A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top secret information.
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The 39 Steps (1935) is considered by many to be the first real Alfred Hitchcock movie, although The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Lodger (1926) can also make those claims. Basically, The 39 Steps is North By Northwest set in Britain.
The story gets going when Canadian on vacation in England, Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat, has a brunette spy beg him for a saferoom. Hannay agrees, listening to the spy’s story about the terrible anti-British spy ring called the 39 steps. Now the movie was based on a book of the same name by John Buchan. In the book the 39 steps was a clue that helped Hannay solve his mystery. Here it is simply a name.Well, just like the man at the U.N. in North By Northwest, Hannay’s mysterious spy ends up with a knife in the back. Of course the police suspect him of the murder so Hannay leaves on a train, destined for the town the spy was supposed to go to.
On the train, Hannay ends up avoiding the police momentarily by crashing into the room occupied by Madeline Carroll’s character Pamela. Pamela is no Eve Kendell though and she hands Hannay over to the authorities. That is, until Hannay is able to escape off the train. On a side note, Hitchcock was known for the use of blondes in his movies. Madeline Carroll is probably the best looking one of the group Hitch used.
Hannay escapes and has to travel on foot now. In need of a place to stay for the night, Hannay finds a cottage where a farmer and his young wife live. The farmer is big on preaching religion. This charmed the young city girl, but now that they are married she is tired of him. Hannay’s talk of the city enchants her and makes the farmer jealous. In the middle of the night the police come. When the police mention the reward for Hannay’s capture the farmer gladly lets them in. They are too late though as the wife has sent Hannay out the back door. When the police leave, the wife is severely beaten by the farmer.
Hannay’s next stop is where the spy told him to go before she died. In a scene that would be paralleled in Saboteur, Hanay ends up in his enemy’s den. A bullet to his heart is stopped by the farmer’s Bible, which is in the jacket Hannay took from him.Of course now the scene has been set. The bad guys know Hannay knows and he cannot go to the police since he’s wanted for murder. From here, Hannay avoids the police by ducking into a political rally in which he happens to become the featured speaker. Pamela is at the event and notices Hannay. She does not hesitate to tell the people she believes are the police who the speaker is. Of course these men Pamela tells are part of the 39 steps. When he comes off stage, Hannay is mock arrested and taken into a car. Pamela is as well, since she is a witness.
The two become handcuffed together and escape from their captors. Hannay has to make Pamela believe his innocence. Once she does, she helps him take down the 39 steps.
The grand finale takes place in the London Palladium where a wonderful character named Mr. Memory is performing. It is his last performance in England. As his name states, the man has the ability to memorize anything, including the plans for new English planes, which is what the 39 steps is after. Of course their plot to take Mr. Memory out of the country is thwarted.
The 39 Steps introduces many Hitchcock staples, such as the blonde heroine and the wrong man accused. It is a must watch for any fan of North By Northwest or good movies in general.