Laden with suspense, subtle romance, and stifling sexual tension, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps follows Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) on his quest to clear his name of a crime he did not commit.
The film opens with Richard, referred to as Hannay, rushing out of a theatre after a fight breaks out during Mr. Memory’s (Wylie Waston) performance. In the mob of people outside, he meets Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who asks if she can come home with him. Hannay agrees and brings Annabella home. He discovers that she’s a spy who’s on her way to see an important figure in the spy network—a man located in Scotland whose defining characteristic is that he’s missing the tip of his pinky finger.
Hitchcock immediately builds suspense with Annabella’s odd requests to Hannay, such as turning over a mirror or not answering the telephone on multiple occasions. The shrill ringing of the telephone becomes a motif during the initial scenes of the film, demonstrating Hitchcock’s clever use of sound to build suspense. This sound, paired with Annabella’s morbid warnings, works to agitate the viewer. These two features parallel the time limit which has been placed on Hannay’s life.
During the night, Hannay is startled awake. He finds a near-death Annabella, who stumbles into his room with a knife in her back. Hannay finds a map of Scotland in her hands that details the location of the man with the missing part of his pinky. Terrified for his life, Hannay flees his apartment. From there, he becomes entangled in a thrilling and intricate spy story.
Hitchcock’s use of suspense occurs in an episodic manner. First, Hannay must escape from a train, then from a farmer’s house, then from the police. He runs through the barren hills of Scotland, moving from one moment of action to the next.
While on the train, Hannay meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). They engage in a brief conversation before Hannay abruptly kisses her in an attempt to hide his face from the police searching the train. He encounters Pamela again much later in the film. This second meeting occurs when Hannay stumbles into an election meeting and pretends to be an important guest to avoid capture. Pamela reveals Hannay to the police and he is subsequently captured. The police request that Pamela join them in the police car, where they handcuff her to Hannay to keep him from escaping.
Thanks to a herd of sheep blocking the road, Hannay manages to escape, dragging Pamela along with him. After a lengthy chase scene, the two come across a small hotel where they decide to spend the night.
The sexual tension builds between Hannay and Pamela as they attempt to hide the handcuffs from the hotel keeper. They do this by holding hands, keeping their hands in Hannay’s coat pocket, and in one instance, cuddling in front of a fire. This tension grows further when they are forced to share a bed, leading Pamela to remove her wet stockings. As she does so, Hannay’s hand trails down each of her legs suggestively because of the handcuffs.
The 39 Steps beautifully exemplifies early instances of Hitchcock’s unique mix of suspense and romance, a trademark of his work. The film promises action, romance, and mystery.