Week 50: The 39 Steps, Choking Women, and the Tao of Robert Donat

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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“It sounds like a spy story!”
“That’s exactly what it is.”

It’s Hitchcock’s first true wrong-man chase film, a breathless big screen excitement that’s perhaps his greatest British film. It’s also a cheeky puzzle-box of a movie, starting and ending at a vaudeville music hall and loaded in between with some of Hitch’s best twists, turns, and runs from the law. It’s a blueprint for success, for a template that Hitchcock would return to again and again. It’s The 39 Steps.

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Donat (center) after being found out by Carroll (right)

Robert Donat, plays Richard Hannay, Hitchcock’s first truly great leading man. Combining an everyman sense of bewilderment with an ability to think on his feet, Donat is absolutely perfect as a visiting Canadian in England who gets thrust into espionage when a strange woman is stabbed in his apartment. He’s wanted for her murder so he goes on the run, following the few clues she left to the Scottish countryside where he encounters a Professor with a missing pinkie, a love-starved farmer’s wife, bumbling police and secret agents, and Madeleine Carroll playing an innocent woman who gets handcuffed to Donat. This unfortunately leads to some of the most misogynistic scenes in any Hitchcock film….but I’ll come back to that.

In the opening music hall scene, Hitchcock displays a feel for atmosphere that he would never truly equal in America; a baby crying, rambunctious men at the bar yelling questions, subtle class distinctions (as when a farmer asks “What causes pip in poultry?” and is shushed by his wife for fear of seeming too country). And the creation of what seems like a throwaway character, “Mr. Memory,” a man who memorizes fifty new facts each day. This ingenious opening not only leads to a lot of good comedy (“How old is Mae West?” “I know, sir, but I never tell a lady’s age.” ) but it operates on three levels:

  1. It establishes Donat as a bemused onlooker, a role he’ll play for the rest of the film.
  2. It creates an engaging atmosphere of light comedy, punctuated by thrills as gunshots ring out in the theater causing an evacuation.
  3. The music hall acts as a bookend when Mr. Memory returns at the end of the film, when Donat figures out that he’s memorizes the secret formula for a silent airplane engine (or something). Mr. Memory is even done in by his own brilliance; as Donat is being arrested, he shouts out “What are the 39 Steps?” Due to his own pride, Mr. Memory must give the correct answer, that it’s a ring of spies, which causes him to be shot.
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Mr. Memory in action.

The 39 Steps is a perfectly constructed puzzle box. It starts and ends in the same place, the music hall, with the same characters. Every line of dialogue pays off, even the tossed-off witticisms. When the female secret agent who fires a gun in the theater asks Donat if she can go home with him, he responds “It’s your funeral.” A joke, but it’s also the truth: she’ll meet her death in his apartment.

And we haven’t even gotten to the incredible visual details in the film: the way a statue in Donat’s hallway points to an open window when the agent is murdered. Hitchcock cutting from a charwoman screaming while discovering a body to a high-pitched train whistle. The visual reveal of the Professor’s missing finger. The breathtaking Scottish country photography. And on and on. It’s a beautiful film.

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The charm of Hitchcock and his wrong-man stories is, of course, the lead character’s unflappability. Were an average man on the street to suddenly to get swept up in espionage and cross-country chases, we’d be terrified, immobile, or worse. Yet Hitchcock is firmly working in Movie Star territory, even in smaller British pictures like The 39 Steps. Donat is composed, quick-witted, and intelligent, even when running for his life. This is personified by the scene where he gets shoved onto a stage to make a political speech, knowing nothing about who he’s supposed to be or who the candidate is. Yes it’s a cutting satire on the emptiness of politician’s words, but it’s also a tribute to a kind of genteel unflappability that Donat would create and Cary Grant would perfect (there’s echoes of this speech in the North by Northwest auction scene).

Hitchcock is pulling off a great trick here; the character on the run is sympathetic enough that we can relate to them (unlike a superhero or James Bond), yet also so quick-witted and resourceful that we want to be them.

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As a very anxious person, unflappability is something I can barely relate to. Right now I’m in the middle of my busy season, dealing with family issues, trying to finish this Hitchcock project, scared about the election, and in general attempting to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. The past few months have been a sea of anxiety, of waking up and instantly feeling bad, feeling nervous, worrying that there’s something I need to do, dreading that I forgot to do something, worrying if my dog is happy enough, concerned that I’m not spending enough time with my girlfriend, anxious anxious ANXIOUS all the time.

In other words, the opposite of unflappable.

But in the past week i had a bit of a breakthrough in therapy. Therapy is strange because you say the same things over and over, yet sometimes it finally hits you the right way. Or maybe you’re finally able to hear it. I was talking about my ceaseless anxiety and judgement and my therapist said that I “get to decide who I am, and how I feel.” In short, I don’t have to feel bad all the time.

And it clicked for me. The stress of the past year has put me in a state where I’m constantly working and constantly worried. And now in December, when I’m coming out of the tunnel at the other end, I can still feel my mind working, trying to find something to make me feel bad about. I can’t just exist or enjoy the moment; my brain has to find something to be anxious about.

My therapist asked what it would be like if I didn’t make myself feel bad and anxious about everything, and in that moment I had a quick vision of Robert Donat, in The 39 Steps which I’d watched two days earlier. Dealing with issues but never taking things too seriously and always making time for a joke. Marveling at the ability to not take everything so goddamned seriously.

Obviously that character is fiction; a creation between writers, a director, and an actor. But that’s the power of movies; they can show us things about ourselves and who we’d like to be. Just as I grew up with Han Solo as my idea of masculinity (okay, Han Solo combined with Indiana Jones), I like to hope that I can carry this some of this sense of calm unflappability forward with me. Call it the Tao of Robert Donat or Cary Grant.

***

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Unlike some of Hitch’s other British films, The 39 Steps starts quickly and doesn’t let up. As an example, in a two minute span, Donat escapes from the police, joins a passing parade, then ducks into a social hall only to be greeted as a guest speaker and thrust onstage to give a speech about a candidate and platform he knows nothing about. Hitchcock and writer Charles Bennett were fans of John Buchan’s novel of the same name, yet found much of it unadaptable. Thus began Hitchcock’s tendency to take what he liked from a novel or play and discard the rest, creating new scenarios to fit his whims.

One of Hitchcock and Bennett’s best additions is the farmhouse scene. It’s a rare moment where the story stops rushing madly forward and settles in for what feels like a small film-within-the-film. Donat is trying to find a man in the Scottish highlands and asks to be put up at a small farmhouse. The religious farmer grudgingly agrees, then introduces Donat to his young wife. What follows could easily have been a clumsy sex comedy, yet the wife’s innocence and loneliness is so palpable that we instantly feel for her. Hitchcock even stages a bravura scene over the dinner prayer that shows his silent film training; while the husband prays, Donat notices an article about him in the newspaper. The wife sees it too and they exchange glances, as the farmer glances at the two of them and assumes the worst. It’s a miracle of eyes darting and perfect editing, a better version of what Hitchcock would later attempt in Sabotage. Later, when the wife gives Donat her husband’s coat and sends him off into the night, their brief farewell is sad and bittersweet, the emotions earned.

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Which is why it hurts to see us return to the cottage for a misogynistic joke later in the film. Donat is shot but survives because he’s wearing the farmer’s coat with a bible in the pocket (which stops the bullet). By way of explanation, we cut back to the farmhouse, and the farmer asks what happens to his coat. The wife, offscreen, haltingly replies that she gave it away, and the farmer advances with a menacing look. Offscreen we head a slap and a scream.

Everything in art is subjective; but based on the rhythm and the timing of the hit, plus the fact that it happens offscreen, I believe this was intended as a joke. A conscious attempt to show how silly the wife was. Either way, it’s jarring and unsettling. Not just because we never return to the farmhouse, but because of the time we spend with this character. To finish her story with an offscreen slap is disingenuous and cruel.

Unfortunately the sexual politics are the weak part of The 39 Steps. While Hitchcock’s previous film The Man Who Knew Too Much had a female sharpshooter who takes the gun from policemen at the end of the movie the kill the villain herself, just a year later our heroines are constantly being slapped and abused.

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Despite Madeleine Carroll’s feisty performance, there’s something retrograde and unpleasant about seeing a woman handcuffed and dragged across the countryside against her will. To be fair, it’s a great dramatic situation: two strangers handcuffed together and one on the run from the law. Yet Hitchcock fills their chase with slaps, verbal rebukes, and one point where Donat literally chokes Carroll so she can’t speak. Remember that at this point she doesn’t know that he’s innocent; she’s trying to warn an innkeeper that the man’s traveling with is a wanted murderer.

Yet in the end all is forgiven in an admittedly masterful final shot where Mr. Memory lies dying backstage with a row of dancing girls behind him. In the foreground Donat and Carroll join hands of their own accord, now bound by their love not by handcuffs. While it’s a brilliant ending, it’s still hard to overlook the generally vile attitude towards women in the rest of the film. This misogynistic behavior doesn’t pop up in Young and Innocent, Saboteur, North by Northwest or the other chase films where a woman is along for the ride. Nor is it present in many of Hitchcock’s early British films, which often display an unusual sensitivity towards female characters. I’m at a loss to explain its presence here.

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The last shot of the film, with the two now choosing to join hands.

As I’ve said many times before, every time you watch a film or read a book or hear a pice of music, you interpret it differently because you’re different each time. I’ve seen The 39 Steps at least ten times in my life; multiple times in college as part of my Hitchcock VHS box set. At least twice in the theater. Another one or two times when I discovered it was streaming online (it’s not anymore, except as part of Filmstruck).

This was the first viewing where the blatant misogyny bothered me. Not sexism mind you; I can understand that in 1935 Britain, a certain amount of women-knowing-their-place was to be expected. No, it’s the way he grabs her, slaps her, covers her mouth, chokes her, and she still falls in love with him that’s hard to stomach.

If I had written this essay without rewatching the film, I’d be doing nothing but singing its praises. And it remains an astonishingly fleet, quick-witted film, technically years ahead of The Man Who Knew Too Much and most Hollywood films of the time. It’s the prototypical Hitchcock Wrong-Man film, the standard against which all others should be judged.

But here’s what bothers me the most: this is just a movie. Hitchcock and writer Charles Bennett could have written that scene differently. There’s a million ways it could have gone, as the scene is already wildly implausible. Yet instead we have Donat choking Carroll, and it’s hard to watch.

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Where do you draw the line with art? Does that mean you shouldn’t watch The 39 Steps? The answer is something that you have to decide for yourself. I personally decided to stop watching movies by Roman Polanski & Woody Allen, because I felt that their appalling, predatory behavior towards children was too much for me (Polanski fled the US after admitting to raping a thirteen year old girl, and while Allen has not been convicted of any sex crimes, he literally made multiple movies about an older man falling in love with teenage girls).

What of Hitchcock? Am I being a hypocrite by ignoring the stories about him and Tippi Hedren? What of the semi-feminist subtext I’ve detected in his movies? That, dear reader, is a subject for next week when I watch my second-to-last film for Hitchcock52, The Birds. 

The 39 Steps is streaming on FilmStruck, and can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.

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