A high point of Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood career, 1935's The Thirty-Nine Steps
is the first and best of three film versions of John Buchan's rather stiff novel
. Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, who becomes embroiled in a plot to steal military secrets. He finds himself on the run; falsely accused of murder, while also pursuing the dastardly web of spies alluded to in the title. With a plot whose twists and turns match the hilly Scottish terrain in which much of the film is set, The Thirty-Nine Steps
combines a breezy suavity with a palpable psychological tension. Hitchcock was already a master at conveying such tension through his cinematic methods, rather than relying just on situation or dialogue. Sometimes his ways of bringing the best out of his actors brought the worst out in himself. If the scene in which Donat is handcuffed to co-star Madeline 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. The movie also introduces Hitchcock's favoured plot device, the "McGuffin" (here, the military secret), the unexplained device or "non-point" on which the movie turns. --David Stubbs
A classic British spy mystery, and one of Hitchcock's best, The 39 Steps tells the thrilling tale of an innocent man, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), who struggles to prove he is not guilty of committing the murder for which he is being held accountable. Richard got more than he bargained for when he brought home a mysterious woman, who later confessed to be a British agent on the hot trail of a dangerous spy ring. The woman is killed in Richard's apartment and he immediately finds himself on the run, burdened with the charge for her murder and the dangerous knowledge of her mission. Hitchchock's film is distinguished by its pioneering use of contrapuntal sound effects, as well as the dynamism between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Special features on the The 39 Steps DVD include biographies, a behind-the-scenes stills gallery and animated menus.