by Philip Molinelli
The Women of The 39 Steps
In Charles Silet’s essay on Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, he states that Richard Hannay, the male protagonist, achieves his redemption through his encounters with women in the movie, which as Silet says: “acknowledges the value of women on behalf of a (male) society which treats women, and especially marriages between men and women, as traps to be avoided.” I think that there is some definite truth to this statement. Throughout the movie, Hannay’s journey is only really allowed to happen and succeed because of the women.
A reoccurring premise of Hitchcock’s movies is there’s an ordinary man who gets caught up in an intrigue. The 39 Steps is one of the ones that incorporated this premise. The whole start of the movie’s story is because of Hannay’s encounter of Annabelle Smith, a woman who is a spy. She tells him that she has uncovered a plot to steal important British Military information and is subsequently being hunted by dangerous men because of it. She is later attacked and killed but before her death, she warns Hannay to flee and leaves him a map to Alt-na-Shellach, a farm in the Scottish Highlands. This is what begins Hannay’s journey as he hopes to finish what she started by stopping the plot, while being pursued by both the men who were after Smith, and the police who assume he murdered her.
Later in the movie, Hannay ends up having to the stay the night at the home of a farmer and his wife. The next morning, the wife wakens Hannay, warning him of a police car approaching. Before he flees, she also gives him her husband’s coat. This saves Hannay’s life later in the movie when he gets shot by Jordan, a hymn book in the coat pocket prevents the bullet from hitting him.
But the most important woman in the movie that helps Hannay is Pamela. Ironically in her first scenes, Pamela is a hinderance since when they first meet, she immediately informs the police about him. However later in the movie they become handcuffed together and she is forced to go along with him to an inn. In their scenes while handcuffed they bicker like an old married couple. Perhaps a joke on how marriage is like being handcuffed to someone. Overnight, she slips out of the handcuff’s and attempts to leave, but she then overhears a fake policeman on the phone and realizes that Hannay is innocent and was telling the truth. She then tells Hannay of what she heard, including that Jordan will be at the London Palladium. It’s this information that allows Hannay to expose the plot once and for all.
Hitchcock’s British films vs his Hollywood films
The 39 Steps is known for being one of Hitchcock’s films that really turned him into a household name. It was also one of his final British films before he started making big Hollywood productions. In The 39 Steps, is also believed to be the introduction of something that would become a major part of Hitchcock’s Hollywood pictures: The MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is an object or device, that is introduced as a motivation for the characters, but is otherwise insignificant to the main plot. In The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is the British military information. By being one of Hitchcock’s earliest films to use this trope, The 39 Steps could be a prototype for Hitchcock’s Hollywood films.
The 39 Steps and Blackmail
The 39 Steps has a lot in common with Hitchcock’s previous film Blackmail. Both films center around a character whose life is turned upside down by a murder. In The 39 Steps, Smith is murdered in Hannay’s apartment. In Blackmail, Alice ends up killing Crewe in self-defense after he tries to rape her. In both films the murder causes the police to become involved, resulting in a world of trouble for the protagonist. Hannay is blamed for the murder and pursued by the police throughout the movie for it. Alice is blackmailed by Tracey who saw her go into Crewe’s flat. Finally, both films also have a character who spends the beginning at odds with the protagonist but end up helping them in the end. That’s the role of Pamela in The 39 Steps and Frank in Blackmail.
Writing 101: What Is a MacGuffin? Learn About MacGuffins in Film, Literature, and Popular Culture – 2022 – MasterClass
I totally agree with your statement about the acknowledges the value of women on behalf of a (male) society which treat women, and especially marriages between men and women, as traps to be avoided. This statement pretty much can cover most of Hitchcock’s films like “To Catch a Thief”, the male protagonist “John Robie” was framed for crimes of robbery by a mysterious cat-burglar. Who in fact turns out to be a woman that been helping him find the person responsible but, turns out she was using him from the very start to cover for her bad deeds, “Danielle”. And the only reason John was able to catch the criminal in the act was because of a woman he met a few days earlier, “Frances Stevens” so slowly figure out his past and still falls in love with him. Frances and her mother “Jessica Stevens” dances with a guy who was posing as John so he can wait for the cat-burglar on the roof of the mansion. Another example is the film “Rebecca” where “Maxim de Winter” is dealing with the guilt and believing that he killed his first wife, without knowing that she was secretly dyeing anyway and plans to commit suicide. And “Mrs. Danvers” giving “Mrs. de Winter” a very hard time living in the de Winter’s house because Mrs. Danvers believes that Mrs. de Winter will never be a replacement for Rebecca, so much that she burned the house to the ground rather seeing the two of them living a happy life together.
After reading your blog I was really able to form a deeper understanding of Hitchcock’s intentions with his films. For example, I never really thought about the whole “marriage is like being handcuffed” metaphor that was represented in The 39 Steps until now. Although it’s a more pessimistic approach towards marriage, I can see what Hitchcock was trying to go for. I also agree that a lot of these stories were carried by the women that were portrayed throughout these films.
Lovely post here. I found it super informative and it expanded my knowledge on The 39 Steps as well as it’s impact on Hitchcock’s career. I wasn’t aware that this was one of his final British films before Hollywood productions! Makes sense considering his style was something Hollywood ate up. I also wasn’t aware of “The MacGuffin” and the examples about women carrying the stories you used were very effective.. Makes me wonder how he came up with it, but I suppose that’s part of just what makes Hitchcock such a unique director.
I really appreciated your blog. I think you were really able to find a lot of information and facts that I was completely unaware of. as Jenny pointed out I never noticed the marriage metaphor before. I also think is interesting how The MacGuffin evolved from the time it was first introduced in The 39 Steps to his later work in Hollywood. I had read about Hitchcock’s MacGuffins but somehow it was never a notion that i was able to understand. Or like what his logic behind them was. I thought it was something that came with his start in Hollywood but now that I know it went back to his final British film I do wonder what his motivation behind his choice was. But I am definitely excited to see how it evolves in his next films.
Great post, I now understand why “The 39 Steps” is so influential, not only in Hitchcock’s filmography, but to film itself. I have never heard of the name MacGuffin, but know of the plot device that it is, and did not know Hitchcock is the one that adopted the term. After knowing that, I noticed know how many films have this device and now aware that it came from this film. I wasn’t also aware of the similarities between Blackmail and The 39 steps and how each start with opposite sex doubting the protagonists truth, but eventually sees their side.
I loved this post on the 39 steps Philip, it’s clear to me why this is one of Hitchcock’s most successful films. The women in this movie really do drive the film. I love particularly how you brought up how the bible in his coat pocket ending up saving his life that was given to him by the woman at the house on the farm. The women truly do drive this film in every instance if you are to truly analyze it. Another instance is when they have to stay at the motel and the woman at the door doesn’t snitch. She is the one who takes charge and not her husband before kissing her husband and proclaiming an ode to young love. There is truly an appreciation for women in the movie that is paramount.