BrianNaas’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is one of those films that is lodged in my heart. I come back to it every few years just to see some of my favorite scenes play out again. For what Hitchcock set out to do, this is a near perfect film. Everything in it works. The triple chase plot with Hannay chasing the spies as the cops chase him as the spies chase Hannay - not only to prove he isn't a murderer but also because he is a loyal Colonial (from Canada). The literal hook-up with the girl who won't believe him. The puckish humor. The suspense. The wonderful use of local characters. Mr. Memory (based on a real life person). "What are the 39 steps". From the opening in the vaudeville hall and the woman in danger to that last camera shot as it closes in on them holding hands over a dead body hits all the right notes.
I admit to being partial to the Hitchcock films made in England from 1934 to 1940. The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes and Foreign Correspondent (technically American but feels like his English films) are among my favorite of his films. Smaller budgets, less ambitious, shot in black and white but they appeal to me more than many of his later big glossy Hollywood films. Not that many of those were not great films but I usually find myself coming back to this film, The Lady Vanishes and Foreign Correspondent. I know I am in the minority. Certain of his Hollywood films bore the hell out of me. These never do.
I am such a fan of this film that I went on to read the five Richard Hannay books by John Buchan (who later went on to be Governor General of Canada), see two of the remakes and the TV show. The books are great fun. Hitchcock was a fan of the books as well and had wanted to make a film of one of them for years. He settled on The Thirty-Nine Steps (the book title) because it all takes place in Great Britain and much of it could be shot in the studio. It also has one of his favorite themes - an innocent man on the run. But Hitchcock made major changes from the book which he didn't think was cinematic enough. The main thing being adding a female romantic figure. The book has none. He added scenes, took out scenes but the gist is basically the same - foreign spies are trying to get a stolen military secret out of the country. Buchan wrote it before WW I and makes it clear the spies are German - Hitchcock likely had the Germans in mind as well but the film never explicitly says so. Same in Foreign Correspondent. The spy that comes to Hannay asking for help in the book is a male - not Annabella. The thirty-nine steps in the book are literally 39 steps while in the film it is a spy organization.
With Hitchcock's input he gave the script duties to Charles Bennett who had worked with Hitchcock going back to his play Blackmail which Hitchcock made a successful film out of. They collaborated on a Bulldog Drummond film of all things that eventually morphed into The Man who Knew Too Much. After this Bennett wrote the screenplays for Secret Agent, Sabotage, Young and Innocent (still not seen) and Foreign Correspondent.
Robert Donat was Hitchcock's choice from the beginning after having seen him in a play and then The Count of Monte Cristo. For the girl he eventually settled on Madeleine Carroll. There is a theme in Hitchcock's life about his attraction to beautiful ice cool blondes and Carroll certainly fits the bill. And as in other instances Hitchcock did not treat her very well on occasions. He loved getting her soaked in the waterfall scene and making her look like a "drowned rat". He also pulled a prank on both Donat and Carroll. The first scene shot was the escape from the men who identified themselves as cops. Donat and Carroll are handcuffed together and he has to pull her unwillingly along. After the shot was finished Hitchcock told them he could not find the key but would soon be back with it. Two hours later he shows up. He says he wanted to let them bond - which apparently they did and became good friends - but knowing Hitchcock's reputation I would guess there was a bit of the sadist in this as well.
Besides these two though much of the pleasure of the film are the characters/actors who have bit parts but fill in the atmosphere - the two fellows on the train, the couple on the farm, the milkman, the people in the crowd humorously shouting out questions, the sophisticated bad guy "Are you sure it wasn't this hand?" and of course Mr. Memory. Lots of lovely moments - when Hannay realizes he has walked into the villain's lair, Pamela (Carroll) realizing that he has been telling the truth, his political speech impersonating God knows who while the police surround him and of course the ending in the Palladium. Yup, still a perfect film for me.