Hitchcock loved to muse over how ordinary men would react to extraordinary situations. spies mistaking ad exec Roger Thornhill for federal agent George Kaplan in North By Northwest, L.B. Jeffries witnessing a possible murder in Rear Window, Guy Haines fatefully chatting it up with the psychotic Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train, and Benjamin and Jo McKenna stumbling into an assassination plot in The Man Who Knew Too Much. One of the first of these “wrong man” Hitchcock films is the fast-paced and supremely entertaining nail-biter The 39 Steps.
The story begins casually enough. When Richard Hannay, a Canadian living in London played by Robert Donat, stepped into the London music hall, he was expecting an evening of entertainment and relaxation. Instead, gunshots interrupt the performance and in the confusion a beautiful woman with an indistinct accent attaches herself to him. Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) asks him to take her back to his place and, more amused than anything, Richard agrees. At his place she plays cloak and dagger, closing the blinds before they turn on the lights, refusing to allow him to answer the phone. She tells him she is a spy and there are men after her. Of course Richard doesn’t believe her and tells her to go to sleep. But when she bursts into his room in the middle of the night with a butcher’s knife in her back he figures she was probably not the loon he first pegged her as.
Hannay spends the rest of the picture running for his life from the local police who think he murdered the woman and enemy agents who think he knows too much. The little he does know is he must race to Miss Smith’s contact in Scotland to stop a crucial national defense secret from being smuggled out of the country. However Hitchcock constantly keeps our equilibrium off, rarely allowing us to get comfortable. Everyone Hannay thinks he can trust turns out to be untrustworthy and the one person he knows he can’t trust, a beautiful woman skeptical of his story (Madeline Carroll), turns out to be the one he depends on the most.
We can feel Hitchcock’s delight when he toys with the audience, a devilish exuberance that would come to define his later pictures. Even those considered heavier like Psycho and Frenzy had light moments that punctuated their somber stories. In The 39 Steps Hitchcock continually reminds us that this is all play acting and he’s just having a bit of fun: when Hannay is mistaken for a politician at a local meeting he stands up, despite not knowing the man’s political affiliation, and gives a speech full of the vagaries hack politicians are praised for. It is a clever sequence in which Hitchcock reminds us that none of it is to be taken seriously. Lives and national defense plans may be at stake, but it’s all in service of amusing and entertaining us. Hitchcock would refine his themes and techniques in later movies, but The 39 Steps is still an entertaining quality film.