The 39 Steps is a 1935 thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though the plot differs considerably from that of John Buchan‘s 1915 novel, it is considered by many critics to be the best adaptation of his novel, the other versions having been made in 1959, 1978, and 2008.
Hitchcock’s adaptation stars Robert Donat as Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, with Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, and Wylie Watson. It’s widely been acknowledged as a classic; Orson Welles called it a “masterpiece”; it came in 4th in a 1999 BFI poll of British films; and in 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British film of all time.
Here is a link to quotes from the film.
Since there are many plot points in Buchan’s novel that are as relevant to my interpretation as are those of the film, I’ll be doing a comparison and contrast of both plots. It would also be helpful to go through a bit of Hannay’s character history, as well as a bit of the history of the British Empire, to be able to put the novel and film in their proper political context.
From a bourgeois perspective, Hannay is a dashing hero with a stiff upper lip, who is trying both to clear his name of a false accusation of murder and to stop foreign spies from taking crucial military information out of Britain and giving it to her enemies. I, however, will be viewing the film and novel from an internationalist, Marxist perspective; so if such a reading is not your cup of tea, Dear Reader, I suggest you stop here and read a different analysis of this film.
Though the Hannay of Hitchcock’s film is Canadian (with no attempt made by British Donat to imitate a rhotic North American accent, I’ll add), the Hannay of Buchan’s novels is Scottish, as was the author, hence his extensive descriptions of the Scottish countryside in The Thirty-Nine Steps, no doubt.
Hannay went with his father to South Africa in the late 1880s. As a mining engineer many years later, he made a small fortune in Bulawayo. After that, he fought in the two Matabele Wars; he also fought, as a member of the Johannesburg Light Horse Regiment, in the Second Boer War. One would be well-advised to know how the British Empire waged these wars to get a sense of the character of our dashing hero, who so willingly participated in the waging of those wars.
The novel takes place just before the outbreak of WWI. The film takes place in the mid-1930s, and though the historical events of the time aren’t mentioned, if we know our history reasonably well, we’ll know that a fear of enemy countries gaining military intelligence of Britain could have resulted in circumstances far direr than those that would happen to Britain a mere half-decade after the end of the events of the film.
So Hannay is a bourgeois with imperialistic military experience as of the beginning of our story, either bored out of his mind, as we read in chapter one of Buchan’s novel, or relieving that boredom in a London music hall theatre at the film’s beginning. The Hannay of the film establishes his nationality as Canadian by asking the distance between Winnipeg and Montreal of “Mr. Memory” (Watson), a man whose eidetic powers of recall are such that he remembers the many details he reads every day and thus boasts that he can answer any question. (In this connection, it’s interesting to point out that Buchan was Governor General of Canada from 1935, the year the film was made, until his death in 1940.)
In the novel, Hannay briefly attends a London music hall, but gets bored of it and leaves. He gives half a crown to a yawning beggar, sympathizing only with his apparent boredom, an attitude that shouldn’t be surprising in a bourgeois (page 5 of the PDF–link above). When Hannay returns to his flat, he meets Franklin Scudder, a nervous freelance spy who tells him about the plot to take military information out of the country.
In the film, the spy is a female not willing to reveal her nationality and calling herself Annabella Smith (Mannheim), though judging by her accent, one might think her surname is Schmidt. In the novel, the German agents call themselves “The Black Stone,” whereas Smith alludes to “The 39 Steps,” which is revealed by the end of the film to be the name of the foreign spy organization. (In the novel, there are an actual set of thirty-nine steps leading to the location of the escape point for the conspirators.)
In the film, the information to be taken out of England is for the design of a silent aircraft engine. In the novel, the stolen information is British plans related to the outbreak of what will be WWI. Scudder tells Hannay of an apparently anarchist plot to destabilize Europe with this war, including a conspiracy to assassinate the Greek Premier, Constantine Karolides, during his visit to London. This assassination seems to be a fictionalizing of that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the straw (of accumulated European grievances) that broke the camel’s back and led to the July Crisis and the beginning of WWI.
Scudder’s description of this plot includes, among all these “very dangerous people,” (page 8) “financiers who were playing for money” (page 9) Apparently, “the aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.” (page 9)
Scudder goes a little bit into capitalist involvement in the conspiracy, but he gets antisemitic when he claims that “the capitalists would rake in the shekels,” and “the Jew was behind it.” He raves on: “The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.” (page 9)
Buchan’s writing has been criticized for its colonialism, racism, and antisemitism. One suspects that the passages quoted in the previous paragraph reflect his sympathy for Scudder’s prejudices, and his use of a colonialist for a hero in his novels suggests not only his imperialist sympathies, but also–given the British Empire’s treatment of black Africans back then–his racism. Certainly, Buchan’s wearing of a Native headdress as Governor General in 1937 would be considered racist by today’s standards.
V: Smith > Scudder
Smith’s description of the conspiracy is far briefer, leaving its mystery to be revealed by the end of the film. Leaving out Scudder’s offensive conspiracy theories makes her much more likeable, too.
Making the freelance spy of the film a female is intriguing in how she asks Hannay to let her go home with him that night, after the music hall show. Though he acknowledges her as beautiful, he makes not even the slightest sexual advance on her. Granted, our hero is a gentleman, and the prevailing morals of the time would not have tolerated the depiction of a one-night stand in the movie; but not even the subtlest of sexual innuendo between Hannay and Smith anticipates the rather subdued sexual chemistry to be seen later between him and Pamela (Carroll), which in turn suggests Lacan‘s notion that there’s no sexual relationship between men and women (more on that later).
Our instinctive sense of gallantry causes us to be more shocked by the knife in her back than in the knife in Scudder’s heart (page 22). Unlike in the novel, Smith dies with a map in her hand, allowing Hannay to search for and find the house of the spies, rather than him stumbling upon it by chance, as he does in the novel, a most implausible thing to be able to do in such a vast area of land as in the Scottish countryside. Hannay looks at the map and determines where the head of the spy organization is, in a house named Alt-na-Shellach, in Killin, in the Scottish Highlands. The head of the spies, Professor Jordan (Tearle), is a master of disguise, but as Smith has told Hannay, Jordan is missing the top joint of his left hand’s little finger, a symbolic castration. This lack will give the villain away.
Disguise is a recurring motif in this story, especially in the novel. Scudder, having figured out the whole conspiracy, fakes his death and disguises himself several times as he moves from Paris to Hamburg, then to Bergen, Norway, then to Leith, then to London (pages 13-14). When Hannay has to escape his flat and evade Smith’s/Scudder’s killers, who are waiting for him outside his apartment building, he borrows a milkman’s uniform (chapter two; also in the film). Later, in the Scottish countryside, he swaps places with a road mender, this disguise also fooling his pursuers there (chapter five).
Towards the end of the novel, when Hannay is back in London and has cleared his name of Scudder’s murder with Scotland Yard, he is at a meeting in Sir Walter’s home, where he learns the “First Sea Lord” is really one of his pursuers in disguise (pages 144-145). Finally, Hannay finds his three pursuers in such brilliant disguises, and so convincingly acted, that he doubts his own senses when confronting them (pages 165-174).
What does all of this disguising mean, especially in the case of Hannay pretending to be a worker? I’d say Buchan’s novel includes a number of what I, in other posts, have called Freudian slips, some of which are preserved in the film, which unconsciously go against the bourgeois bias of his narrative. Capitalists and imperialists often like to project their guilt onto others and portray themselves as victims, as when Nazis, for example, blame the Jews for the exploitive depredations of capitalism, something we’ve already seen Scudder do. Elsewhere, capitalists blame intrusive government of sullying the ‘purity’ of their idolized economic system; they also claim that anything even slightly socially liberal is ‘communist’ or ‘socialist,’ and is therefore ubiquitous in the political world, schools, and media, ‘oppressing’ the conservatives.
Hannay disguising himself as a milkman, then as a road mender, symbolizes the bourgeois dreaming of himself as a humble, common worker, fighting against the odds and prevailing against difficulties (the ‘self-made man’), rather than admitting to himself that his social class has already given him a leg-up against everyone else.
As for the disguises of the spies, foreigners pretending to be Englishmen just show, in symbolic fashion, how the imperialist is as internationalist as is the communist. I’ll give a few examples. Consider those, of not only British nationality, who would work together to establish the settler colonial state of Israel through the Balfour Declaration (decades later, even the USSR would help in that establishment, though the Soviets would repent of their involvement soon enough). Consider the many American companies that would do business with the Nazis. Consider the European countries that would allow the Nazis not only to take the Sudetenland, but eventually work their way over to invade the Soviet Union.
My point in bringing up the above is that, contrary to Scudder’s notion that “anarchists” (i.e., leftists) are conspiring to destabilize Europe, the descent into WWI was due to various players among the European ruling classes. The war was an inter-imperialist competition over who would control the largest piece of the pie, as Lenin observed in his analysis of the situation.
Talk of ‘this nation vs. that nation’ is how the ruling classes of the world divide the people and make them kill each other, while the rich of all these countries get richer through the racket of war and through imperialist plunder of other countries’ resources. It doesn’t actually matter, therefore, if the conspirators are from ‘this country’ or ‘that country.’ The spies aren’t “anarchists,” or necessarily Jews: they’re working for just plain capitalists, so if they’re, say, Germans brilliantly disguised as Englishmen, it’s all the same to me.
VIII: On the Train, On the Run
Back to the story. Hannay gets on the express train, the Flying Scotsman, to get to Scotland, and evades his pursuers for the time being. In the film, he sits in a cabin with two businessmen discussing their product: ladies’ undergarments. (When this British film was to be shown in American theatres in the mid-thirties, did the Production Code approve of this scene? I have my doubts.) One of the businessmen is disappointed to read in the newspaper of the ladies’ undergarments of a rival company doing better business than his own.
There is a paradox in showing the underclothes without a woman in them, these exchange-value commodities, as there is later in Hannay’s unwelcome kissing of Pamela to evade the police he knows (from the same newspaper) have fingered him for Smith’s murder. Here we see again, in symbolic form, Lacan’s notion that there’s no relation between the sexes, an alienation brought on by the capitalist system.
Hannay’s having to get off the train to get away from the police, and to go on foot through the Scottish countryside, symbolically suggests that bourgeois fantasy of imagining oneself to be a victim hounded by the authorities, as if Hannay were one of the poor residents of this rural area, a simple place cut off from the industrialized, modern world, symbolic of the Third World. (It’s useful to mention in this connection how the movement for Scottish independence had already existed for quite some time by the writing of Scottish Buchan’s novel.) Remember that Hannay’s underdog running from the law should be seen in context of his having fought wars for the British Empire in southern Africa, him having pointed a gun at and having shot blacks.
In the novel, Hannay is chased even more extensively through the Scottish countryside than he is in the film. In the novel, he’s given accommodations several times, but in the film, there’s only one significant accommodation before he finds Professor Jordan’s house. In this one accommodation, he meets a middle-aged crofter (Laurie) and his pretty young wife (Ashcroft). The crofter is easily jealous and suspicious of the dealings of handsome young Hannay with his wife, of which nothing sexual results beyond a quick kiss. There’s no relation between the sexes even in the rural part of our alienated, capitalist world.
IX: So Close, Yet So Far Away
We can find a thematic unity in these varying manifestations of what we could call, ‘so close, yet so far away.’ Hannay is so physically close to Annabella, then Pamela, then the crofter’s wife (then Pamela again), and yet so far away in how so little, if anything, in the form of a romantic bond develops between him and each of these women (except, maybe, the potential of hand-holding Hannay and Pamela at the end of the film). This thematic unity is shared in both the film and the novel.
The spy organization (“The 39 Steps,” or “The Black Stone,” whichever name you prefer) is in the UK, yet inimical to her interests. Hannay would help the UK, that is, he’s close to her heart, yet he’s perceived as a violent threat, and so he’s pursued by the police. The presumption of his guilt in Smith’s/Scudder’s murder might suggest a sympathy with, a closeness to, the spy organization, yet his wish to expose them shows his distance from them, therefore he’s pursued by the spy organization as well as by the UK police.
This thematic unity is thus a dialectical one. As Slavoj Zižek points out in Looking Awry (pages 100-101), Hannay is both the persecuted (by the UK police and foreign agents) and the persecutor (a threat to the spies, in wishing to expose them). Note that Buchan, prior to being the Canadian Governor General, worked for the British Empire in South Africa and based Hannay on a friend and colleague there, Edmond Ironside, a spy during the Second Boer War.
Ironside unsuccessfully disguised himself as an Afrikaans-speaking Boer after the war. It’s easy to see a link between not only Ironside’s impersonation and those of Hannay, but also those of the spy organization as depicted in both the novel and the film. As I’ve said above, Ironside’s and Buchan’s imperialist work and that of Hannay (a fictional idealization of both Buchan and Ironside) provide the necessary context for understanding Hannay as both the persecuted and the persecutor.
X: Colonizer as Victim?
The imperialist feels no sensitivity whatsoever for the suffering he causes the colonized. In fact, as I mentioned above, he fancies himself to be the victim, of competitive foreign imperialism or of those he victimizes. Recall how in Kipling‘s poem, the “half-devil and half-child” peoples that the ‘burdened’ white man colonizes are resentful of his efforts ‘to civilize’ them. (Note also how Hannay in the film refers to his awkward, hand-cuffed relationship with Pamela as “the white man’s burden.”)
Hitler and the Nazis rationalized their lebensraum imperialism on a belief that the Jews and communists, millions of whom they murdered, were economically oppressing Germany. Capitalists bemoan the wildly exaggerated number of ‘victims’ of communism, who were mostly other capitalists who, had they been given their way, would have resumed their immiseration of the erstwhile liberated working class. (Don’t believe me? Check out what happened to Russia in the 1990s.) Hannay may not have killed Smith/Scudder, but as a participant in the Matabele and Second Boer Wars, he would have been at least partly responsible for many deaths then.
Such is the historical context for sublating the dialectical contradiction of Hannay as persecutor and persecuted. Like any capitalist or imperialist, he would project imperialist guilt on foreign imperialist spies while conveniently forgetting the British imperialist espionage of men like Ironside, Hannay’s very inspiration. ‘So close, yet so far away’: foreign imperialist crimes are so identical in terms of the bourgeoisie’s class motives that they’d might as well have been committed by the imperialists in one’s own country.
XI: The Manhunt Continues
The crofter’s wife has given Hannay her husband’s coat, which has the crofter’s hymn book in it. Her ever-jealous husband is so angered, having already been suspicious of her having adulterous designs with Hannay, that he hits her offscreen (I can’t imagine the Hays Office not insisting that this scene be cut out for the American release of the film). She’s helped Hannay sneak out of their house before the police can get him, so he continues through the countryside in the direction of Alt-na-Shellach.
The manhunt continues, with not only police chasing Hannay on foot, but also using an autogyro. This parallels passages in the novel with not only the police but also the spies chasing him, the latter using an aeroplane. This aeroplane chasing him reminds me of that famous scene in North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film of an innocent man on the run, pursued by spies. I wonder if the scene could have been inspired by the passages in Buchan’s novel, if Hitchcock hadn’t been able, due to budget constraints, to include them in The 39 Steps, then (unconsciously?) decided to do a similar scene with Cary Grant.
At one point in the countryside chase, Hannay meets with a man, Sir Harry, who has to give a political speech he feels himself ill-prepared for, and being impressed with Hannay’s experience in South Africa, he would have Hannay give such a speech at an election meeting that afternoon. (This passage, in chapter four, has its equivalent in the film much later in the story.)
In the novel, Hannay’s speech includes talk of “the kind of glorious business [he thinks can] be made out of the Empire if [they] really put [their] backs into it.” Such talk surely reflected Buchan’s imperialist ideology. In contrast, Hannay describes the “appalling rot” of Sir Harry’s poorly-prepared speech: talk about “the ‘German menace,’…[meant] to cheat the poor of their rights and keep back the great flood of social reform, but that ‘organized labour’ realized this…” (pages 67-68). One wouldn’t expect bourgeois imperialists like Hannay or Buchan to sympathize with ideas like the rights of the poor, social reform, and organized labour.
Another contrast with these speeches can be seen in Hannay’s speech in the film, which transforms him from a flaming right-winger into a liberal. Though Buchan and the script-writers (Charles Bennett and Ian Hay) were unlikely to have had political opinions that were even approximate to each other, it’s worthy to note what such political agendas have in common, in spite of their obvious differences, as seen in the novel and the film. Hannay’s speech in the film could be seen as a sublation of his and Sir Harry’s speeches in the novel.
Hannay’s speech in the film, a response to questions about the “idle rich”–given as he sees his pursuers at a political meeting, them waiting to arrest him–is all about the hope of changing society and political life into one in which every man and woman has an equal chance in life, in which people are no longer hunted, hounded, persecuted, and without a friend in the world to help them. If one didn’t know any better, one would think he was speaking of the true wretched of the Earth: the poor, those discriminated against, victims of bigotry and prejudice, etc.
He, of course, is really thinking about himself, a bourgeois who sees himself as the victim, but who’s really, in one form or another, a part of the British Empire/Commonwealth. He’s such a member regardless of whether he’s the Scottish Hannay of Buchan’s novels, or the Canadian of Hitchcock’s film. As a colonialist or as a member of a white settler colonial state, Hannay is a man of an imperialist world order whose claims of victimhood would sound strange in the ears of those truly victimized by colonialism. Since liberals talk the progressive talk, but would also preserve their imperialist and class privileges, Hannay’s speech in the film thus sublates this speech with those of the novel perfectly.
XIII: The House of the Spies
Eventually, Hannay in his travels in the countryside finally reaches the house of the spies. In the novel, this occurs in chapter six, when he meets a “bald archaeologist” who welcomes him in his home, pretends to be a friend warding off the police, yet who also knows he is Hannay. Hannay’s only escape from the storage room he’s been locked into is to use the explosives stored inside to blow his way out, risking injury or death.
After blowing his way out, and luckily experiencing only minimal injury, he gets outside and has to hide on the roof of a neighbouring building until nightfall. It’s like being a homeless man: Buchan is thus once again presenting the bourgeois fantasy of a colonialist as a victim.
In the film, Hannay meets Professor Jordan, who similarly lets him in his house with all cordiality, gets rid of the police, then in a private conversation with Hannay, reveals himself to be the man missing the joint on his left hand’s little finger.
As I mentioned above, this lack of that joint is a symbolic castration, a lack that gives rise to desire, the sinful desire of a villain. Accordingly, Jordan pulls out a phallic pistol from his pocket, the weapon compensating for his lost joint. He shoots Hannay, knowing he can’t let the fugitive jeopardize his mission as a spy; but that hymn book in the crofter’s coat has absorbed the bullet and saved Hannay’s life.
XIV: Friends of Spies
Hannay escapes Jordan’s home and goes to the police station of Sheriff Watson (played by Frank Cellier), who was at Jordan’s get-together when Hannay fled from the police to his home. Watson, just like Jordan, pretends to be friendly and sympathetic with Hannay, but has policemen arrive to arrest him. Hannay jumps out of a window and escapes.
Since Watson is friends with Jordan, the leader of the foreign spy ring, we can see this friendship as symbolic of how different imperialist countries often collaborate with each other for mutual advantage. So far away, yet so close: national differences mean little when it comes to imperialism, making Hannay’s pro-British heroics dubious at best.
XV: A Fine Romance
The relationship between him and Pamela resumes when she finds him doing his impromptu speech about the rights of man (little that he cares about them, of course). Recall the forced kiss he gave her on the train, followed by her giving him over to the police. Here at the political meeting, she betrays him to the police again. After their ride in the police car, interrupted by a flock of sheep on the road, a cop handcuffs the man and woman together, since they need her to corroborate that he’s Hannay. They’re stuck together again, in spite of their mutual dislike. So close, yet so far away: there is no sexual relation, symbolized in the pair’s predicament.
Actually, these arresting officers are only posing as cops: they’re part of the espionage conspiracy, something Hannay’s realized from noting that the car is going in the wrong direction. So close, yet so far away: all the foreign spies’ pretending to be the British authorities is symbolic of the blurry distinction between the powers-that-be among locals and foreigners.
Hannay and Pamela are stuck together because of the handcuffs, meant to keep them together in the car while the agents clear the sheep off the road; but Hannay demonstrates his iron will by escaping and making Pamela go with him. This disparity, between him getting his way and her not getting hers, is symbolically another manifestation of the impossibility of the sexual relationship.
XVI: No Sexual Relationship, and No Female Voice?
Lacan’s meaning is that there’s an asymmetry between the male and female sexual position (I’m not talking about those of the bedroom!), through the phallus as signifier, giving one entry into the Symbolic Order of language, culture, and social custom, while not providing a corresponding signifier for women. Rather than interpreting this asymmetry as sexist, since it’s about disparities in language qua social organization (Zižek, page 136…as opposed to Freud‘s preoccupation with the psychological consequences of the literal genital difference between the sexes), we should rather see the asymmetry as a comment, a social critique, of sexism.
Hannay takes charge and forces Pamela to go along because society has given him, not her, a voice. His imperious attitude to her fittingly dovetails with his experience (in the novels, anyway) as a colonialist in South Africa. Only through equality of the sexes can there be a sexual relationship; similarly, alienation will end only with the end of capitalism.
XVII: Censorship and Sexual Relationships
Another scene that symbolically expresses the impossibility of the relation between the sexes is when Hannay and Pamela have to share a room at a Scottish inn for the night, pretending to be a married couple. Such a scene would have run afoul of the censors as surely as, among the other scenes mentioned above, Hannay’s saying the word damn several times.
It didn’t matter that the couple is never indecent (Pamela removes only her wet stockings–surely this won’t enflame our passions too much!), nor do they ever engage in any heavy petting, or any touching, while lying side by side, fully clothed, on the bed. The only reason they’re together is the handcuffs, from which she later frees her hand while he’s sleeping. Still, the prudish Production Code wanted the scene deleted.
An alternate final scene was filmed, to placate the censors (but never used in the film’s final cut), of the couple in a taxi–in which Hannay says that, under Scottish law, their having registered as man and wife at the inn was a public declaration of marriage and therefore their night on that bed together was not immoral.
All of these evasions of sex, whether due to the pressures from the censors, or because Hannay and Pamela still don’t like each other, reinforce in a symbolic fashion how there is no rapport between the sexes. So close (together on a bed), yet so far away (fully clothed).
XVIII: An Unsexed Objet Petit A
Indeed, the objet petit a, or unattainable object-cause of desire, is not a sexual object at all in The 39 Steps. Rather, the objet petit a is the MacGuffin of the film: the information the spies want to sneak out of the country.
This leads us to the final scene of the film, which is the same setting as the opening scene, the London music hall, giving the film a nice ABA structure with another demonstration of the talents of Mr. Memory. The addition of this character to the story, we learn, is crucial to the plot, for the plan is to use his memory skills to help the spies export the detailed knowledge he’s obtained of a silent aircraft engine’s design.
So the objet petit a isn’t for carnal knowledge, but just plain knowledge–there’s no sexual relationship. Now, when Hannay, still trying to clear his name, importunes Mr. Memory to disclose the meaning of “The 39 Steps,” our formidable brain is briefly in conflict over his id‘s desire to display his knowledge and be admired by the crowd, his ego‘s need to be safe against being shot by Professor Jordan (present at the music hall, on a balcony seat with his pistol), and his superego‘s obligation to honour his publicly-stated commitment to answer any question correctly. He honours this commitment and gets his admiration, but it costs him his life.
Jordan’s objet petit a, that very MacGuffin, is the coveted spy information, which isn’t expressed as a sexual desire except in a symbolic sense: the symbolic castration of his finger joint, a lack giving rise to his desire and compensated for with the phallic pistol, which ejaculates a bullet into his desired male Mnemosyne, but not a bullet of Eros…one of Thanatos.
In a world of capitalist, inter-imperialist competition, the resulting alienation is the non-existent sexual relationship (note that Hannay will join up to fight in WWI soon after the novel’s end). All Hannay, still with the handcuff around his wrist, and Pamela can muster in the way of affection is a holding of hands…and how many steps will go by before those hands come apart?