The 39 Steps is a heart-racing spy story by Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), following Richard Hannay (Oscar winner Robert Donat of Goodbye, Mr. Chips), who stumbles into a conspiracy that thrusts him into a hectic chase across the Scottish moors—a chase in which he is both the pursuer and the pursued—as well as into an expected romance with the cool Pamela (Madeline Carroll). Adapted from a novel by John Buchan, this classic wrong-man thriller from the Master of Suspense anticipates the director’s most famous works (especially North by Northwest), and remains one of his cleverest and most entertaining films.
Hitchcock's first great romantic thriller is a prime example of the MacGuffin principle in action. Robert Donat is Richard Hannay, an affable Canadian tourist in London who becomes embroiled in a deadly conspiracy when a mysterious spy winds up murdered in Hannay's rented flat--and both the police and a secret organization wind up hot on his trail. With only a seemingly meaningless phrase ("the 39 steps"), a small Scottish town circled on a map, and a criminal mastermind identified by a missing finger as clues, quick-witted Hannay eludes police and spies alike as he works his way across the countryside to reveal the mystery and clear his name. At one point he finds himself making his escape manacled to blonde beauty Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), whose initial antagonism is smoothed by Hannay's charm and the sheer rush of her thrilling chase. It's classic Hitchcock all the way, a seemingly effortless balance of romance and adventure set against a picturesque landscape populated by eccentrics and social-register smoothies, none of whom is what he or she appears to be. Hitchcock would play similar games of innocents plunged into deadly conspiracies, most delightfully in North by Northwest, but in this breezy 1935 classic, Hitch proves that, as in any quest, the object of the search isn't nearly as satisfying as the journey. --Sean Axmaker