With The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock hit upon a formula that was so good he used it twice more, in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959): an innocent man inadvertently gets mixed up with some spies who kill someone, for which the innocent man is blamed and sought by the police, forcing him to hunt down the spies in order to prove his innocence. In this case, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is the innocent man. When the movie begins, he is at a show where “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson) performs, demonstrating his photographic memory. Suddenly, shots are fired, causing a panic. Outside, a strange woman, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), latches on to Hannay, saying she wants to go home with him. He shrugs and says, “It’s your funeral,” figuring they are going to have sex, although his words turn out to be an ironic prophecy.
Once they get to his flat, he finds out that she is not there for sex, but to hide from some spies (it was she who fired the shots to elude them). It turns out that she is a freelance spy herself, willing to sell information to either side, but presently having information she intends to sell to the British, which has something to do with “the 39 steps,” but which she does not explain. The next morning, she awakens Hannay as she dies from a knife in the back, holding a map in her hands. Now he is in danger from the spies on account of what he knows, which isn’t much, and in danger from the police, who conclude that Miss Smith was murdered by Hannay.
I said that Hannay is an innocent man, but only in the sense that he is not guilty of the murder of Annabella. However, he is guilty of a peccadillo, that of allowing himself to be picked up by a strange woman, and the rest of the movie may be thought of as excessive punishment for this little sin.
All sorts of twists and complications arise as Hannay plunges from situation to situation, but midway through the movie, he ends up being handcuffed by the spies to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who thinks Hannay is the murderer. They escape from the spies but are forced to remain together.
It is often said that in old movies, even husbands and wives had to sleep in twin beds, and if both got on the same bed, at least one foot of one person had to be on the floor. Actually, if that was a rule, it was never written down, because it is nowhere to be found in the Production Code. And if it was a rule, it was not followed in this 1935 movie, because Hannay and Pamela get in a double bed and spend the night with all four feet on the bed. Part of the reason may have to do with the fact that the movie was made in the United Kingdom. Maybe their censorship rules were different, and America just went along. Also, it probably helped that since Pamela is antagonistic to Hannay, sleeping with him only because of the handcuffs, there is not the slightest suggestion that they will have sex with each other.
Finally, it turns out that the spies use Mr. Memory to memorize secret documents, which he can give to the enemy by traveling to their country. In that way, there is no risk of being caught trying to smuggle out of England pieces of paper with the secret information on them. At the end of the movie, Hannay calls out to Mr. Memory during a performance, asking, “What are the 39 steps?” to which Mr. Memory begins to answer that it is an organization of spies. However, he is shot, thereby leading to the capture of the man who killed him, who heads the organization of spies. We have to wonder why Mr. Memory started answering the question. We suspect there are two reasons: first, Mr. Memory was a somewhat unwilling participant in the spy ring (blackmail?), and took the opportunity to reveal what had been going on; and second, his pride in being able to answer any factual question that was put to him made him unable to say, “I don’t know.”
But that started me thinking. This is not the only Hitchcock movie in which a villain blurts out the truth even though in so doing he provides information that could or does lead to his undoing. In Spellbound (1945), Constance (Ingrid Bergman) gets her colleague, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), to help her figure out the meaning of a dream, which he does, thereby incriminating himself. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), the Merry Widow murderer, vehemently expresses his disgust for foolish widows at the dinner table. In Frenzy (1972), Blaney (Jon Finch) is being hunted by the police for being the Necktie Strangler. He turns to Rusk (Barry Foster) for help, not realizing that Rusk himself is the Necktie Strangler. While they are talking, Rusk says with a hostile tone in his voice that some of these women who are raped and murdered get exactly what is coming to them, but Blaney is too distracted to notice.
And come to think of it, I suppose we all have had moments when we blurted out something incriminating, when we could have simply kept our big mouths shut.