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.


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) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By unknown (Douglas Fairbanks Prod. / United Artists) ( [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 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Brianboru100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, 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*


  • François Truffaut, Hitchcock by François Truffaut (1983, English language translation 1984)