Lions in the Scottish Highlands

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THE 39 STEPS, we all agree, is where Hitchcock’s thrillers really catch fire. He’d been making films since 1922, scoring considerable success, and many people, including Hitch himself, may have thought he had already shown what he could do — but this film raises the bar still further. It pleases me inanely that this is Hitchcock’s Scottish film, with Scottish settings, characters, and a source novel by Scotsman John Buchan (pronounced “buckin”). In Hitchcock’s movie, as in Buchan’s book, man of action Richard Hannay must follow the trail of a spy ring from London to the Highlands.

Hitch and collaborator Charles Bennett (who shares Hitch’s cameo in this one, a unique honour) famously abandoned or greatly altered large parts of the source novel, so that even the title became something of an irrelevance, to be explained away as brusquely as possible, but if you read the book (I did, years ago) it’s fun to see how elements are reconfigured: a throwaway line about a trip to the music hall is expanded by Hitchcock into a hilarious opening sequence, introducing hero Hannay, Mr. Memory the mnemonic genius, and a female spy calling herself Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), whose murder sets things in motion.

Inspired by a surge of national spirit, I hopped on the train to retrace Hannay’s steps, but since I’m perennially cash-strapped, I only went from Edinburgh’s to the Forth Bridge. Hannay, fleeing the scene of a murder for which he’s automatically blamed, boards the Flying Scotsman locomotive, sharing a compartment with a traveller in ladies’ undergarments and another loudmouth, who seem to keep up a non-stop barrage of double entendres and man-of-the-world smut for the entire journey.

The train pulls into Waverley Station, Edinburgh, and one of the men flags down a news vendor. “Speak-a da English?” he asks. I wouldn’t try this in Scotland if I were you. The newspaper purchased carries news of Hannay’s pursuit, and the suspense is ramped up. 

I don’t see any newsboys in the station when I’m there, but they have an entire newsagents shop, and a Burger King, which I feel gives me the edge on old Hannay. I hop in the train, with a ticket for North Queensferry, which means I’m crossing the bridge but no more. As Hannay is evading capture in his train, I’m snapping pictures out the window of mine. No knicker salesman, no compartment, no steam engine, no Madeleine Carroll…

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There are actually two bridges now, the Road Bridge and the Rail Bridge, but the Road, a common suspension job, is regarded with contempt by locals, so when we say “the Forth Bridge” it’s always certain which we mean. A massive Victorian construction, it’s constantly being painted with a special paint, known as Forth Bridge Red. The Victorian engineers who constructed it said that as long as you kept painting it, the bridge would last forever. They start at one end, work there way to the other, then start again. It’s become the perfect metaphor for any unending, Sisyphean task.

Of course, when the bridge was privatized, the management idiots announced that they would no longer paint the bridge, since it was “too costly and dangerous,” which is an amazing bit of half-wittedness. MORE costly and dangerous than allowing it to rust? Sure enough, soon bits of corroded bridge were dropping onto North and South Queensferry, and a lot of money had to be spent repairing the structure. Painting has resumed.

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The Forth Bridge, by Cairns.

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The Forth Bridge, by Hitchcock.

One of the things that’s so outrageous about THE 39 STEPS is the use of narrative ellipsis to get around tricky plot problems. The first major cheat is near the start, when a woman is killed in Hannay’s flat, knifed to death, without any explanation of how the killers got in, or why they didn’t then kill Hannay. Hitchcock at this point apparently had little fear of those annoying folks he called “the plausiblists” — although the list of Hannay’s neighbours includes a “Porlock”, suggesting that he was aware of the various ways in which ordinary persons can hinder the artist at work.

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The second massive cheat comes after Hannay eludes his pursuers on the bridge — we not only don’t see how he gets down from the bridge, the next time we see him he’s strolling through Glen Coe, about a hundred miles away. Hitch gets away with this kind of barefaced cheek in part because he’s so good at transitions. A cut from a screaming woman, discovering a corpse, to a train blowing it’s whistle, is a particular classic. But the movie abounds with inventiveness in sound design — when the female spy is murdered in his flat, Hannay remembers her words, and we hear them, as if filtered through a long-distance telephone connection.

Then there’s the famous crofter scene, a touching and atmospheric vignette, featuring John Laurie (previously seen playing Irish in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK) and Peggy Ashcroft, which deliberately slows the pace and alters the tone: Hitch was fond of tonal shifts and his movie really unfolds like a piece of music. A terrible shame that the mesmerising Peggy didn’t make more films — we otherwise see her mainly in old lady stuff like A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Laurie was a real-life crofter’s son, although in the lowlands rather than the highlands. The accents all through the Scottish section are wildly variable — the bad guy’s maid is hilarious, although she gives it her best shot.

Such is Hitch’s verve and cheek that he can get away with things that really make no sense — Hannay travels to Scotland in search of the fiendish master-spy with the missing finger. Once in the right neighbourhood, he asks around about newcomers, and determines that there’s only one. Visiting the fellow, he finds him hosting a party, and is lulled into a state of relaxation. And soon he is shocked — shocked! — to discover that this is none other than the man he has been looking for. Well, duh — and yet it’s an effective shock moment, don’t ask me how.

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(Note the bad guy’s bespectacled daughter, named as Patricia, just like Hitch and Alma’s only child. It’s not our Pat, though, since she was only a little nipper at the time.)

Another great trick, when Hannay survives being shot at close range due to a hymn book in his pocket, its presence established afterwards in an impudent cutaway back to the crofter, whose coat Hannay has taken.

This being a typical Hitchcock nightmare, the police are useless and don’t believe our hero, so now he’s on the run again, and worse still, he has no clues left to follow. Never passing up the chance to take the mickey out of public speakers and large gatherings, Hitch bundles Hannay onto the stand at a political rally, where he bungles the candidates name, so that McCorquindale becomes McCrocodile, but otherwise scores a rousing success with an extemporised speech which not only serves as a potted story-so-far autobiography, but sets out the film’s woolly but sincere vision for the world’s future, after the current threats to peace and freedom have been eliminated. But this grants Hannay only a temporary respite, and he’s soon in the hands of the police — or are they? — again.

Fate throws him a blonde, Madeleine Carroll, and soon the two are famously handcuffed together. Up to now I’ve been calling him Hannay, because up until now he’s been more of a plot function than a character, but Robert Donat gets to do some proper acting once the girl is in the picture, and she’s very good too — Hitchcock called her the first proper Hitchcock blonde. 

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Hitchcock and Hannay treat her rather harshly, seemingly as punishment for her giving him up to the police on the Flying Scotsman (quite reasonably, under the circumstances). Ivor Montagu recalled that the writing team quite deliberately invented as many miseries as possible for the character — this seems to have been the beginning of Hitch’s odd reputation as a misogynist (I can understand it, totally, in FRENZY, but not earlier), and Hitch added to the theme by inflicting constant practical jokes on poor Madeleine Carroll — more on this in another post.

It struck me in the past that Carroll enters the story rather late, after her earlier appearance on the train. This time, it seemed perfect. Hannay begins as a nobody, his flat undecorated, his face unglimpsed until long into his first scene, and we are able to accept him as our substitute because, although he’s vague and unformed as a piece of writing, he’s embodied by the appealing Donat. Only halfway through the story does Hannay really start to dominate his own story, and he does it by dominating Carroll, though he, like his audience, can’t help but admire her pluck. In obstreperously resisting everything Hannay does and says, Carroll becomes a useful foil, and also a winning character — she confounds cliche more thoroughly than previous Hitchcock heroines.

(In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitch completely reverses the blonde’s introduction, to further avoid cliche: when Eva Marie Saint recognises Cary Grant, on another train, as another wanted murderer, she not only doesn’t give him up to the cops, she blatantly comes on to him.)

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An overheard phone call, implausible but not wildly so, enables our protags to make it to the climax, back at the music hall where the film began — in another of Hitchcock’s musical MacGuffins, Hannay recognises a tune that’s been running through his head as the one from Mr. Memory’s act, and the entertainer becomes the key figure in the whole plot. I’m not sure if Memory’s punchline — answering a question asked during his act, even though it gets him shot — is totally clear. Bennett and Hitch were proud of the idea that Mr. Memory cannot bear to let a question go unanswered: it’s a matter of professional pride. But the idea isn’t, perhaps, as fully expressed as it could be. But his death scene is properly moving and absurd (the secret formula he’s memorized is sheerest crap – a MacGuffin of a MacGuffin) and we’re also graced by a cameo by a positively nubile Miles Malleson. And what do we say when we see Miles Malleson, remembering his scene as the dirty-books buyer in PEEPING TOM?

Altogether now — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!”

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20 Responses to “Lions in the Scottish Highlands”

  1. i remember reading somewhere that hitchcock was keen on doing a greenmantle adaptation but had trouble securing the rights. i think he wanted to cast cary grant and ingrid bergman. am i imagining this?

    surprised to learn that miles malleson was such a sex machine in real life

  2. Greenmantle was indeed a book Hitch considered filming, as was The Three Hostages, elements of which may have influenced The Man Who Knew Too Much.

    I take it you’re referring to this line from wikipedia: “Despite his unassuming appearance, he was married three times, and had many relationships.” Yeah, that is an eyebrow-raiser alright.

    Actually, somebody should add to the wiki page to mention that Malleson is the one who utters the immortal line “Room for one more inside,” in Dead of Night, which is enough to assure his immortality.

  3. yes. “unassuming appearance” is a nice way of putting it. also, the ladies to whom he was married were rather fiery sorts which further reinforces my impression of him as a red hot lover

    he and ava gardner would have been good together

  4. Can’t resist offering this gleaning from my research for Open Secret The George Cukor file at the MPAA library is a treasure trove. Anyone interested in writing about Hollywood in the golden age MUST consult it. Anyhoo I was researching Les Girls, a teriffic film that Mr. Cukor approached with great trepidation as he had never directed a musical before. It all turned out smashingly and the irrepressible Chuck Walters wrote him a nice congratulatory note.

    He signed in “Madeleine Carroll.”

  5. Sweet!

    Ava and Miles would make a striking celebrity couple, although would he be evil enough for her? Howard Hughes sets a pretty high watermark in malevolence for anyone to follow.

    The great Leslie Phillips is in Les Girls, and sad to say he does not recall Cukor with affection. He found him a bully, and was mortified at hearing the expression “Shoot the money,” come from GC’s lips, when approaching a scene between Cukor and Kelly. “I had never heard anyone use that expression on any other film.” Sir Les is a total gent so I sympathise with his hurt feelings.

    Whatever he was like on set, Cukor was a delightful interviewee. Describing the controversy about the directing credit on One Hour With You: “All I remember is that *I* behaved extremely well.”

  6. Mr. Cukor was a complex and multi-faceted man. If you became his friend that was it for life. His loyalty was without peer. He gave an out of work and very needy Henry Daniell a part on My Fair Lady. Daniell dropped dead on the set, poor man. But the take was there so he’s still in the film.

    Mr. Cukor didn’t countenance “any nonsense” so maybe he and Phillips (who was superb in his pivotal scene with Lancaster in The Leopard) just got off on the wrong foot with him.

    I find “Shoot the money!” to be completely hilarious.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    Angela Lansbury talked about how Cukor lashed out at her in front of the whole crew for coming late on the set of GASLIGHT but otherwise considered him a total gentleman.

    Cukor was a sort-of eminence grise at Hollywood in that he was liked and admired by everyone there. Directors often regarded his house as a DGA away from the DGA and he was friends with Hitchcock, Ford and Renoir.

    David E., I wonder if it’s too personal to ask but since you know a lot about Cukor, I wonder if you can tell me if Cukor was ever in love with someone or had a long term relationship. It’s something I was always curious about.

    I think he’s a great film-maker and who’s highly underrated. And also misunderstood. His admirers for instance cast Cukor as a “craftsman” but people rarely understand how often his films were interfered with and compromised by producers because he didn’t fall in line with them.

  8. I think it’s Leslie French in The Leopard. Phillips, still going in his 80s, was recently seen in Venus with Peter O’Toole. In the 60s, he was one of the Carry On team’s token heterosexuals, and the only one who was suave.

    I haven’t completely made up my mind about Cukor, but definitely find him interesting. He seems concerned with bridging the cinematic with the theatrical in a way that’s quite individual. A couple of years ago I enjoyed a cinema screening of Susan and God, in which Cukor brought an unusually self-aware comic performance out of Joan Crawford.

  9. David have you seen the stage version of The 39 Steps? Quite hiilarious !

  10. Christopher Says:

    “PEEPERS!! CIGARETTES!!”
    “How owlds Mae West?”
    “aye.kin ye sleep in a box bed?”(that actually looks comfy..looks like something my grandma’s house)
    I love 39 Steps ..altho I never seem to list in my top fave Hitchcocks..It is certainly the one I’ve seen the most(its public domain status along with The Lady Vanishes,have made it a staple on non cable stations for years)..Its the one I quote the most from…and even in my own collection,its the one I pull out the most to re-watch..in spite of the situation,theres something relaxing in that trek across the northern regions…love the bridge comparisons..Train rides(more imaginary this time) to Scotland feature into a couple of my favorite Rathbone-Sherlock Holmes films..one for the Trout fishing..

  11. There were several men Mr. Cukor was close to at one time or another, according to Patrick McGilligan in his not-at-all-bad bio (though he gets the Gone with the Wind firing wrong.) Gavin Lambert observered that the studio system in its heyday was so overwhelming and time-consuming — albeit it incredibly rewarding — that it was hard for a gay director to have much of a personal life, “so they gravitated towards hustlers.” Mr. Cukor’s pool parties are the stuff of gay Hollywood legend. All the El Primo numbers were present (the young John Rechy among them), along with a very select group of Mr. Cukor’s friends (Anderson Lawler, Rex Evans.) Mr. Cukor was very strict in prohibiting actual sexcapades on the premises. But you were free to meet, greet, and camp it up.

  12. Cukor was a crafstman in that he delivered solid, serious entertainment. But he was also an innovator in very subtle ways. He guided Hepburn thorugh all the periods of her career, and directed stars as diverse as John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Judy Holliday, and Judy Garland –with whom he got on like a house on fire. He’d known her since forever. In fact when he was briefly on board The Wizard of Oz it was his idea that Dorothy be an ordinary farm girl. Originally they had Garland done up like a Maxfield Parrish. He told her to trust her instincts and keep it simple — which she did. She never forgot that advice, which is why she hired him for A Star is Born. Oh they had a great time doing that one. He knew she was a natural, and all she needed to deliver was someone to back her up. When she did a standard take on a scene with mor potential too it he’d say “A little too Kay Francis.” And when she hit it out of the ball park — “Better than Kay Francis!”

  13. Mary: apparently The 39 Steps is playing on Broadway, but I’m not sure if I’ll make it there.

    “Gentlemen! You’re not at home now!” is my favourite line during the music hall riot.

    I’m not very outdoorsy but a train journey through the highlands is not to be missed.

    I like Kay Francis! Judy Garland seems like a different talent altogether to me: her approach to any emotion is so intense and full-on.

  14. Its still on in London so if you are down in the next year … has lots of hommages to Hitchcock in it

  15. Well I like Kay Francis too. But I know what Mr. Cukor means. She was high-style and spot-on. Judy worked from her gut. She was insanely sophisticated but she was pure genuine emotion at the same time. Cukor always talked about the dressing room scene in A Star is Born where she breaks down and cries over Mason’s alcoholic slide, pulls herself together, puts her make up on again and goes right out on the sound stage and sings “Lose That Long Face.”

    It’s safe to say there is no one who could do that scene so adroitly as Judy.

  16. I get the impression Garland had incredible access to her emotions, that she would feel it as soon as it was described to her. And this ease did not come with any lack of subtlety or depth, either. Liza Minnelli has the same rawness, but not the same control.

  17. Yes, that’s it precisely.

  18. I particularly like your analysis of the “cheats” here, I don’t remember any of the Hitchcock tomes I’ve read doing such an elegant and concise job of enumerating those wonderful tricks. Oddly the only one that trips up my “logic-sense” (like Spider-sense, but duller) and drives me buggo in an amusing way is the first; Hitch would probably laugh at such “plausiblist” foolishness. I think, perhaps, the problem I have with what is otherwise a gloriously silly yet suspenseful scene is that I sympathize with Ms Mannheim and the – impossible – method of her dispatch diminishes her, of course that’s to be over-sensitive and miss the point – it isn’t The Wrong Man after all! Thanks for pointing out a couple of the movie’s feints I missed or happily swallowed. Ah, the genius of Hitch, Bennett and Co.
    It’s fascinating to see John Laurie in his memorable role as the bastard crofter here as well as various other characters through the years before he fetches up in Dad’s Army; it reminds me of Charles Hawtrey turning up in A Canterbury Tale or a Will Hay comedy or two before he reached his apotheosis and eventual doom as a comic highlight of the Carry On series.
    Madeleine Carroll is the first real Hitchcock Blonde and she’s also one of the best. I think you’re right we, the audience, have double-sympathy : we know what Hannay has been through and are aware of his innocence yet we understand why Madeleine gives him up early on, too. Robert Donat’s vulnerability and charm is priceless and Ms Carroll’s spikiness and appeal complements him, it’s magnificent when they become a team. In my view, no modern actor could approach Robert’s qualities here but then *this* Hannay isn’t exactly the kind of character we’d see now (he’s strong and witty yet somehow fragile) for quite different reasons to the literary version. Interesting that the slightly consumptive-looking Robert Powell was chosen to play Hannay in a later version, compare the Roberts to the robust Kenneth More interpretation.
    How many films have swiped the meeting scene?!

  19. But are we sure the meeting was originated here? Hitchcock read a lot and saw everything he could, I’m just wondering if the gimmick had been used elsewhere…

  20. Someone must know… I did wonder if this *was* the first use of the idea but I can’t think of any earlier. Yet, as you say, Hitchcock and his collaborators were widely viewed and read. Hitch was a master of the old “innocent found with murder weapon” wheeze but who originated that I wonder? Circles within circles…

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