Actual participation in the Swashathon – The 39 Steps is…

“Posted as part of the Swashathon hosted by Movies Silently

Towards the end of this magnificent movie, our dashing hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) asks, nay demands, to know what are the 39 steps.

“COME ON, ANSWER ME! WHAT ARE THE 39 STEPS???”

He seems pretty anxious for clarity on that point, and he’s been through a lot by then so I think he deserves an answer. The thought occurs, however, that the 39 Steps is a number of things.

…definitely a swashbuckler

When I submitted this for the Swashathon, Fritzi quite rightly challenged me on whether it meets the definition of a swashbuckler at all. I pondered on this and decided that a clear and concise set of criteria were needed against which a possible ‘buckler can be gauged.

I’d propose the following:

Met by 39 Steps?
The hero has a carefree, almost reckless attitude to life I’d say so. Apart from anything else, how long has that haddock been in the pantry for?
…has a rakish moustache Oh yes.
…wears a pair of stupid trousers Not really, I’m afraid. He seems keen on a sort of tweedy impertinence.
…slides down a sail and/or swings on a rope with a knife between his teeth Not as such, no.
…is willing to stop a train on the bridge, despite that being against all the regulations Yes! He is! That’s the clincher!!
By unknown (Douglas Fairbanks Prod. / United Artists) (http://www.virtual-history.com/movie/image/26576) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By unknown (Douglas Fairbanks Prod. / United Artists) (http://www.virtual-history.com/movie/image/26576) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Maybe it's not the most swashbuckling film out there.

…more like a silent film than you might think

Ok, it’s not a silent film. There’s talking and a variety of sounds that you could, if that were your wont, describe as diegetic. There are, however, a surprising number of bits – and some of its best bits at that – which could have been in a silent film.

Most famously, the scene with Hannay having dinner with the crofter and his wife (John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft no less) plays out almost silently and yet it’s always perfectly clear what’s going on and what each of the three characters think is going on. No less than François Truffaut referred to it as “a beautiful illustration of silent filming.” I’m certainly not going to argue with that, but there are others. The scene where the charwoman finds the body, turns and screams but her scream turns into a train whistle could easily have been a direction to the musicians accompanying a silent. The tune Hannay can’t get out of his head – easily built in to that same accompaniment.

I recently saw The Lodger (give it a go if you get the chance, it’s excellent) and it shares a surprising amount with The 39 Steps (the music hall lights are a recurring theme) as well as with his later work (there are a couple of shots recreated almost exactly 30 years later in Psycho). From that point of view, The 39 Steps is a perfect midpoint to Hitch’s career – the silents behind him but Hollywood yet to come and it has elements of both.

He didn’t actually reuse the ‘innocent man on the run from both the police and the villains’ idea as often as you might think he did (I think North by Northwest is the closest?) but the spirit of one man pitted against the world comes up again and again in, amongst others, Strangers on a Train and Spellbound.

By Originally published by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Originally published by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was a book first. The film's better.

However, you don’t want to watch 39 Steps because it’s an interesting bit of movie history, you want to watch it because it’s…

…gloriously implausible

In a number of ways, The 39 Steps makes no logical sense. For example:

  • Why do the spies break into his flat, kill the woman, then leave and wait politely outside for him to walk out in broad daylight so they can kill him in the street?
  • After shooting Hannay, could our friend with the missing finger not have checked for a pulse before assuming he didn’t have a bible in his pocket?
  • Can you get off the Forth Bridge on foot?

However, none of this matters in the slightest. I’m as happy as anyone to scoff at plot holes in second rate Hollywood product (hello Prometheus), but when it’s carried off with a much brio as this it just seems improper. The story rattles along so quickly and so joyously that you have neither the time nor the inclination to question anything.

I think that’s something Hollywood’s lost. Hitchcock gets through his story in 86 minutes, a remake today (no thanks!) would probably add an hour to that. More talk, less excitement, more time to worry about boring logic.

Hitchcock addressed his indifference to logic directly in his famous interview with Truffaut, saying that “we should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull.” As much as anything, to me that shows his total mastery of film. When you can control the audience as well as him, they’ll accept anything.

…pretty hot

Madeleine Carroll (Legion of Honour winner, by the way!) taking her stockings off….

By Brianboru100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Brianboru100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Genuine war hero. From West Bromwich. Didn't know either 
of those things!

…an organisation of spies collecting information on behalf of…aaarrgghhh *grips chest and collapses in melodramatic fashion*

Sources:

  • François Truffaut, Hitchcock by François Truffaut (1983, English language translation 1984)
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13 thoughts on “Actual participation in the Swashathon – The 39 Steps is…

  1. I guess, yeah, when you think about it, this does fit the definition of a swashbuckler. And I believe that Robert Donat was supposed to star in “Captain Blood”…..and I totally agree with you about Madeleine taking her stockings off.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This review is so funny, and you’ve captured so well so many of the delights of the film. I’ve always been amused by the haddock scene, so this comment was a favorite: “Apart from anything else, how long has that haddock been in the pantry for?” I couldn’t agree with you more about current Hollywood pacing. What is up with the long films? Even comedies & action flicks at 2 hours plus?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! When arguing a position that is, shall we say, open to challenge I find it much more fun to dive right in with some questionable assertions!

      Also, yes, yes and yes again on long films. Unless you’re making The Godfather you should be able to get through your story in 100 minutes tops.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you made the case well. I covered Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo and was lamenting that he made just one swashbuckler, but when you put it like this… well I’m convinced! Either way, The 39 Steps is a wonderful film that’s worth a watch whatever genre you categorise it in!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah, there are a few logic gaps in The 39 Steps, but the film moves so quickly, you soon forget ’em. Besides, there’s Robert Donat, so there we go.

    Really enjoyed your post. A really great review of this Hitchcock film.

    Like

  5. Wow, great post! I also thought: “but The 39 Steps is not a swashbuckler”! But you convinced me otherwise. In fact, I learned that a swashbuckler is much more than I imagined! And, also, I want to see The 39 Steps again – because I never thought it could work as a silent film!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    Like

  6. Excellent thoughts. I think another thing a swashbuckling hero needs, unless the movie is silent, is a cool voice. Robert Donat has one of the coolest, right up there with Ronald Colman. And you’re right about the scene with the stockings.

    Like

  7. Along with NORTH BY NORTHWEST, this is probably my favorite Hitchcock film, and if it isn’t a swashbuckler film per se, it certainly contains the spirit of one, and you do a good job in capturing how and why it does that. Nice write-up.

    Like

  8. Pingback: Why the Long Films? | Cary Grant Won't Eat You

  9. Pingback: Actual participation in the ‘Try It, You’ll Like It’ blogathon – Casablanca and the wisdom of the old movie newbie | Special Purpose Movie Blog

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