Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The 39 Steps (1935)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The 39 Steps (1935, UK)

In master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock's British classic - a tale of espionage, murder, and an innocent man on the run - including the masterminding theft of British military secrets by a group of assassins (presumably Nazi Germans):

  • the opening scene of Canadian Richard Hannay's (Robert Donat) attendance at a Music Hall vaudeville-show performance, at the London Palladium featuring Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a remarkable memory expert, and the pandemonium that broke out after gunshots were fired
  • the sequence of Hannay's meeting up with counterspy female mercenary agent Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) in his own rented, furnished bachelor flat at Portland Place, who asked him: "Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?" - he was confused: "No, what's that, a pub?"
  • the fatal stabbing in the back of Annabella with a kitchen knife in the middle of the night, when she staggered into the living room (where Hannay was sleeping) and delivered her last words to him - a warning: "Clear out, Hannay! They'll get you next"
  • the famous scene transition blending the scream of the housekeeper discovering the corpse to the shrieking whistle of a train
  • the sequence of wrongly-accused, hero-on-the-run Hannay in Scotland during a widespread manhunt, hiding out for a night's lodging and shelter in a crofter's cottage with a couple: stern, miserly, middle-aged, suspicious Calvinistic crofter-sheepherder John (John Laurie) and his young and sheltered, unhappily-married wife Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft) (first wrongly assumed to be the crofter's daughter); and Hannay's conversation with her about how she missed and longed for the "fine shops" and the Saturday night "cinema palaces and their crowds" of city life - and her expression of faith in Hannay's innocence while knowing about his incrimination in newspaper headlines: "PORTLAND PLACE MURDER TRACED TO SCOTLAND", while her possessive and treacherous husband betrayed his location to authorities
  • the scene of Margaret warning Hannay to flee in the middle of the night when the police pulled up in a vehicle, while her jealous husband wrongly accused her of infidelity: "I might have known. Making love behind my back. (To his wife) Get out!"; Hannay explained otherwise: "Look here, you're all wrong about this. She was only trying to help me"; as he fled covered in the crofter's overcoat, Hannay worried that she would be ill-treated afterwards, but she reassured him: "He'll pray at me, but no more"; however, the camera lingered on Margaret's face as she longingly watched Hannay disappear into the night - it was a desolate look that conveyed the loss of any possibility of freedom and dreams (off-camera, she was soon to be fearfully condemned, cursed and savagely beaten due to John's puritanical, oppressive attitudes in their loveless, forced marriage)
  • the master spy Professor Jordan's (Godfrey Tearle) display of his tell-tale disfiguration (that Annabella had warned about: "He has a dozen names, and he can look like a hundred people, but one thing he cannot disguise - this: part of his little finger is missing - so if ever you should meet a man with no top joint there, be very careful, my friend") - a missing portion of his little finger on his right hand (before he pulled out a gun and shot Hannay point-blank) - followed by a superb fadeout - and the discovery that the crofter's thick hymnbook in the breast pocket of his overcoat had saved Hannay's life
  • Hannay's memorable political speech after he found himself - at an opportune moment - at the lecturn on stage at a political rally: "...may I say, from the bottom of my heart and with the utmost sincerity, how delighted and relieved I am to find myself in your presence at this moment... Delighted, because of your friendly reception, and relieved, because as long as I stand on this platform, I'm delivered from the moment (he caught himself from saying "of truth") - from the cares and anxieties which must always be the lot of a man in my position"; then he said: "And I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel" - an apt description of his imperiled situation
  • when apprehended by the spies, the two major characters - Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) - were forced to be handcuffed or shackled together (Hannay: "There are twenty million women in this island and I've got to be chained to you") - followed by many uncomfortable situations they found themselves in
  • the final sequences, back at London's Palladium, and the questioning of Mr. Memory on stage, when Hannay suddenly realized that the memory expert held the Hitchcockian "MacGuffin" in his head - he had memorized the classified secret information regarding mechanical plans for the design of an airplane engine; Hannay asked a self-incriminating question of Mr. Memory, as the camera angle titled: "What are the Thirty-Nine Steps? Come on! Answer up! What are the Thirty-Nine Steps?"
The Death of Mr. Memory - Shot by Jordan
  • the subsequent assassination attempt by Jordan (hiding in an opera box) of Mr. Memory as he divulged the crucial identity of the 39 Steps: "The Thirty-Nine Steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of..." - he was interrupted when he was shot, fell to the stage and grabbed his side from the lethal wound
  • and finally, Memory's confession about the information as he was dying - a proud recitation of the complicated scientific mathematical formulas of the secret documents that he had painstakingly memorized about how to make silent aircraft engines, followed by his statement of relief: ("Thank you, sir. Thank you. I'm glad it's off my mind. Glad!") - while chorus girls kicked on stage behind him and Hannay (with the handcuffs only on him) voluntarily joined hands with Pamela in the foreground - in the closing image

Mr. Memory's Performance

Annabella: "Have you ever heard of the 39 Steps?"

With the Crofter Couple and Wife Margaret

Professor Jordan With a Missing Little Finger

Saved By the Crofter's Hymnbook in His Pocket

Memorable Political Speech

Handcuffed to Pamela

Joining Hands Voluntarily


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