Alfred Hitchcock

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The 39 Steps (1935)

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  • Dvd Release Date: 13 Aug 2001
  • Region: 2 (UK & Europe)
  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Certificate: U
  • Studio: ITV Studios Home Entertainment

    The general concensus for The 39 Steps on its release in the mid-Thirties was that its studio, Gaumont, had a zippy, punchy, romantic melodrama on its hands. Well, yes, but time has showed this film to be much more than that. Indeed, today, it regularly appears in polls for the best 100 films ever made. But why? It creaks like a much-loved antique bedstead; at times its far-fetched and improbable; it doesn't have the complexity of his later work; and the Lucie Mannheim death scene is as hilariously over-the-top and hammy as you could possibly hope to find.

It works because it has Hitch's fingerprints all over it; the influence of German Expressionism film has been absorbed and made his own; the stars produce great performance, and, most importantly, the entertainment holds like steel cable from start to finish. It is Hitchcock's great masterwork.

Story places a Canadian rancher (Robert Donat) in the centre of an English military secrets plot. He is simultaneously flying from a false accusation of murder and hunting down the leader of the spies, of whom he has learned from a lady (Mannheim) who becomes a corpse early in the story. In the course of his wanderings through Scottish hills and moors, he has a series of spectacular escapes and encounters.

It's a creamy role for the great Donat and his performance, ranging from humour to horror, reveals acting ability behind that good-looking facade. Teamed with the exquisitely beautiful Madeleine Carroll, who enters the footage importantly only toward the latter quarter section of the film, the romance is given a light touch which nicely colours an international spy chase.

One stroke of genius in this movie is this: the stocking scene between Donat and Carroll is one of the most erotic scenes ever seen in a movie. What makes it all the more remarkable is when you consider that it was done within the strict censorship confines of the time. It is part of the story and, as such, is not out of place.

Hitchcock brought out the best in his actors with methods that were unconventional. If the scene in which Donat is handcuffed to Carroll has a certain edge, for instance, that's perhaps because the director mischievously cuffed them together in a rehearsal, then left them attached for a whole afternoon, pretending to have lost the key.

Look out for a very young Peggy Ashcroft playing a crofter's wife and her husband in the movie John Laurie, who doesn't look much younger then than he did in TV's Dad's Army some 35 years later.

Hard to believe but the film was mostly shot in the studio with the Scottish locations a backdrop. You sense Donat & Carroll are wandering through the Scottish highlands rather than through a studio - such is the realness of the piece.

What little that was shot on location were the train escape sequence filmed at the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh in Scotland and scenes at Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor. For a map of locations please click here.

    The exteriors of the Scottish village were filmed at Welwyn Studios, Welwyn Garden City

The first scene of the film to be shot was the handcuff escape sequence, where Hannay and Pamela run into the foggy night through a flock of sheep (or "flock of detectives" as Hannay calls them). It was actually filmed in the studio.

On a personal note I have to say that for me Madeleine Carroll was not only the prototype Hitchcock blonde but also the best and I don't say that lightly when you consider that the likes of Grace Kelly and Kim Novak came after her. But surely no-one can surpass just how beautiful she was. Jaw-droppingly beautiful. Moreover, she fitted the feisty but vulnerable role of Pamela like a glove. She's not on the screen long but try taking your eyes off her when she does.


Overall, I can't recommend the film highly enough. In the end it's just an exciting movie from start to finish.

And there isn't a better reason than that to see it.


Alfred Hitchcock considered The 39 Steps to be one of his favourite films, partly because it launched his classic theme of the innocent man on the run from villains and lawmen. Robert Donat stars as Richard Hannay in this freely adapted version of John Buchan's story. Despite repeated remakes Hitchcock's riveting original remains unequalled.

A new documentary about Hitchcock is also included on the special edition release listed below.


This is a million times better than any other adaptation of Buchan's book. The 1959 version with Kenneth More isn't bad and neither is the Robert Powell's 1978 version for that matter but they both suffer when compared to Hitchcocks version. Ok, he played fast and loose with Buchan's story but that is because, I think, Hitchcock knew what would work on the big screen and what wouldn't. Nthing should get in the way of entertainment and I don't think anyone has come out of a cinema feeling short-changed ater seeing one of his movies.

By far the worst version is the most recent one, the 2008 BBC version with Rupert Penry-Jones in the lead role. I'm not really a fan of his and in this I just find him tiresomely wooden and as bland as bland can be. The script is poor, the sets and locations drab looking and by the end I was so bored I couldn't care less what happened. Like watching paint dry.

The BBC are proud of their reputation for making quality drama. Indeed, they never seem to tire of telling us just how great they are. But as a public broadcaster they should be doing that (or why else could the licence fee be justified?). So for them to be putting out dross like this is really unacceptable. I'm not a great lover of the BBC and this drama scarily sums up an organisation that patently has lost its way. The production is just pointless.

Watch it after watching the 1935 version and I think you will find that this is one of many occasions where the past sure does outshine the present. But do get it if you like to watch jaw-droppingly awful dramas. In that department it won't disappoint. More details on it are at

Kind of like watching a Carry On movie (without the humour) after feasting on M or The Third Man


  • Actors:
      Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye & Frank Cellier

  • Dir:
  • Prod:
  • Scr:
      Charles Bennett, Alma Reville, Ian Hay, from the novel by John Buchan
  • Ph:
      Bernard Knowles
  • Ed:
      Derek Twist
  • Mus:
      Louis Levy (dir)
  • Art Dir:
      Oscar Werndorff, Albert Julian


    Dvd Special Features

      All-new Documentary Profiling Legendary Director Alfred Hitchcock
      Interactive Menu
      Scene Access
      Behind the scenes stills gallery

    Technical Details

      Screen: Fullscreen 4:3
      Languages: English - Dolby Digital (1.0) Mono
      Subtitles: English ; English for the hearing impaired
      Duration: 1 hour and 18 minutes (approx)
      Region: Region 2 - Will only play on European Region 2 or multi-region DVD players.

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  • Price: 9.99 (UK Sterling)
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