"Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story."
I have always considered Alfred Hitchcock among my favorite directors, and after hearing that The 39 Steps was one of his first masterpieces I decided to give it a watch. Several of his classic trademarks from his films in the 50's and 60's can be seen in this spy thriller although they lack a lot of polishing. The story was so rushed that the characters never felt fully developed, the romance felt forced, and the comedy never really worked for me. Despite how much critics revered this film, I had a hard time enjoying the story. The continuity from one scene to the next was a bit jumpy and important details of the story felt like they were left out. I know that for the time it was made (1935) it was highly considered for the fast pace that Hitchcock was introducing to the classic spy tale and for all the surprise and twists that he used here, but those elements haven't really aged well and Hitchcock himself would later go on to polish those issues I had in his following films. In my opinion Hitchcock's earliest masterpiece is his 1940 film, Rebecca, which has much more psychological suspense, better sound editing, and much better character development. The 39 Steps was a bit of a letdown for me, but I still understand why it is so highly regarded for the way in which Hitchcock was able to balance and mix genres such as this spy thriller with romance and comedy. I'm glad Hitchcock managed to polish these common trademarks and cemented his reputation over the following decades (considering my favorite films of his are mostly from the 50's).
Charles Bennett and Ian Hay adapted the screenplay from John Buchan's 1915 spy novel centering on Richard Hannay (Robert Donat). Hannay finds himself in trouble with the law when he helps a woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) after a disturbance broke out in a music hall. She is escaping from some secret agents and Hannay takes her to his home where she tells him about a potential national security breach. While she's telling him these things, she is murdered by the men who were following her and Hannay has to escape for his life. He not only has to run from the secret agents who don't want him to discover what they are up to, but from the police as well who suspect him for murdering Anabella. Hannay recalls that Anabella had mentioned something about Scotland so that's where he heads first in order to unlock the mystery of the 39 Steps. Several surprises and twists take place along the way as eventually he is forced to continue on the run handcuffed to a young woman named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) who doesn't believe he's innocent.
The 39 Steps may have been the start of a new kind of thriller inexistent until then, but it hasn't aged as well as other Hitchcock films due its very rushed pacing and poor character development. I honestly can't recall any one character in this film with a definite personality as everyone seems to be playing a specific role to move along the story. There were several comedic moments that Hitchcock was trying to introduce in order to lighten up the mood and suspense, but they didn't work too well for me. The romance between Carroll and Donat's characters wasn't too believable either. I just didn't see the sparks that other critics have found in their performance. I usually tend to like Hitchcock's use of sound in his films and how they enhance the story, but in The 39 Steps it didn't work at all and I found several moments that instead of building the suspense simply felt misplaced. I still respect this film for how it helped form Hitchcock's career, but I can't call it a masterpiece. I will continue to claim Rebecca is his earliest masterpiece.