Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol are literally shackled together and shacking up in Alfred Hitchcock's adventure thriller the 39 Steps (1935). Richard Hannay (Donat) steps into a music hall to divert himself and before long finds himself hip deep in a spy ring, beautiful women, racy sleeping arrangements, and murder. The action begins with a pick-up: a mysterious woman in a veiled hat invites herself up to Hannay's apartment and winds up dead a few hours later. Hannay borrows her ploy of using sex to get what he wants and finds women mostly willing to go out of their way to help him. Hitchcock exposes a society ready always to believe the lascivious and vicious before the innocent truth. Of the three women Hannay ends up spending the night with he falls for the one he fights with (Madelaine Carrol) which is true to the spirit of the screwball comedies that were bubbling up in America.
There's an interesting and poignant interlude on the Scottish moors with a woman who is completely swept off her feet by the dashing mysterious stranger who has stumbled briefly into the miserable cottage she shares with an even more miserable husband. The film leaves her behind, but not before she gets the memorable chance to make a noble sacrifice for him and get a kiss from our hero. She's like the fleshed out version of the woman into whose hospital room Cary Grant passes through in North by Northwest. Speaking of which, The 39 Steps is remarkably similar to that later more famous Hitchcock film. Both movies use a man on the run from the police as an excuse for a cross country chase and a series of entertaining adventures as he dodges the law, deadly thugs and prevents a master spy from stealing important military secrets. The focus of North By Northwest is a sweeping, technicolor travelogue while The 39 Steps has a more intimate agenda. Unlike the larger than life characters that inhabit North By Northwest, the supporting cast in 39 Steps insinuate themselves quickly into the memory and seem like real people glimpsed in the midst of their daily lives. That moment in North by Northwest when Cary Grant is treated like the movie star he is by the woman in the hospital room, is funny because the audience is in on the joke of the whole stylized, over-refined universe. And a similar moment in The 39 Steps is completely uncynical and poignant because Hannay begins his flirtation with crofter's wife as part of a role he's playing and ends with his genuine concern for her welfare. His good-bye kiss is what is required of the part but you can see him conflicted about the game he's played.
In both movies, Hitchcock seems to enjoy torturing his heroes, putting them not only in constant peril, but continually uncomfortable, awkward and embarassing situations. They get hungry, tired and dirty along the way (though not quite as much as mortal men would) but they never seem to get lonely! If there's one thing you should learn from these movies its this: chicks dig fugitives.
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