Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1939) and Notorious (1946)

by Fiona Underhill

If there is one name you associate with the word thriller, it has to be Hitchcock. Of course his psychological technicolor masterpieces from the 50s and 60s are his best known works, but his earlier black-and-white films have at least as much to offer the genre. The provincial and parochial Great Britain of Jamaica Inn (1939) and the train journeys of The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Strangers on a Train (1951) all had themes foreshadowed by The 39 Steps (1935), with its long train journey to rural Scotland. Made in the pre-war period when the rise of fascism and communism was threatening Europe, The 39 Steps deals with a non-specific foreign power trying to obtain military secrets from the UK. The spy genre was popular in the 30s because of the rapid rise in arrests and trials of Soviet spies in Europe. The 39 Steps fulfills many tropes of the genre; such as an ordinary man being under suspicion, falsely accused, on the run and desperate to clear his name (later used by Hitch in North by Northwest, of course).


Notorious still forms part of Hitchcock’s early black-and-white period, but came after his move to Hollywood in 1939. Considering it having been made and released just after the end of the second world war (in 1946), Notorious deals very much with post-war concerns; chiefly high-ranking Nazis, especially scientists, finding refuge in South America. Given the political sensitivity of the issues explored in the film to its contemporary audience, it is astonishing that it was released at all. It would be the equivalent of a film made now about Russian interference in the US election. In the ten years after The 39 Steps, of course, the world had gone through seismic change and devastation, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the glamorous Edith Head costumes and exotic millionaire’s mansion in Notorious.


The 39 Steps involves a government agent being murdered in the home of an ordinary man; Hannay (Robert Donnat), who is then obviously suspected of the murder and spends the rest of the film trying to keep one step ahead of the law. His journey takes him to the isolated home of a professor in Scotland, who turns out to be a spy. Notorious takes the unusual step of having the protagonist Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) be the daughter of a Nazi and opens at his trial. She is then recruited by government agents to spy on Nazis in South America and goes so far as to marry one of them. Both films feature that sense of losing one’s identity and going slightly mad. For Hannay in The 39 Steps, it is his desperation to prove his innocence (with ordinary policemen disbelieving of his ridiculous story) and for Alicia in Notorious, she starts to be poisoned and doubts her own mind – the gaslighting of a female character, a trope which Hitchcock used to great effect in Rebecca and Suspicion.

The MacGuffins in both films are ridiculous and show Hitchcock’s sense of humour. In The 39 Steps, it is a music-hall stage act called Mr. Memory who holds the key to the identity of The 39 Steps. In Notorious, the plot hinges around a wine bottle filled with uranium-enriched sand (apparently Hitchcock used uranium as a device in his films so much, he was under investigation).

The 39 Steps seems risqué for the time and although it is post-code, it still bears the hallmarks of a pre-code film. Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) boldly asks Hannay if she can come home with him at the start. There is a scene on the train where two lingerie salesmen discuss and examine women’s underwear. The second half of the film is basically a rom-com and contains two classic staples of the genre; a scene where the man doesn’t want to be seen/found, so he kisses a girl to cover his face and a scene where a mismatched couple who ‘hate’ each other are forced to pretend to be married in order to get a room (and find it only contains one bed). Both of these seem so modern and are still being used in rom-coms today. The same device of two people kissing to avoid detection is also used in Notorious. Alicia is a character very much ahead of her time – a hard-drinking party girl with much experience with men. However, romance is much more of a driving force behind the plot than in The 39 Steps, where it is the result of two people being forced together by circumstance. Alicia is in love with Devlin (Cary Grant) - the government agent she is working with and she marries Alex Sebastian (an undercover Nazi hiding in Rio) to spite him.

Point-of-view shots are used effectively in both films to more strongly align the audience with the protagonists and increase tension. Revelations dawn on the audience at the same time as the central characters and Hitchcock uses visual techniques to show the processing of information. In The 39 Steps, there is an amazingly seamless POV shot on the train when Hannay is handed a newspaper by one of the lingerie salesmen. The newspaper page is flipped and then smoothly positioned in front of the camera so Hannay can read the latest on the murder suspect. There is another POV shot when Hannay is forced into giving a talk at the town hall and the audience is viewed as growing suspicious and closing in on him, giving a claustrophobic feel. In Notorious, as Alicia begins to suspect she is being poisoned, there are lots of close-up shots of tea and coffee cups. At the climax of the film, as Devlin tries to extract an extremely weak and sick Alicia from the house, they come down the grand staircase and there is a POV shot of three Nazis arranged at the bottom in a diagonal line. Although they are dressed in tuxedos, this represents their militaristic threat and the sense that if you manage to overcome one, there will be another just behind.

The 39 Steps and Notorious offer an interesting pre and post-war counterpoint in terms of spy films. The threat in the 1930s was much more vague and the foreign power trying to obtain British secrets is never specified (although the audience would assume it is Russia). This is perhaps a more traditional view of the spy genre; motivations are unclear, everything is so covert that people are unsure who the enemy even is and they could be any ordinary person that you know or even love. The Second World War appeared to make things much more black-and-white in terms of ‘goodies and baddies’ - in the popular imagination, at least.

These two films also show the development of women’s roles in Hollywood within a decade. In The 39 Steps, the main female character, Pamela is a ditzy, annoying girl who only serves to provide the romantic tension in the second-half. There are some good It Happened One Night-style zingers that fly between the mismatched couple, but in terms of the central plot, she is very much more of a hindrance than a help. Whereas in Notorious, the woman is the protagonist and although her actions are driven by love, she is the one putting herself at risk and doing the actual spywork. We all know that Hitchcock went on to have problematic relationships with his leading ladies in the 50s and 60s, but this does show some evolution in female characters at least.

Although neither film contain the classic trench-coated spy, both are classic examples of the genre. They both feature romance, gaslighting, tension through the use of point-of-view shots, ridiculous MacGuffins and are both incredibly current (to their contemporary audience) in terms of the themes they were dealing with. The urgency and excitement that audiences would have felt when watching these films when they were first released is to be envied. Today we have to look to the music videos of artists like Beyonce, Childish Gambino and Janelle Monae to have the same sense of urgency and immediacy in terms of contemporary, relevant themes. I only wish that films were being made today that tapped into our own zeitgeist in the same way. Today's viewers are gaining a specific glimpse into the past with these two films because they are both tackling the dominant issues of their own time. They make fitting bookends to Hitchcock’s early black-and-white period and a fascinating insight into the contrasts between pre and post WWII espionage.