Origins of the 39 Steps Part II

By December 10, 2015 39 Steps

In Which a Story Plays on the Silver Screen: Alfred Hitchcock & the Film
Shannon Hurst

Be sure to check out Part I of the Origins of the 39 STEPS series: In Which a Story Cures Boredom.

Known the world over as the supreme Master of Suspense, filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock received his famous moniker following the debut of his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Released at a time where cinematic audiences were again on the verge of another World War, the film served to bolster Hitchcock’s career—leading him directly to a contract in Hollywood—as well as to secure the popularity of spy-thrillers on the big screen.

Having read John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps in grade school, a young Alfred Hitchcock believed the thrilling, expansive adventure and unsuspecting, innocent action hero would serve well as the foundation of a great suspense film. Once the burgeoning director had completed his first spy film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, he would begin to work on re-crafting Buchan’s novel. Altering the story’s title to The 39 Steps, Hitchcock recrafted many of the details of Hannay’s journey to first make it more suitable for cinematic audiences, then on the verge of yet another World War, primarily by including the addition of the now-iconic femme fatale and “cool blonde” female characters, and also to heighten its elements of suspense, or perpetual state of anticipation. The result was not only a tremendous success for its director, but another raving success for the story of Richard Hannay.

Hitchcock’s work on The 39 Steps and his other spy-thrillers helped to shape his aesthetic that is now familiar to his contemporary audiences. One such creative element employed by Hitchcock in this film he would refer to as his “MacGuffin”—a plot key that is both critically important but utterly vague; Hannay learns from Annabella, a mysterious femme fatale, that there is such a thing as the 39 Steps and that they are dangerous and important, but leaves Hannay and his audiences to fill in any remaining blanks. The film is briskly-paced—another alteration of Buchan’s novel—and focuses much more on the journey of Hannay with his new, “cool blonde” companion. This new romance would serve as the basis of Hannay’s story being brought to the stage eighty years after the film’s release.