Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps.
Everett Collection

Even though so many of his films are mischievously funny, we don’t commonly think of Alfred Hitchcock as a filmmaker of wit and levity. In The 39 Steps—among the films Hitchcock made in England before coming to the United States to become enormously famous—Robert Donat plays Hannay, a debonair yet average Canadian in London who, as the result of information he gleans from a chance encounter, treks to the Scottish moors to prevent a spy from spiriting top-secret information out of the country. Hannay’s story, as Hitchcock unfurls it, goes like this: within the span of a few days, a mysterious and alluring secret agent is murdered in his flat; he hops a train only to be forced to literally hop off; a group of sneaky baddies posing as police apprehend him and whisk him away for nefarious purposes; he’s handcuffed to a beautiful young woman who wants nothing to do with him (she’s played by moonlit-blond Madeleine Carroll); and he solves a mystery whose biggest clue was standing right before him in the first scene. Somewhere in there, a flock of sheep assemble haphazardly into a country traffic jam, and a love-starved wife in the Scottish countryside gets a vision of all she’s missing when she gazes into Hannay’s eyes. (She’s played by the young Peggy Ashcroft.) One event follows another in a seamless chain, Hitchcock linking them into a supple whole, focusing on what matters without bothering to address extraneous details. The result is an elegant, saucy delight, in which an on-the-rise filmmaker, already in command of his powers, shows off his best dance steps with a flourish.

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