In The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock tells a tragedy using great economy. With just two shots he has composed one of the most poignant stories of his venerated film career. Initially appearing to be no more than another in a list of supporting characters helping the protagonist on his way across the country, Margaret – played by Peggy Ashcroft – takes on an unexpected dimension as Hitchcock deftly communicates her inner anguish to the audience.
What makes this achievement all the more remarkable is that The 39 Steps is regarded as one of Hitchcock’s most light-hearted, crowd-pleasing films: a spy novel spun into romantic comedy. Despite the extreme situations the hero finds himself in, there is never a sense that he is in true danger or that things won’t work out well for him in the end. The archetypal Hitchcock adventure film, it is packed with jokes and big set-pieces. The 39 Steps also emerged from Hitchcock’s time in Britain – before he acquired the psychoanalytic interest which supposedly imbued his classic American films – Notorious, Vertigo, Psycho – with such depth.
The main plot focuses on the adventures of Richard Hannay (portrayed by Robert Donat) – an innocent man on the run, another Hitchcock trademark – evading capture from both the police and the mysterious organisation looking to drag Britain into war, all the while trying to figure out what it is he has gotten himself involved in. Margaret’s subplot undercuts all of this frivolity, as something more recognisable as real life intrudes upon the main plot pulp.
It is roughly half an hour into the film when Margaret makes her first appearance, as Hannay agrees a fee with her husband John to shelter him for the night. John (played by John Laurie – Private Frazer in Dad’s Army) appears a cold, remote man, pious to the point of oppressiveness, and through Margaret’s conversation with Hannay we learn that she feels isolated up in the Scottish highlands. When the police arrive later that night, Margaret rushes to warn Hannay. Before escaping through the back door, he kisses her and promises “I’ll never forget you for this,” but has vanished into the darkness outside before he’s finished speaking.
Here is the first of the two key shots. As Hannay leaves Margaret by the door, Hitchcock zooms in slightly, holding the shot on a close-up of Margaret left behind (Figure 1.1). Up until this point, the audience has been tied to Hannay. Even on occasions when the camera leaves his direct point of view, it has always been in the service of his story. With the extended seconds spent lingering on Margaret’s mournful expression, the film leaves Hannay for the first time, as he flees over the hills. Ashcroft’s performance sells the moment – communicating great internal sadness with small, subtle gestures. As Hannay breaks off the kiss, she steps forward slightly, as though to follow him, before turning away from the door to return to her confined unsatisfying life (Figure 1.2). This shot is superfluous to Hannay’s story and by including it, Hitchcock introduces this second story – the story of the lonely woman left behind. The narrative until now has been so caught up in Hannay’s rolling escape, jumping from place to place, that there has been no time to think of those secondary characters introduced and then abandoned as the main plot passes them by. This shot is the first time we see the consequences of Hannay’s chase across the country. After assisting Hannay, Margaret remains trapped, having had a brief glimpse of the possibility of life – and romance – outside her stultifying marriage.
The second key shot makes its point even more forcefully. It arrives some time after we last saw Margaret, sadly turning away from the door. Hannay has just been shot and falls to the ground. At this point Hitchcock cuts back to Margaret’s cottage, a decision which is initially inexplicable.
Margaret is not even in shot this time – her absence from the frame mirroring her absence from the plot and therefore our minds, as we are caught up in Hannay’s escapades. It is John who is in shot, while Margaret’s voice comes from off-screen. As she tells John she gave away his coat, with a bible in the pocket, to Hannay, John stalks towards her, leaving the frame with a brutal look in his eyes (Figure 1.3). As the camera stays fixed on the wall, we hear a slap, followed by Margaret’s scream (Figure 1.4). Once more the film quickly cuts, returning to Hannay’s plot. Margaret’s cry segues into a policeman’s incredulous laugh as Hannay explains how the bible in John’s coat saved him from the bullet. These two juxtaposed sounds of the cry followed by the laugh symbolise the relationship between the Margaret plot and the Hannay plot, introducing anguish and sadness into his extraordinary adventure.
That Hitchcock clearly shows Hannay being shot and keeling over just seconds before the slap, makes it all the more noticeable that Margaret’s pain occurs off-screen. Margaret’s pain is deemed more brutal than Hannay being shot, an ugly intrusion of reality. The comedy and adventure of Hannay’s escapades reassure us that he cannot come to real harm – it is an expectation of the genre. There is suspense, as the audience waits to find out how he survives, but no real threat.
Margaret’s is a completely different story – more in line with British kitchen sink drama. It is more relatable, more realistic, and therefore more painful. We have seen Hannay emerge from scare after scare without a scratch and anticipate him continuing to do so until the film ends. Margaret exists in a different genre, unable to benefit from the deus-ex-machinas gifted to Hannay as escape routes.
It is a sign of real confidence in his own ability, and in the talent of Ashcroft, that Hitchcock entrusted such an enriching element of his film to a meagre two shots. It’s a sign of real craft and care (and again, the expressiveness of Ashcroft) that the film pulls it off. Hitchcock is generally regarded as a director who revels in the macabre, or the sordid – gleefully finding humour in the gruesome. His detractors often criticise him as callous. These two shots from The 39 Steps show a filmmaker capable of great compassion, and perfectly display how simply, yet eloquently, he could tell a visual tale from early on in his career.
Dan Norman is a writer based in the UK.