Five years before leaving for Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock had perfected the suspense-romance genre formula that had become his calling card in the British film industry. The 39 Steps–moreso than the fun but less thoughtful The Lady Vanishes (1939) and the comparatively clumsy Secret Agent (1936)–doesn't just skip between its crime and romance registers, it substitutes them for one another just long enough for accidental spy Hannay (Robert Donnat) and his handcuff-bound would-be wife Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) to get out of a dangerous situation and into another.
In addition to familiar devices of Hitch's early years (awkward train car interactions, potential murder weapons brandished casually during civil conversations, staged and stageless performances, uneasy urbanite-farmer exchanges, ineffectual cops) we see embryonic signs of his Hollywood iconography. The opening play of footsteps is like a thesis proposal for the frenzied cross-cutting that would open Strangers on a Train 16 years later. Mistakenly accused of murder and chased over the Scottish Highlands (towards a town called Killin no less!), Hannay inevitably anticipates Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest–there's no crop-dusting scene here, granted, but a helicopter isn't bad.
Unlike that epic of Americana, though, The 39 Steps stays intimate, following the resourceful Canadian diplomat Hannay closely, then prodding him and Pamela together–first with handcuffs then, after the bonding born of evading murderers and police, with the delightful camaraderie of a great screen duo. If Grant and Ingrid Bergman (in Notorious) or Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly (in Rear Window) packed more star power and beauty, they also never achieved the level of playful banter the leading pairs of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes displayed. Here the pleasure is as much in watching two people grow closer despite themselves as in watching the machinations of a spy story play out.
This focus on the couple may speak to a firmer belief in romantic love, one evidently worn thin by the time Hitch made Vertigo. The strength of 39 Steps's love plot also attests to the budding star director's lingering willingness to be merely a director and not yet the star of his own films. His persona (real or branded) would swiftly take center stage after the move to America. In The 39 Steps, Hitch quietly raises familiar themes like his distrust of crowds (the opening scene starts as a parody of British propriety then devolves into a barroom brawl), his skeptical portrayal of marriage (Hannay and Pamela alternate performing newlyweds and fleeing criminals until the distinction is merely nominal), and balances a dislike of blind loyalty with suspicion of roving mercenaries.
The 39 Steps's careening plot and delightful, self-aware humor makes it memorable beyond its ostensible auteuristic foreshadowing and thematic engagements. Hitch, even to his staunchest detractors, was always capable of terrific entertainment. As Hannay remarks to the elegant freelance agent who sets the film's events in motion: " 'Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen': sounds like a spy story." It is, but it's also a lot more.