The 39 Steps is definitely an interesting movie but it is one that is held back by the main character. He’s annoying to watch the whole time and will just grate on your nerves. The guy isn’t the nicest fellow that’s for sure and leaves the worst possible first impression with the main heroine so while you expect that the romance is still coming, you are just hoping that it won’t. Just skip it….so I enjoy the story in the film and how everything is really mysterious but the film also has a lot of unnecessary moments and a weak lead that distracts from this.
The movie opens with Richard enjoying a show where a guy called Mr. Memory confirms that he knows everything. Ask him any serious question and he can get you the answer on the spot. It’s really quite impressive to be honest. Well suddenly a lady runs into Richard and asks him to take her home. He agrees but the whole thing is rather odd. She says that she is being chased by a bunch of ruffians who want to murder her and while Richard doubts this at first, she is promptly murdered. The only clue he has left is a paper she was holding with a map. He is now the primary suspect in her murder so he has to find the real villains and solve this case quickly.
So far so good. It’s a pretty interesting plot. One unique thing about the movie is also that this guy is completely out of his depth for the entirety of the movie. Yes, not just the beginning of the movie or for part of it but the whole thing. This guy really has no clue what he is up against and even we as the viewer don’t know a whole lot. This is done effectively since we’re seeing the world through the lead’s eyes. There is no time for info dumps or twists about what is going on. Yes, we get some answers by the end but not a whole lot of them. The majority of the film is Richard running around and getting himself into trouble.
For example one of the best parts there is when Richard finally makes it to his destination and meet up with a Mr. Jordan who he thinks can help him. Unfortunately this guy turns out to be one of the main villains so not only is he not going to get any help from this guy but it’s actually the reverse and he might be in trouble now. I like how Jordan plays along for a bit before just dropping the act. The film also has that retro style of talking where everyone is being super polite even when talking about how someone is going to get murdered. Jordan says Richard has to die but gives him some options and tries to be nice about the whole thing.
Then while they’re in the middle of talking he just shoots Richard out of the blue. I just like how nonchalant the whole thing was. He just shot him in the middle of the living room and walked away. Now granted, this also leads to the cheesiest part of the film which is that he didn’t check to make sure that Richard was actually dead. Cmon now that’s the first thing you have to check. It turns out that the bible he stole from a domestic abuser saved his life. Richard’s luck gets no better as he runs off to the sheriff who doesn’t believe his story at all and things continue to escalate.
So yeah Richard is doing a lot of running here which is why we don’t have time to learn much about the two factions of secret agents going at it with each other. You just need to know the key facts here which is that one side has some intel that they shouldn’t and they will get away unless the cops get involved. By the time the film is over Richard may be safe for a bit but I feel like nobody’s actually going to stop the 39 Steps because where do you even begin with that? We don’t even know how big the organization is or how many members they have. The possibilities are really endless.
If this was the extent of the film then it would all be swell but one of the weakest aspects of the film is the whole subplot with Pamela. So they first meet on a train where Richard tries to use her as a disguise when being chased by the cops. His bright idea here was to go all the way for a kiss instead of a hug or something. I was glad when she ratted him out because if a random person shows up and does that this should absolutely be your first reaction. He holds that against her though and the whole scene is just wild because it also doesn’t feel like something the hero would do. I thought that was a really weak scene.
She tries to get him into trouble for a long while after that but eventually they get handcuffed together and now she really has no escape. He forces her to pretend to be married to him and whenever she tries to yell for help he’ll just grab her by the neck so she can’t talk or threaten to shoot her. This is the hero? Now it’s not like the film is portraying him to be demented or anything and the scenes aren’t meant to be crazy but they’re not exactly played for laughs either. I think he just goes way too far in trying to scare her. He fears for his life but making her fear for hers really isn’t helping matters in the slightest. He still takes time to flirt and start a relationship as well so he needs to get his priorities straight.
The guy is all over the place and so by the end you have no sympathy for him. It’s a shame that people think he is a murderer but he’s starting to act like one anyway so that’s maybe just how this will end up going anyway. The film also has a very random pitstop near the middle where he bumps into a rather shady guy who prays a lot but seems like a phony and his poor wife who doesn’t really know what to do. Things get dicey for her after Richard leaves and it’s like…did we need to see this? Yeah it’s generally understood that this guy seems like he may get abusive and has a chip on his shoulder but it’s a bit of a dark element that has absolutely nothing to do with anything.
This film feels really unfocused which is fine for the story but it also just means that any bad elements which show up also feel like they have no real point in being here. The film would just be better off without these moments being included at all and there is no real incentive to watch this over another thriller. I’d recommend most of the other retro titles I’ve seen higher than this one. The ending is pretty clever and ties in well to the intro but ultimately this film barely breaks even. That’s quite the feat considering that with the solid writing and tone this would usually be guaranteed to be a 7 at least so you know the title definitely did something wrong.
Overall, That main character just needed to be arrested after a while and you feel worse for the heroine who gets swept up into all of this. If this ever gets a remake I think we just need to have a bigger focus on The 39 Steps and what they really do. They certainly have a lot of plans going on and operatives around the world but what is their end game really? I just want to see more of how they operate in this world while living double lives as millionaires having fun in society. Those questions are the most interesting parts of the film.