I have watched a lot of James Bond movies in my time.
Yes, James Bond movies are sexist and blah-de-blah. Each Bond film has a lot of bikinis and bang-bang and it’s all good fun when you’re an adolescent. James Bond, however, does get dull once you hit 17 or so. The spy explosions all sort of become action movie wallpaper.
I’m not gonna crap too much on James Bond here. The movies do have some cool moments. I still remember one scene where an assassin creeping in the roof rafters dribbled tiny delicate drops of poison down a thread dangling over a sleeping woman’s mouth. She ends up dying. Plus I think the same movie had an astronaut dying in space as his spaceship is eaten by a mysterious craft. That was surprisingly chilling. Plus there was the iconic Blofeld, played by Donald Pleasance, stroking his white cat. And the spaceship launching pad hidden inside a volcanic crater and, aw heck with it. You Only Live Twice was amazing. I’ll give you that.
But seriously, try to sit through Thunderball again. I dare you. That whole damn film will put you to sleep.
The thread assassination scene aside, none of the millions (now billions) invested in the James Bond franchise has produced a film that will ever touch the quality of The 39 Steps.
Yes folks, back in 1935 Alfred Hitchcock scraped together two paperclips and a piece of twine and filmed The 39 Steps. This iconic spy film was made by a pre-war pre-famous Alfred Hitchcock on a budget of 50,000 British pounds which was less than 100,000 US dollars.
For comparison, the average cost to produce a movie in the US during the 1930s was 375,000 USD.
But damn, who needs money when you have a filmmaking genius like Hitchcock at the helm? The 39 Steps is a lean, sharp, breathless film that barely clocks in at over an hour. Even now, in 2023, during the height of the smartphone generation, the movie can still hold people’s attention.
The 39 Steps starts out in a vaudeville music hall in London. A rowdy drunk audience is enjoying the amazing talents of “Mr. Memory,” a man who memorizes “50 facts a day” and is able to answer any question that the audience asks him.
Why Mr. Memory looks like Hitler I have no idea. It was 1935 and I guess that little moustache style was the hip fashion for men back then. No shade to the actor Wylie Watson who played Mr. Memory, however the actor’s uncanny resemblance to Hitler is a little distracting.
But I digress.
Anyway, shots suddenly ring out in the vaudeville music hall and people run out screaming. In the panicky muddle a mysterious woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) asks a man named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) if she can go home with him. Hannay seems a bit bemused but it soon becomes clear that he’s not going to get laid. Annabella just needs someplace quick to crash
Annabella reveals that she is a spy and is being tracked by agents of a foreign power. The head counter-spy is a man whose main identifying mark is his missing right little finger. “So if you ever meet a man with no top joint there,” Annabella tells Hannay, “Be very careful my friend.”
Annabella Smith unfortunately ends up murdered in Hannay’s apartment and Hannay must escape. When Smith’s body is found at Hannay’s place, Hannay is accused of the crime. It’s well-known Hitchcock trope: the innocent man wrongly accused. Hitchcock himself said that the idea of being wrongly accused for a hideous crime came from his own childhood experience. When Hitchcock was a young boy, his father gave him a note and told him to go to the police station. Hitchcock was to give the note to a police officer and ask the police officer to read it. Hitchcock did so. The police officer read the note and then, without another word, took the young boy to the cells. Hitchcock was locked in a jail cell for apparently hours and never knew why. The police officer never told him. When Hitchcock’s father finally came to get Hitchcock that evening, he told Hitchcock that he had asked the police officer in the note to lock up the boy to teach him a lesson. If you don’t obey the rules, you will end up in jail!
Hitchcock experienced the British Edwardian equivalent of “Scared Straight” and it marked him for life!
Anyway back to the movie. We see Hannay escape to the Scottish mountain area. The police pursue Hannay onto a rocky highland. It’s honestly a thrilling location. Clearly Hitchcock made his actual actors, not stunt people, scramble over the mountains and through the rushing water.
The film crew that scrambled up to that location while carrying the massive box film cameras used to shoot movies back in the 30s also deserve accolades.
Hannay manages to convince a bad-tempered old Scottish farmer (John Laurie) to let Hannay shelter in the farmer’s cottage. The farmer has a pretty young wife (Peggy Ashcroft) who soon realizes that Hannay is wanted by the police. Hannay manages to escape by not exactly seducing the farmer’s wife but instead offering her a sort of romantic male kindness that is clearly lacking in her life. The chemistry between Hannay and the wife has a sweetness to it that no James Bond movie could ever achieve. They don’t sleep together but do exchange a quick chaste kiss that ends up being oddly sexier than any of the passionate spit-swapping Bond has done with his bikini girls.
Hitchcock had a lot of pressures working against him while making The 39 Steps. He didn’t have money, he didn’t have fame (yet) and he needed to keep his film moving at a good clip. Consequently Hitchcock showed his filmmaking genius by injecting a library full of narrative into shots that lasted only seconds. We see the farmer’s wife’s expression after Hannay leaves and in that brief clip we are given a volume’s worth of story.
Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) is a wealthy man who offers to help Hannay. When Hannay enters Jordan’s mansion, Jordan’s wife introduces Hannay to Jordan’s daughter Patricia. Patricia never gets a line in the movie but her mere two seconds onscreen where the bespectacled girl awkwardly puts down her drink, fumbles to her feet and shyly extends her skinny arm towards Hannay (being skinny was considered ugly for women back in the 30s) tells the audience all we need to know about Patricia.
That, my friends, is good visual storytelling.
Jordan’s wife then introduces Hannay to her older daughter Hillary, a raven-haired stylish beauty who offers Hannay a cigar without missing a beat. That dynamic of the poised beautiful older sister and the awkward adorkable younger sister was a trope that Hitchcock liked. He used it again in Strangers on a Train.
Professor Jordan and Hannay discuss the murder of Annabella Smith. Hannay describes that he suspects her murderer was a foreign agent. “Did she tell you what the foreign agent looked like?” Professor Jordan asks.
“Part of his little finger was missing,” Hannay replies.
“This one, I think,” Hannay says, raising his left hand.
Jordan raises his right hand. “Are you sure it wasn’t this one?”
Professor Jordan’s little finger is missing. Hannay is stunned, as is the audience. It’s a classic “Oh shit!” moment in cinema.
Chaos ensues. Hannay gets shot, survives, escapes, gets captured again, escapes again etc. and frankly I could discuss all the wonderful moments here but this essay is already running long.
Hannay is recognized by a blond woman named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and turned over to the police. Hannay and Pamela end up handcuffed together and kidnapped by two foreign agents. Hannay escapes, literally dragging Pamela after him (“As long as I go, you go”) and they shelter at an inn.
The whole scene of Pamela and Hannay handcuffed together in the inn’s bedroom fairly thrums with a BDSM vibe. Hannay alternates between threatening Pamela and making sure she’s comfortable. At one point Hannay literally chokes Pamela while stroking her cheek at the same time. Pamela wants to remove her shoes and stockings (it’s entirely her decision) but has to put up with Hannay’s hand brushing against her leg due to the fact that he’s handcuffed to her. But hey, you can hardly blame Hannay! He’s physically incapable of keeping his hands to himself!
The scene reminds me of that Japanese anime trope of the young adolescent male character tripping and falling into the cleavage of the nearest attractive female love interest. Don’t blame him, he couldn’t help it!
It’s a foolproof way to feel up a girl while keeping your soul pure.
The idea of consent between Hannay and Pamala oscillates wildly. At some points Pamela seems genuinely resistant to Hannay. At other times Pamela chats warmly and even flirts with Hannay as they eat dinner. When Hannay finally falls asleep she is able to slip out of her handcuff fairly easily, which sort of begs the question of why she was unable to do so earlier. It reminds me of that scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? when Roger Rabbit tells Eddie that Roger Rabbit can slip out of the cuffs holding them together “only when it was funny.”
I always did wonder about the ease with which Pamala is suddenly able to remove the handcuff from her wrist after Hannay falls asleep. She had let Hannay saw at the cuff with her nail file all evening without ever once sliding her own hand out of the restraint. It’s almost as if the whole brouhaha of having Hannay feel Pamela’s legs was not entirely nonconsensual on Pamela’s part.
Hitchcock, in my opinion, never really was able to recapture that exquisite sexual tension that he coaxed out of Donat and Carroll in The 39 Steps in his later films. The banter between Melanie and Mitch in The Birds is more annoying than sexy. Robert Donat, unfortunately, never had a great film career after The 39 Steps due to his chronic ill health. Carroll was more successful but she gave up acting for working with the Red Cross after the start of WWII. Carroll was later awarded the Medal of Freedom by FDR for her efforts.
For both Carroll and Donat, however The 39 Steps remains their most famous work. And rightly so! Anyone who appreciates a good sexy spy film needs to give The 39 Steps a watch. Or a rewatch. It holds up well. And frankly you’ll be too enthralled watching Hannay help Pamala warm her stockings by the fire to care that there hasn’t been a single damn explosion in the whole movie.
Because, like I said before, The 39 Steps is sexier than any James Bond film.