The 39 Steps
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A Note Regarding Spoilers

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for The 39 Steps can be found here.

A Canadian visitor in London, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) becomes involved in a spy ring when secret agent Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), whom he meets at a demonstration of the amazing feats of Mr Memory (Wylie Watson), comes home with him and is stabbed to death during the night. Hannay goes on the run to break the spy ring and prove his innocence. All he knows is that it has something to do with a large house in a small town in Scotland, a man with the top joint missing from his pinky finger, and something called the 39 steps.

Yes. The Thirty-nine Steps is a 1915 novel by Scottish adventure writer John Buchan [1875-1940], the first of six novels featuring action hero Richard Hannay. The other five novels include Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924), The Courts of the Morning (1929), and The Island of Sheep (1936). The novel was loosely adapted for the movie by English screenwriter Charles Bennett, and the movie was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. There have also been three remakes of The 39 Steps -- The 39 Steps (1959), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978), and The 39 Steps (2008). A fourth remake, The 39 Steps, is in 'development' with no date for release.

The MC has just introduced Mr Memory and boasted of his "prodigious feats". The person with the irritating voice says to her partner: "His feet ain't half as big as yours, Charlie."

Pip is a disease of a bird's mouth. When the man's wife tells him to be quiet, he then says, "Well, our fowls have it!"

Some viewers see that as a plothole or a goof on Hitchcock's part, but one likely explanation is that they did it to kill two birds with one stone. By killing Annabella and leaving Hannay, he would be blamed and arrested for her murder, thus closing the investigation.

The copper says "Young man having a free meal in there!"

Most likely because Hannay got away and headed for Scotland. The spies knew that he knew something and, therefore, he needed to be eliminated.

What are the 39 steps?

Mr Memory answers that question near the end of the movie when he starts to explain, "The Thirty-Nine Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of ...", but he is shot by Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) before he can name the country. Considering the year that this movie was made (1935), many viewers conclude it was the foreign office of Germany, but there is no evidence to show this is the case. The novel, in fact, was set just before WWI and "the 39 steps" is actually a code for a hillside cabin that leads to 39 steps that are part of the secret society of spies.

Mr Memory also answers that after he is shot. In a rather long-winded speech, he describes a cylinder that will allow engines to run without making a sound. Hitchcock considers the secret formula one of his MacGuffins, a term describing "the plot device, of little intrinsic interest, such as lost or stolen papers, that triggers the action." [Quote from Halliwell's Filmgoers Companion].

How does the movie end?

Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) leave Scotland and return to London. While Hannay heads over to the Palladium, Pamela tries to alert Scotland Yard about the secret formula about to be smuggled out of England, but the police assure her that the air ministry is missing no papers with regards to it. Still, they follow her when she rejoins Hannay at the Palladium. During the show, Hannay notices a man with the top joint missing from his pinky finger but can't figure out how Jordan is going to get the secret formula out of England. When the show is over, he hears a familiar tune and realizes that Mr. Memory is about to come on stage. Suddenly, it all clicks. Mr Memory has memorized the formula, and Jordan plans to take him out of the country after the show. When Mr Memory begins to take questions, Hannay shouts out, 'What are the 39 steps?' Mr Memory begins to answer. 'The 39 steps is an organization of spies collecting information on behalf of...' suddenly a shot rings out and Mr Memory falls to the ground. Jordan is seen attempting to escape, but he is apprehended by the police. Hannay follows Mr. Memory backstage and asks, 'What was the secret formula that you were taking out of the country?' Mr. Memory replies 'The first feature of the new engine is its greatly increased ratio of compression represented by 'r' minus one over 'r' raised to the power of gamma, where 'r' represents the ration of compression and gamma..., seen in end derivation, the axis of the two lines of cylinders, angle of 65 degrees. Dimensions of cylinders as follows. This device renders the engine completely sound. Am I right, sir?' He then collapses. In the final scene, Pamela and Hannay, the handcuffs still dangling from his wrist, hold hands as Mr. Memory is carried away.

Some viewers have noticed that Mr Memory seems to be entranced when answering Hannay's questions and wonder whether the spies may have hypnotized him or otherwise tampered with his mind so that he would be compelled to answer the questions when asked. Other viewers think Mr Memory didn't want to let his audience believe that he didn't have the answer, so he felt compelled to answer the question to maintain his reputation as the man who knows everything. Hitchcock himself has answered that question thusly: "The whole idea is that the man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answer." [Quote from Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, Ch. 4]

Yes. Hitchcock is a passer-by on the street when Hannay and Annabella come out of the music hall about seven minutes into the movie. They cross the street and get on a bus as Hitchcock walks by and tosses some litter on the ground.

Those who have both read the book and seen the movie say that the movie is quite different from the book. For example, the actual 39 steps of the book are different from the movie. Also in the book, Hannay is never handcuffed to a woman; in fact, the romantic bit between Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) was made up for the movie. Hitchcock's film does follow the novel in one important respect: both stories are highly episodic, unrolling almost like collections of self-contained short stories. The main difference structurally is that Buchan's episodes, enshrined in long discrete chapters, have a clear beginning, middle, and end, whereas Hitchcock hurtles from one episode to the next scarcely more warning of his abrupt changes in time, place, and tone.

The copyright status of this film depends on which country you live in. The US copyright to The 39 Steps was reasserted by Carlton Film Distributors, Ltd in 1997 and the rights subsequently transferred to Granada International and ITV Studios. Under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (1994) signed by President Clinton, The 39 Steps' US copyright currently lasts for 95 calendar years from publication and the film will enter the public domain at the beginning of 2031. The UK copyright was extended in 1996 and remains in force until at least 2050 (being 70 years after the death of the principle director). The film remains in the public domain in many countries with shorter copyright terms (for example Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand). Details of the copyright restoration notice for The 39 Steps (and other Hitchcock films) can be found on the U.S. Copyright Office website.

Page last updated by bj_kuehl, 10 months ago
Top 5 Contributors: bj_kuehl, J. Spurlin, davepattern, hunterjlc, RishOut

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