A London man gives refuge to a female spy, but after she’s knifed in the back he’s accused of her murder. The only way to clear his name is to piece together the clues she left behind and prevent top secret information from being smuggled out of the country.
The 39 Steps is an taut espionage-thriller from Alfred Hitchcock that exemplifies the director’s fascination with stories involving the ‘wrongfully accused’. Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) stars, bringing panache and a dash of light-heartedness to his role of a man-on-the-lam. The script (based on a novel by John Buchan) has twists in all the right places and stays ahead of the viewer as the mystery unfolds. The ending satisfies in a way that makes you reflect back on the movie and just how economic the writing is, with seemingly innocent information proving key to the solving the puzzle. The romantic subplot with Madeleine Carroll features prominently in the second half of the movie, but under Hitchcock’s direction, it never feels like an obligatory distraction. Donat and Carroll have fun with it, especially when their characters are hand-cuffed together.