For the Love of Film III: The Tragedy of Margaret in The 39 Steps

May 18, 2012

This is my little contribution to the Hitchcock Blog-a-Thon in an effort to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation’s efforts to score and stream The White Shadow.  Please click the button to donate a few dollars towards a worthy cause.  And of course, please browse the many other entries in this blog-a-thon.  The quality of the contributions is staggering and the real fine minds of film should be appreciated by all.  You can find the other entries here, here, and here.



Intrinsic to any “wrong man” story is the terror of being a victim of circumstances far beyond your control.  Most modern storytelling operates under the precept that we have agency and control of our destiny, and even if “wrong man” films end up in that same space, there’s a subtle thrill and extra sense of dread and tension when things go horribly wrong for the protagonist through no real fault of his or her own.  It’s a subgenre that Hitchcock mastered with works like Saboteur and, perhaps most famously, North by Northwest, but before those films there was The 39 Steps, released in 1935.  It might not be the best of these films, but setting a good portion of it in Scotland allows for an interesting and, occasionally, very affecting commentary on the overall themes of “the wrong man”.

If you haven’t seen the film (and Good Gods why haven’t you?), the basic plot involves a Canadian, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat, looking dashing with his thin moustache), living in London where he meets a frightened woman, Annabella (Lucie Mannheim), and takes her back to his flat where she claims to be a spy and that she needs to get Scotland.  Before the night is through she is murdered, with Hannay taking the blame.  He goes on the run to Scotland in an attempt to clear his name and unravel the mystery.  It is in Scotland that we’re given my favourite sequence in the film, when Hannay is stuck in the country and manages to secure a bed for a night in a crofter’s home.  What follows is a compact, domestic horror unlike anything else in the The 39 Steps, and one that demonstrates the incredible humanism Hitchcock could display when he chose to do so.

The crofter, John (John Laurie) is a deeply religious man whose terse, suspicious nature is only trumped by his desire to make a bit of extra cash.  His much younger wife, Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft), is kind and clearly long-suffering, and also happens to be the most interesting female character in the whole film.  John is, to be sure, a (borderline offensive) caricature.  He’s a stereotypical Calvinist, praying about each of them as “miserable sinners” and hoping to lead them away from the “worldly things” – all the while willing to do anything for money (playing into that old stereotype that the Scottish are greedy and incredibly stingy).  The permanent suspicious scowl on his face could be modeled after the statue of John Knox that overlooks Glasgow, seemingly in a state of constant judgment over the city’s iniquities.  Indeed, when Hannay states his preference for the city, John scoldingly retorts, “God made the country.”

Despite this simplistic representation, its important to remember that he is a crofter.  Crofting was a hard scrabble life.  It was a form of tenant farming, put into effect after the brutal Highland Clearances by the English (and yes, in collusion with some Lowland Scots) that doubled as both a huge moneymaking scheme for the wealthy landowners down south and a punishment for a region that supported the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  Crofters inherited their plots, and one imagines that John himself must have been born into an awful circumstance that was beyond his control – a victim and prisoner of chance in which he had no agency.  But really, it’s Margaret for whom Hitchcock has the most sympathy.  She was born and raised in Glasgow, and she speaks longingly about the shops on Sauchiehall Street and the lights and trams on Argyle Street.  She’s interested in Hannay’s experiences in London, and asks what the girls are like down there – a question that betrays her youth and informs the sadness she carries.  She’s also clever, as she puts two and two together when she sees the newspaper article about the murder in London, but unlike the frustratingly obstinate love interest Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), she has an instant empathy for Hannay.  We never hear what he says to her to explain him situation, but she believes him, and she knows firsthand what its like to be at the mercy of powerful forces beyond her control.

This whole sequence is a triumph of expressionistic lighting and framing, and is largely unlike anything in the rest of the film.  John craggy, angular features are highlighted through harsh lighting and shadows, his creepy eyes always peering suspiciously on everything that goes around him.  When he walks into the kitchen during their discussion, he’s presented as an out-of-focus threat in the extreme foreground, dominating part of the frame.  Later, when the police arrive late at night, Margaret looks out of the bedroom window, which is askew in a way that is reminiscent of the German Expressionist horrors of the silent period.  This is a thriller through and through, but this house features a real and lasting nightmare.

She wakes up Hannay to warn him of the police coming over the hill, and John accuses them of a sexual indiscretion.  Once the predicament is explained, John promises to get rid of the police for a fee, which Hannay dutifully pays.  It’s only when John is away that Margaret explains that he’ll try to get a reward from the cops for turning him in, as she knows her husband all too well.  In a moment that echoes Flora MacDonald disguising the leader of the Jacobite rebellion, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Margaret gives Hannay her husband’s coat to better hide him as he flees.  He asks if John will mistreat her, and she assures him that “he’ll pray at me but no more.”  But Hitchcock lingers for a few moments after Hannay has left.  Margaret’s expression turns sullenly resigned, and shadow engulfs her.  Unlike Flora, there’s little lasting romanticism here.

This would seemingly be the end of the diversion into the world of the crofter and his wife, but Hannay is eventually shot by the man he was looking for – the man who turns out to be the leader of the ring of spies set on smuggling out the “39 Steps”.  Hannay falls to the ground, and Hitchcock takes us back to the crofter, who is asking after his jacket, which contained a hymnbook.  Margaret, off screen, explains that she gave the jacket to Hannay, and John menacingly lurches off-screen and we hear a slap and Margaret’s scream of pain.  Hitchcock then cuts to the sound of men laughing and the opening of the hymnbook in what will turn out to be a police station.  The hymnbook, which it turns out was a gift from Margaret to her husband, stopped the bullet.  It’s one more escape for Hannay, and one more step to clearing his name, but its Margaret who pays the price. Her noble act of defiance against the oppressive powers of her circumstance doesn’t end with reward, but with punishment.

The plight of Hannay and that of the Scottish people is pushed towards the fore in a later scene, when Hannay is comically mistaken for a well-regarded political thinker at a rally.  He’s forced to improvise, and comes out with a speech vague on details but that clearly echoes his own troubles in a way that connects with those of the Scottish people in attendance.  It’s presented as a sort of comedic bumble, but he talks of feeling lonely and helpless, and his exhortations to end the persecution of men by other men reflects the second-class nature of Scotland’s place within Great Britain at the time.

None of this is to suggest that The 39 Steps is not a cracking thriller.  It features all of the hallmarks that Hitchcock would become known for – brilliant set pieces, masterful suspense, a sly wit – but the sequence at the farm stands apart with its stylistic divergences and its humanism.  So thrill to the escape on the Forth Bridge, swoon at the interplay between Donat and Carroll, laugh at the absurdist nature of Hannay’s plight, and spare a thought for poor Mister Memory, but don’t forget the tragedy – and the nobility – of Margaret.


4 Responses to “For the Love of Film III: The Tragedy of Margaret in The 39 Steps”

  1. In the crofter episode, it’s easy to imagine how Peggy Ashcroft earned renown as ‘the greatest Juliet of the 20th century’. This movie was made about the time she was playing opposite Gielgud in Romeo and Juliet. I mean, acting chops aside, just look at her.

  2. Ashcroft, as the previous comment noted, is so woundingly lovely in this film, you do find yourself wondering about her after Hannay leaves the farm, which may be why Hitchcock gives us that additional scene after Hannay is shot – which is the most quietly heartbreaking scene in the movie. I agree with your point that Ashcroft is more appealing than Carroll, who’s irritatingly arch in her performance. Thanks for providing so much interesting background information on Scotland; it gives a more concrete sense of who the crofter and his wife are.

  3. Tinky Says:

    I agree with Grand that the information about crofters was great to have. And I agree with you that Margaret is a moving character, one of Hitchcock’s most touching and most memorable.

  4. MargaretActress Says:

    I just finished playing Margaret in the stage version of this film. My director had me play her a more ditzy. naive woman similar to Inga in Young Frankenstein since our show went in a more comedic direction and varied slightly from the movie. I tried to keep an air of authenticity to her sweet, loving, meek nature in the show especially since she is the only character that Hannay kisses in the show breaking the abstract “bubble” and exposing a more human and real section of the show. Despite my appearance (I was scantily clad and the “most beautiful” character), I still feel that in the movie and the play this scene is the only real human connection between Hannay and another person that cannot be dismissed as a dream or figment of imagination similar to The Wizard of Oz. This article was very informative and entertaining. I only wish I had found it sooner before the show closed.

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