Confession comes from the soul, not from the mind only. Confession is not regurgitation. It is a confrontation, a relationship, a discovery of one's self in relation to a moral vision of the universe and beyond. Unstuffing one's head is not confession.The need to confess is not one of the underlying themes in The 39 Steps.

10 Hitchcock sees Mr. Memory's final moments, not as confession, but as a man doing his duty: "The whole idea is that man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answers. The schoolteacher in The Birds does for the same reason." (Truffaut/Hitchcock)

11 But doing one's duty to whom? To one's self. Confession is doing one's duty to God. Dancers need to dance. Birds need to fly--(didn' t Cole Porter or someone write lyrics to that idea?). A man who makes his living by memorizing facts needs to display his skill.

12 The formula memorized by Mr. Memory is a meaningless to us (and probably to the world of physics too) but not in the context of the drama. We have to believe that Richard Hannay believes it is important, that our hero has kept important information from reaching England' s enemies or why the rushing about in the first place? The fact that we, the audience, feel the formula is only hokum adds comedic irony to the final scene--but that irony is outside the film itself. Dramatic irony always stands outside the work of art itself.

13 Just as we know right from the beginning that the Robert Donat/Madeleine Carroll characters are destined to fall in love. What we know outside the drama--i.e. that the hero, no matter how many times his life is threatened, will not be killed, and that the villains will be brought to justice--makes it possible to relax and enjoy what we discover inside the drama. That is why real life is very rarely a drama. We are, except when we are creating philosophy, inside all of the time.

14 Any Hitchcock fan who sits through The 39 Steps can see at once a prefiguring of key images, scenes and ideas that Hitchcock will return to in his later work. The notion of a group of spies carrying some important secrets out of the country is reworked to great advantage in North By Northwest. Richard Hannay trapped in a public political hall foreshadows Cary Grant in the art gallery. Why does The 39 Steps remind me so much of North By Northwest?

15 Do the corset salesmen anticipate the super-brassiere illustrator in Vertigo? Hitchcock and underwear. The basis for a new Ph.D. study. Janet Leigh in her slip and bra in Psycho. The rape scene in Frenzy. Etc.

16 The first rule of adapting a novel to the screen: Compress. Compress some more. Compress the time. Compress the characterizations. Compress everything. In James Buchan's novel, Richard Hannay's strange houseguest remains in Hanney's flat for a few days. In the film the houseguest (changed from male to female) remains only a few hours.Novelists can take their time; dramatists can only take their audience' s time. Time is always of the essence.

17 Further notes on film adaptation. Although it is obvious to point out just how greatly Hitchcock's movie differs from (and improves upon) John Buchan's novel, I find it intriguing to note how the screenplay writers (Charles Bennett, Alma Reveille [though why she received screen credit is anybody's guess] and Ian Hay) may have been inspired by phrases, sentences and images in the novel:

18 Julia, Julia. Where is Julia? ("He mentioned the name of a woman- -Julia Czechenyi--as having something to do with the dangle.") In the film, does she become Annabella, the woman who dies in the flat?

19 There is no Mr. Memory in the novel, but in the book, the following exchange takes place:"The one thing that puzzles me," said the General, "is what good his visit here would do that spy fellow? He could not carry away several pages of figures and strange names in his head.""That is not difficult," the Frenchman replied. "A good spy is trained to have a photographic memory."One can imagine the screenplay writers reading and rereading that line, and then the wheels begin to turn.

20 Then there is Richard Hannay's completely naive and innocent walk right into the enemy's house:As he spoke his eyelids seemed to tremble and to fall a little over his keen grey eyes. In a flash the phrase of Scudder's came back to me, when he had described the man he most dreaded in the world. He said that he 'could hood his eyes like a hawk.' Then I saw that I had walked straight into the enemy's headquarters. (p.73)

21 Changing hooded eyes (Can't we, when we wink, all hood our eyes like a hawk I wonder? Wink. Hoodwink.) to a missing finger is marvelous. That's another difference between a born novelist and a born filmmaker. To show the hooded eyelids, the filmmaker would have to cut to closeup. Too cumbersome. And note how Hitch introduces the touch of macabre humor into the scene. "Are you sure it is not this hand?"

22 Gene D. Phillips, in his book on Alfred Hitchcock (Twayne Publishers, 1984), says that "Jordan literally shows his hand by holding it up, so Hannay can see that it is missing one fingertip, which is also a symbolic tip-off that the power-mad Jordan is maimed psychologically as well as physically."Are all persons with missing fingertips maimed psychologically? Why must critics work so hard?

23 Hannay whistling Mr. Memory's theme and not being able to recall where he has heard it. In the novel: "I swung along that road whistling. " But whistling what? Here the adapter's imagination takes off.

24 "There's two chaps below looking for you." In the movie, two spies come to the inn to search for Hannay and Pamela.

25 Back to Andre Sennwald. In his review, he noted (accurately I believe) Hitchcock's whiplike revelations: "Perhaps the identifying hallmark of his method is its apparent absence of accent in the climaxes, which are upon the spectator like a slap in the face before he has set himself for the blow. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay' s apartment, the icy ferocity of the man with the missing finger when he casually shoots Hannay, or the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, the action progresses through seeming indifference to whip- like revelations."

26 In his interview with Truffault, Hitchcock himself openly declared: "What I like in The Thirty-Nine Steps are the swift transitions." Of course, any film editor can create swift transitions. Just look at television commercials. What makes the swift transitions so pertinent and powerful in The 39 Steps are that they are the accents.

27 Another note on the adaptation. The Bible in the pocket. "Mr. Turnbull himself opened to me--sober and something more than sober. He was primly dressed in an ancient but well-tended suit of black; he had been shaved not later than the night before; he wore a linen collar; and in his left hand he carried a pocket Bible."

28 Hitchcock, of course, was a persistent and sometimes mean practical joker. Robert Donat recalled his first meeting with Madeleine Carroll on the set of The 39 Steps: "On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each having one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene 'Hitch' lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key of the handcuff was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchanged experiences. When Hitch saw that we were getting along famously, he extracted the 'missing' key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, 'Now that you two know each other we can go ahead.'"Quoted by Kenneth Barrow in Mr. Chips: The Life Of Robert Donat (Metheun,1985)

30 In his collection of Hollywood trivia, Michael Caine retells the above anecdote and then adds:". . . Mr. Hitchcock showed what some people thought was an unhealthy interest in knowing how they'd cope with the call of nature." (Michael Caine's Moving Picture Show, St. Martin's Press, 1988.)

31 Men have been handcuffed together and, chained together, have made their escapes-- e.g., Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones. But a man and a woman handcuffed together is always more dramatic, for no matter what dangers the couple face together, there is that other danger, the sexual danger, that each must face alone. Will they or won't they? Why not?Hence the second rule of film adaptation: Where two men are involved, change one of the men to a woman, and voila! the film immediately becomes richer and more complex. More romantic. To me, My Girl Friday is, in every way, superior to The Front Page. Where the play revolved around two men, the film revolves around a man and a woman. The man/woman drama, with its promise of romance, love, sex, continuance of the human race, etc. is difficult to beat.

32 William Rothman's essay on The 39 Steps in his book--Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Harvard University Press, 1982)--in perhaps the longest essay on the movie yet published (and sometimes the most silly)- -recounts the first meeting of Pamela and Richard Hannay in a railroad compartment. Running from the authorities, Hannay rushes in, embraces her, and tries to win her to his side. Rothman writes:When (Pamela) relaxes her hold on her reading glasses, must we not imagine that she is transported by an erotic fantasy, that is from a fantasy of making love that Hannay awakens her when he enters his pleas? Then does she avenge herself on this man for daring to desire her or for denying desire for her? For awakening her desire or for refusing to fulfill it? In any case, her gesture's maddening. This woman stands in need of a comeuppance, a lesson in being human.Forgive me, but I believe it is the critic here that stands in need of a comeuppance, a lesson in being human. A woman is set upon by a complete stranger who forces himself upon her with a wild tale, and she is suppose to be swept away by erotic fantasy? Bah, humbug. The problem, of course, stems from dramatic irony. We know more than Pamela does. How can she be expected to share our knowledge of Richard Hannay on such short notice? Her gesture is maddening, yes. But she doesn't deserve a masculine version of chastisement for it. She has done what is right. Her gesture is not nearly so maddening as Mr. Rothman's comments upon it. No wonder there is a need for feminist criticism.

33 Hitchcock's films have few moments of genuine eroticism. Vertigo is his most erotic film because it is the most obsessive, and eroticism and obsession are intertwined. Still, with that being said, for me, a young, attractive blonde removing her stockings while she is handcuffed to a relative stranger contains elements of eroticism. Let me see it again.

34 That scene, of course, stands in contrast to the bland, business- like and humorous scene of the girdle salesmen in the railroad car, where the priest stops to look at the undergarments. The undergarments appear absurd because they are too far removed from human flesh. The garments aren't doing what they should be doing.

35 Donald Spoto, discussing the film in The Dark Side Of Genius, states that "The dominant issue is one of trust between the leading man and woman--an issue that is reinforced throughout the story by contrasting sets of couples (the Scotsman and his wife, the innkeeper and his wife, Professor Jordan and his wife)."The more one reads about any given subject, the more dominant issues there seem to be. The insight about the contrasting set of couples, however, is useful because it helps us to see the form of the adaptation more clearly. Still, I feel that the dominant issue for Richard Hannay is to uncover the meaning of the 39 steps and save England from its enemies. If the man and the woman learn to trust one another so much the better, for who would deny that the audience wants Hannay and Pamela to fall in love. At least, I want it to happen. They are meant for one another. Ah romance!

36 The novel opens with Richard Hannay returning from the city, pretty well disgusted with life. He has a fairly good idea of his own identity and his own worth. He is, in fact, annoyed by the fact that people do not at all seem that interested in him: "Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn't seem much interested in me."The film, on the other hand, takes a slightly different tack. It opens with Hannay going directly to the city. Maurice Yacowar points out that "The opening sequence of The 39 Steps is a brilliant evocation of what a loud and busy city can be to a friendless outsider. We see a quick tumble of images from the city as if from Hannay's perspective, with a barrage of city noise, until hands buy a ticket, feet move into the theatre and we are at the Palladium show."But in the film, who is this Richard Hannay? He is not so sure of himself. When the secret agent asks to go home with him, he responds, "What's the idea?"

She: I'd like to.He: Well. It's your funeral.She: I owe you an explanation.He: Don't bother. I'm nobody.

I'm nobody. Not delivered ironically here. No wonder he can go from disguise to disguise. In Find The Director, (The University of Georgia Press, 1992) Thomas M. Leitch points out:In the course of the film (Hannay) pretends to be a milkman, a motor mechanic, a marcher in a parade, a political speaker, and finally (for the benefit of Pamela whom he is trying to bully into submission) a hardened criminal. . . . This succession of disguises begins by emphasizing the dangers to Hannay--he borrows the milkman's outfit to escape two assassins just outside--but gradually subordinates Hannay' s danger to his adaptability, inventiveness, and finesse.It could also be pointed out Hannay pretends to be a Lothario, a lover leaving a married woman's bedroom, in order to convince the milkman to give over the uniform. There is where the pretending begins in earnest. He: Don't bother. I'm nobody.

37 When Thomas M. Leitch goes on to say "When (Hannay) lies to Pamela, his preposterous improvisations are elaborated far beyond the demands of his actual danger, and by the time the scene ends, he has lost his audience and is just lying to himself." Wrong on all counts. First, Hannay is in great danger; his life and Pamela's life are at stake. The lies, therefore, are not beyond the demands of the actual danger. Second, Hannay has not lost his audience; he has, with charm, won her. Third, he is not lying to himself. Play acting in order to survive is not the same as lying to one's self.

38 In the novel, Hannay pretends to be a spectacled roadman, and that is his most memorable disguise: "Then I set to work on my face. With a handful of dust I made a water-mark round my neck, the place where Mr. Turnbull's Sunday ablutions might be expected to stop. I rubbed a good deal of dirt also into the sunburn of my cheeks." In the film, he merely pretends. He doesn't get into elaborate makeup or, with the exception of the milkman's uniform, into costuming.

39 At the conclusion of the film, we have traveled a Hitchcockean universe of suspense, romance, humor and sheer chutzpah. The handcuffs dangle and we turn away from danger with a rueful laugh. Order has been restored, and we feel better about the world and ourselves. But perhaps the last laugh is on us.

"Such is the zest of the Hitchcock plot that the original point of the title was totally forgotten, and half a line had to be added at the end by way of explanation."
Copyright 1995 by National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Inc. Text may not be copied without the express written permission of National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Inc.
Phillips, Louis, The Hitchcock universe: Thirty-nine steps and then some.., Vol. 46, Films in Review, 03-01-1995, pp 22.



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