The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are the two most important formative films in the career of British born director, Alfred Hitchcock. That career spanned more than five decades.
Thematically, there is little difference between their narrative devices in the ‘30s and his later works. What changed is the technology and the history. The skeletal stories donned new clothes; technical innovations made new things possible like colour and sound.
Hitchcock stands at the epicenter of change and innovation not necessarily because he stood at the cutting edge but because he could tell a story better than any one else and for all those 50 plus years, the world of cinema has struggled to keep up.
Hitchcock’s career began in England in the 1920s and many of his earliest films were made without sound. He was a member of the British Film Society along with such literary luminaries as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells; filmmaker Anthony Asquith and critics like Iris Barry and Ivor Montagu.
The BFI screened works of German Expressionist cinema such as FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Robert Wiene’s 1920 classic, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari as well as the works of Sergei Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith. This experience heavily influenced Hitchcock’s filmmaking style although he refrained from writing theoretical essays on film like his contemporaries. It might be said he practiced what they preached.
In fact, throughout his career, Hitchcock stood astride two distinctions in cinematic history by his own design. He craved and sought commercial success as a measure of his own achievements but he had an equal craving for the approval of his contemporaries and their acknowledgement of his role in the development of film as an art form.
The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes have many features in common. Both films were made prior to Hitchcock uprooting to Hollywood. Both films involve train journeys. Both films are based on novels, Ethel Lina white’s The Wheel Spins , (1936) and John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’, (1915).
In The 39 Steps, the hero, Richard Hannay is an innocent man, wrongly accused of a murder, who goes on the run to expose the real criminals and prove his innocence.
In The Lady Vanishes, the protagonist is a woman who reports the mysterious disappearance of a travel companion only to find no-one believes her. The classic narrative of a wrongly accused innocent on the run became a recurring theme for Hitchcock (North by Northwest) or, as in The Lady Vanishes, the heroine’s sanity is in question (Suspicion). Both films were made in the 1930s against a backdrop of international unrest, particularly on mainland Europe.
John Buchan’s novel of The 39 Steps was written while he was recuperating from an illness in 1915. It plays with the prevalent fear of fifth columnists, spies and counter-spies. Hitchcock’s adaptation brings the film forward to the ‘30s against the backdrop of the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany and Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. It is not inconceivable either that Hitchcock was indifferent to the prevalent philosophical teachings of his day.
The Frenchman, Henri Bergson wrote of how to live in ‘real time’, a person should and must grasp it intuitively. Such a notion would have found favour with a thoughtful cineaste as Hitchcock. As a filmmaker, he directed what his audience would intuit. Story telling was Hitchcock’s strength and he used every trick available to him to insure the story was told the way he wanted it perceived.
Although he once referred to his audience as ‘the moron millions’, Hitchcock had a conspiratorial pact with his audience. He made the suspense thriller the genre with which he was most closely identified and he employed and deployed his grab bag of tricks like a virtuoso violinist. In a Hitchcock film the audience are at once spectator and spied upon; hare and hound.
The 39 Steps begins in a place of entertainment, a music hall where Richard Hannay, an expatriate Canadian goes to while away some time in frivolous amusement. The star attraction is Mr Memory whose act lies in remembering facts with little notion of their meaning or import. Hitchcock lets the circumstances tell the story; we find out about Hannay because he asks Mr Memory the distance between Winnipeg and Montreal. But as the show progresses, the audience grow bored and restless; there’s jostling and a fight. Then two gun shots are fired. It is the first hint of the influence of the German Expressionists on Hitchcock; the jostling crowd, Mr Memory, the fight, the gunshots, askew camera angles.
Leaving the music hall, Hannay meets Annabella Smith who persuades him to take her home to his flat. There, she explains she fired the shots to scare off two heavies who were moving in on her. She tells him she is a spy for the British Government on the trail of a mysterious ringleader whose only distinguishing feature is a mutilated digit. In the morning her body is discovered by Hannay’s maid.
Smith is knifed to death, another Hitchcock favourite. But it is the maid’s scream that lavishes more of the classic Hitchcockian mode; first, it is a classic Expressionist ploy except in this case Hitchcock has deployed its impact in sound. The open mouthed scream of the maid segues neatly, dramatically and suspensefully into the train whistle to mark the fleeing Hannay’s departure to Scotland where he must find Ms Smith’s murderer to exonerate himself.
The 39 Steps in question are explained as some unspecified military secret that is vital to British security. But this becomes largely irrelevant to the narrative which deals with Hannay’s journey and particularly his efforts to persuade his reluctant travel companion, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) of his innocence.
This is the classic ‘McGuffin’ of Hitchcock films, a ‘red herring’ introduced early in the narrative to help advance the plot but with little or no impact on its resolution. Thus the disappearance of Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes appears to be the film’s raison d’etre but it proves to be just another narrative ploy, a McGuffin, against the enfolding of the film’s far more sinister purpose.
Hitchcock employs comedy in both films for light relief but, as a master storyteller, he’s well aware of the narrow divide between comedy and horror, the kind of suspenseful horror that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. In the 39 Steps, he uses Mr Memory’s music hall performance and Hannay’s introduction to create his first moment of suspense using choppy editing, odd camera angles, glowering faces, ribaldry and boisterousness before he breaks the atmosphere abruptly with the gunshots.
In The Lady Vanishes, his most comic construct is the character double act of Caldecott and Charters, the pair of British gents on holiday, played by Naunton Wayne (Caldecott) and Basil Radford (Charters) whose sole obsession is getting home to see the England team play a test cricket series. Their employment proved so successful, the pair appeared in a total of ten films as the same characters, subsequently.
There is a deeper purpose to the comic characters in The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock used contemporary socio-political concerns as a narrative vehicle in both films. The Lady Vanishes was made in 1938 when concern about developments in Europe were becoming more urgent. It was in the eve of Chamberlain’s so called Munich agreement. Caldicott and Charters make disparaging remarks about the country they are in – an obscure Tyrolean state – and the only ‘England’ they appear to be concerned about, is a cricket team.
Eric Todhunter, the pompous English barrister holidaying with his mistress, ‘Mrs’ Margaret Todhunter, is more concerned with keeping up appearances and not letting the world know his business than with the disappearance of an English governess. He is even more incredulous when confronted with gun wielding security in a secluded woods of a Tyrolean state. His death, delivered abruptly and without histrionics by Hitchcock, brings them all back to reality with a bang. It was clearly time to wake up and smell the coffee, or, in this case, the herbal tea favoured by Miss Froy.
The train journey serves a similar purpose in The 39 Steps. Hannay is Canadian, a traveler who has just returned from his work as a mining engineer in Africa. He visits a music hall and finds himself embroiled in a tangle of espionage and murder. When he takes the journey from London to Edinburgh, he begins his own journey of reawakening. The pace of the train ride reflects Hannay’s shift from a man reacting to events he hasn’t created into someone who regains his spontaneity and takes control of his own destiny. Gun wielding thugs can concentrate the mind but it is Hannay’s determination and drive to prove himself innocent against odds that appear to stack themselves higher against him with every plot twist, that is his real journey of self discovery and awakening.
Equally, his relationship with his unwilling travel companion (Madeleine Carroll) becomes the focus of his quest to prove his innocence. They remain handcuffed together for more than half the film – Hitchcock doesn’t resist the opportunity for a comic interlude here when they reach the crofter’s cottage and have to share a bed as ‘honeymooners’ – but in the film’s closing scene they walk away holding hands.
In The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a London socialite on her way home to marry a man she doesn’t love. She meets with Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), an English gentleman writing a history of the folk music of the country in which they’re traveling. Although their introduction is not a happy one, when she convinces him of the disappearance of Miss Froy and in their subsequent misadventures on the train, he changes from a gadabout to someone with purpose: a hero, in other words and someone with whom she could never resist falling in love. It has sometimes been argued that Hitchcock was never an innovator but someone who used the artillery available to him better than any one of his contemporaries.
For many others, even Hitchcock, The 39 Steps was ‘pure cinema’, a story told with pictures and sound in a craft and medium that was still in its formative years.
In The Lady Vanishes he uses all the dramatic, editing and cinematic tricks he would employ in his later work in Hollywood. Both films stand as classics of the Hitchcock oeuvre and, in their own right, both stand as classics of a genre – the suspense thriller – and would be used as style blueprints for films that followed.