Based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps is a gateway to his cinema. The 39 Steps foreshadows many of the stylistic tendencies and fundamental themes that would follow in Hitchcock’s subsequent films. The themes that are most strongly represented in the film are that of the falsely accused man and the theater.
The theme of a falsely accused man is essential to Hitchcock’s cinema. This theme would occur again in such films as Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Torn Curtain (1966), and Frenzy (1972). This theme, which has become paramount to Hitchcock’s cinema, is connected to another important Hitchcockian theme: the knowledge-danger equation. Author David Sterrit states, “His films often contain individuals who face danger or adventure only after learning some piece of information, be it…the mere fact that a secret exists (The 39 Steps)…or whatever “MacGuffin” the scenario has up its sleeve” (Sterrit 8). Hitchcock used the word “MacGuffin” to refer to an object or plot device that only served to propel the events of the film and not necessarily have any particular meaning. In The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) becomes wrongfully accused of a murder and becomes a fugitive on the run, encountering one obstacle after another.
Hitchcock always had a profound love for the theater so it is unsurprising that a theatrical theme is prevalent throughout his work, notably in films like The 39 Steps, Sabotage (1936), Stage Fright (1950), I Confess (1953), and The Man Who Knew To Much (1934 and 1956). In Hitchcock’s constructed film world, major events unfold on or in front of the stage. The 39 Steps is no exception to the rule. The diegetic world of the film penetrates the stage. As a result, the imaginary line separating theater and reality is obliterated. The 39 Steps opens and closes with the vaudeville like act of Mr. Memory that combines the highbrow and the lowbrow, which echoes the early days of cinema in which Hitchcock began his career. In its infant years, the medium of film was considered by many to be lowbrow entertainment for the masses. Theater, on the other hand, was considered highbrow entertainment reserved for the privileged and wealthy. Hitchcock’s cinema echoes the sentiment that cinema is, was, and always has been for the masses. This could not be truer than in Hitchcock’s cinema. Not only was Hitchcock a meticulous craftsman but he was also an accomplished businessman who knew how to make films that would appeal to everyone. After The 39 Steps, the name Hitchcock became more than just a name. It became a brand synonymous with the suspense thriller.
In conclusion, The 39 Steps is Hitchcock’s first truly great film. The film establishes many of the themes that would become paramount to the director’s work, most notably that of the wrongly accused man and the theater. The 39 Steps is also a blueprint for the suspense thriller. The film earned the thirty-six year old director his “Master of Suspense” title and remains a touchstone for all of his other films that followed.
Sterrit, David. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge University Press, 1-27, Digital PDF