The 39 Steps was arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most adventurous adaptation at the time that it was released. It’s based on the novel by John Buchan, published in 1915, which tells the story of Richard Hannay, played here by Robert Donat, who becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy on the dawn of World War II. For the most part, however, Buchan’s novel unfolds as a series of miniatures – a sequence of self-contained, hyper-spatial vignettes that could almost work on their own terms as stand-alone short stories. In effect, Buchan takes us through a series of spaces that brim with informational intensity, as his hero Hannay is propelled into the remotest parts of the Scottish moors. In Rob Roy, Walter Scott tried to imagine the moors as a space that was still off the grid of English capitalism, only to find that they were indebted to mercantile London in even more mysterious and elastic ways. Buchan charts a similar path, except with informational capital, taking us deep into the moors only to reveal that they are the epicentre of the very conspiracy that Hannay is attempting to elude.
While Hitchcock doesn’t have space or scope to include each of Buchan’s vignettes, the informational sublime of the novel is a perfect match for his own dawning interest in codes, communication channels and cognitive systems that threaten to exceed the individual. His film opens with Hannay attending a performance at the London Palladium by “Mr. Memory,” a modern-day mnemosyne who has absorbed every fact ever articulated to him. Mr. Memory, played by Wylie Watson, is a superhuman figure – the point where all codes, communication and cognition coincide. In the opening scene, Hitchcock attunes his vivid camera movements to the space between the audience, who ask Mr. Memory questions, and the stage where Mr. Memory answers those questions. As we zoom between audience and stage, Hitchcock thus converges space and information on his camera movements, which thereby open up information as much as space – or turn the traversal of space into an informational process.
No sooner does Hannay leave this performance, however, than he encounters the very opposite of Mr. Memory – Annabella Smith, a spy played by Lucie Mannheim. Hannay asks Ananbella to come home to his apartment, where she abruptly reveals that she is a freelance spy, with no national or ideological affiliation. Moreover, she is embroiled in the search for a mysterious espionage entity known as The 39 Steps. All that she can tell Hannay is The 39 Steps is headquartered in Scotland, and is invested in the fall of England on the cusp of World War II, before she is assassinated while spending the night in his spare bedroom. In stark contrast to Mr. Memory, then, we’re presented with an informational vacuum – a void that Hannay has to occupy and understand if he has even the remotest chance of surviving himself.
This marks a critical step in Hitchcock’s hermeneutic of suspicion – his vision of a world in which information itself has taken on a new density and complexity. It’s one of his first fully-formed “wrong man” narratives, in which an everyman is integrated into an inscrutable cognitive system that seems bent on destroying him at every turn. All it takes, in this case, is a slight change in routine – Hannay taking a woman home from the theatre – for all data to be thrown into disarray, propelling him from his apartment to the Scottish moors in a matter of hours. While Buchan’s novel was published in 1915, and set on the cusp of World War I, Hitchcock’s adaptation works just as well to capture the illicit communication bubbling beneath the surface in the year before World War II – and the dread of a second world war.
The 39 Steps also marks a critical point in Hitchcock’s interest in information mapping – his understanding of information as a spatial phenomenon that can be traced through camera mobility. For much of the film, The 39 Steps is itself a slippery informational object – somewhere between a place, group, concept or event – that requires Hannay to spatialise information more astutely than any of Hitchcock’s earlier protagonists. As in several of Hitchcock’s 30s films, train travel is used to converge information and space in the first instance – the first critical juncture occurs when Hannay’s train is paused on the Forth Bridge. Hannay escapes to the north while a telegram goes out to the south, poising us between the stark physicality of the bridge, in a sustained establishing shot, and the looser communication of the telegram and Hannay’s thoughts, which accompany this establishing shot as it fades.
From hereon out, this nexus between informational and physical space tends to coincide around gazes – first, intense facial expressions as people watch other people watching them; then, sharp sightlines that suggest the presence of unseen gazes; and finally the Scottish moors themselves, which amplify these unseen gazes into an actual physical landscape. These initial depictions of the moors are amongst the beautiful location shooting in Hitchcock’s career, evoking the cavernous, long-distance awareness of being watched, even or especially when there is nobody in the immediate vicinity. They’re off-grid, suffused with a malleable and notional sense of space, but, as in Buchan’s novel (and as in Rob Roy before it) that just makes their extraordinary expanses seem even more malleable to informational colonisation.
In that sense, The 39 Steps really captures the otherness of Scotland in the early twentieth-century – the distance between Scotland and Scotland Yard, who are quickly called upon to seek out Hannay once word gets around that he might be an enemy to the state. Since Hannay is holidaying in London from Canada, the Scottish moors often seem to be closer to Canada than to England, taking us into a transnational space as the conspiracy grows tighter. At times, this space seems peculiarly centred on the air, as Hitchcock’s camera emphasises the sheer amount of space over the moors, and gazes linger on the skies, suggesting a medium of invisible communication exchange that exceeds the visible dimensions of the camera itself.
At this point, Hitchcock starts to adopt the episodic approach of Buchan’s novel, but he structures it around women, rather than discrete spaces. As Hannay moves from woman to woman, some of them offer him assistance, and some of them are threatening, culminating with the main female character in the film, Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who is both. In every case, though, you can see Hitchcock refining his basic take on women – as a source of informational volatility, and a site where information is most volatile. Women have an almost preternatural power to both clarify and obscure information in Hitchcock’s subsequent films, encapsulated here in a neat conceit – Hannay and Pamela grudgingly handcuffed to each other, trying to make their way across the moors, and pass for a regular couple in a local inn, while trying to prevent The 39 Steps achieving their nefarious objectives.
This is the central set piece of the film, imbuing the moor with a new topographical density as they try to negotiate it and navigate it together. Whereas Hitchcock initially framed the moor through sublime location shooting, he reverts back to sets here, presenting us with a series of reticulated landscapes, from the bridge that Hannay and Pamela hide under when they first escape, to the waterfall they cower behind as the police close in, all of it surrounded by looming fog. The handcuff premise also intensifies the perky English comedy that was so integral to Hitchcock’s early sound features, especially when Hannay and Pamela arrive at the inn, and try to pass themselves off as a loving couple. In these scenes, the handcuffs are more like a great screwball premise, forcing Hannay and Pamela to squish their faces and bodies together in parodic Hollywood poses to conceal the cuffs from the landlady, who insists on coming in to their room periodically to clean up, provide food and gawk at their young love.
Despite this comedy and drama, though, Pamela isn’t as developed as Hitchcock’s other women – she’s more a placeholder for future women (or a less nuanced version of Hitchcock’s later women, all of whom are placeholders for volatile information in one way or another). For all their romantic and sexual proximity, Hannay and Pamela are most charged whenever Hitchcock focuses on their hands – and Hannay’s hands in particular, which are either limp or autonomous, hanging blithely by his sides as he tries to conceal the handcuffs from suspicious bystanders, or moving without his will as Pamela attempts to unlock them while he sleeps.
This combination of limpness and autonomy gradually reveals the film’s key twist – that Hannay has carried the information he was seeking all along. So autonomous has information become, by the third act of the film, that Hannay can carry it without being aware of it – not directly, but through the tune he keeps on whistling to himself, which he first heard in the opening performance, and which takes him back to Mr. Memory in the final scene. In a taut denouement, we learn that The 39 Steps have confided their most confidential information to Mr. Memory, in order to avoid writing it down anywhere, knowing him by reputation as the absorption-point of all conceivable information. For the briefest of moments, Mr. Memory’s capacities extend to the everyman, as he broadcasts the information to Hannay and the audience, but he’s assassinated as soon as he finishes, closing the gap between the cognitive ability needed to contain Hitchcock’s information flow, and normal cognitive ability.
Hitchcock ends the film at this very cusp, panning down from Mr. Memory’s assassination to a shot of Hannay’s hand, limp by his side, still constricted by one handcuff, as the other cuff dangles against his legs. We’re left, poised, between agency and passivity, having glimpsed informational closure, but only for a second, since we never learn anything more about The 39 Steps, their plans, or the outcome of their operations, much as the film can never resolve the looming threat of World War II that drives its anxieties. All we do learn, and all that Mr. Memory recites, are the plans for a new silent aircraft – and so the film ends in that airy space above the moors, haunted by a silent, invisible, remote, aerial communication that would slowly crystallise into Hitchcock’ vision of the unconscious over his first great sound decade.