Thriller or Rom-Com: In what direction is The 39 Steps?

Kaicie Boeglin

Opinions Editor

Photo via brentonfilms.com

Alfred Hitchcock is notorious for his thrillers, but is a renowned director on all genre platforms, as shown by his 1935 film The 39 Steps. In short, The 39 Steps takes the viewer on a journey with characters that get tossed through unforeseen obstacles while trying to complete a mission. As the leading male tries to clear his name of murder, he winds up on a rollercoaster of love.


There is a master plot to romantic comedies that Hitchcock emphasizes with this film. This master plot is a series of typical events linked into a continuum that manifests the conventions of an ordinary film by dramatizing the conflicts at the basis of the genre. First the couple meets, but before they can fall in love, obstacles intervene and must be overcome. The result seals the couples’ courtship in the promise of marriage.


Hitchcock’s direction of The 39 Steps kicks off the unfulfilled desire with Richard Hannay’s questioning of agent Anabella Smith. Hannay, played by Robert Donat, is cast into a storm when Agent Smith reveals that a foreigner is about to give away British Military secrets. Smith is then murdered in Hannay’s flat, which takes a toll on his existence. Hannay is blamed for the murder and now must stop at nothing to fulfill the desire of clearing his name. On a proceeding train ride, the viewers witness the couple of the story meet for the first time. In order to divert the police, Hannay plants a smooch on a pretty icy blonde. She was taken aback when Hanny had quickly laid down what was happening. She is then quick to hand him over to the police, but Hannay escapes. Later on, Pamela, played by Madeleine Carrol, stumbles across Hannay at a political rally. Once more she gives him away, but just as the deputies try to take him off, Hannay opens up to Pamela. This forces the deputies to take her as well.


After the couple meets, the next step would be to have fun together. The fun in the sense of The 39 Steps comes in the form of Hannay’s active adventure to clear his name, and all the while Pamela does what she can to get him put in prison. Before more fun is to be had, the two are handcuffed together. Was this an obstacle, or just the beginning of the journey? As Hitchcock’s male lead said, “Wherever I go, you go,” the movie which began as a thriller collided with the scope of a romantic comedy.


The journey of these lovers has now officially begun, despite the movie being halfway over. Hannay and Pamela stumble across a hotel and pull off the runaway-young-couple scenario. This places our star couple in a new setting, continuing on with the master plot synopsis. The hotel becomes the region where Pamela opens her mind to the idea of Hannay’s innocence. After acquiring their room the two are seen in an oral quirrel. The hotel woman comes to check on the couple, and Richard tells her that they are a runaway couple and ask that she not give them away.

Here is when the audience sees the choice be made. After managing to slip out of her handcuff Pamela made the choice to not turn her back on Hannay. She chose to stick by his side and help him out, allowing the romance to flourish. Hitchcock plays on the heartstrings of the characters and the viewer through use of introspective dialogue. Once a choice is made the masterplot cascades to the crisis.


While connecting the final clues that will clear his name, police ask an attendant to pull Hannay and Pamela from the audience. As they try to take Hannay into custody, step nine of the rom-com master plot occurs- the epiphany. This epiphany happens within the last two minutes of the film, when Hannay screams over all the mediocre whispers to project the question, “WHAT ARE THE 39 STEPS?”, as authorities attempt to detain him.


The end results in a celebration around Hannay being exonerated, and the camera draws behind the couple as their hands reach for one another and the screen fades to black. The classic happy ending concluded one of Hitchcock's famous thrillers and his greatest romance portrayal.

The 39 Steps is a showcase of great talent and craftsmanship. The impressive thing about the rom-com twist is that it comes about three-quarters through the film. This makes one question, although the two meet in the beginning and become entangled later on: if they were handcuffed together from the start would the thriller aspect be removed? By placing the two in handcuffs, Hitchcock formed a bond between characters that needed to advance rapidly. By having a rapid advance, the placement of Hannay and Pamela’s romance was able to be scattered through glimpses until the courtship started 11 minutes before the films closing. Robert Donat portrayed a character on the run from dire circumstance who happened to find love. Madeleine Carrol portrayed the reluctant beauty that discovered the truth in irony. The acting through Hitchcock’s direction highlighted that The 39 Steps has all the elements of the romantic comedy master plot.


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