The 39 Steps (1935)


Rating *5*

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan

Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Godfrey Tearle, Lucie Mannheim, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier and Wylie Watson

Richard Hanney (Robert Donat) meets a mysterious woman, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who tells him of a plot to steal British military secrets. He is wrongly accused of her murder and flees London, taking the Flying Scotsman up to Scotland, searching for evidence to clear his name. Along the way he meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who twice alerts the police to his presence, but is ultimately persuaded to help him.


This 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film was the first adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 novel and remains one of the most celebrated of all British films. It was ranked fourth in a 1999 British Film Institute survey conducted to find the 100 greatest British films of the 20th century. It is obviously dated, being nearly 75 years old, and a little creaky in places, but it contains many Hitchcockian trademarks and remains a zestful and invigorating 85 minutes, helped in no small part by the screen chemistry of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, two of Britain’s greatest film stars.

The Scottish actor John Laurie, who would find fame late in life in the memorable role of Private James Frazer in the much loved long-running BBC comedy series ‘Dad’s Army’, has a small role as a crofter.

Hitchcock planned to reunite Donat and Carroll the following year in his next film, ‘Secret Agent’, but Donat’s health problems meant that the role he was originally cast to play went instead to John Gielgud. Donat, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1939 for his role in ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’, suffered from severe asthma and it affected his career to the degree that he only appeared in twenty films in total. He died in 1958 at the age of 53.

A new BBC production of ‘The 39 Steps’ was broadcast during Christmas 2008, but its leading actor, Rupert Penry-Jones, is no Robert Donat and it proved to be a rather botched and dreary affair.

Review posted 14 February 2009


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