Favorite Hitchcock Themes and Motifs in
The 39 Steps
Some of these motifs appeared for the first time in this film and established a style and a set of preoccupations that extended over Hitchcock’s career. One of the reasons The 39 Steps, the play, works so well as both an homage and a spoof of Hitchcock is that this film contains so many of his recurring themes.
The Wrong Man: a favorite Hitchcock premise put an innocent man on the run in a quest to prove his identity. In this case and many others, he also unwittingly becomes a hero. This motif also appears in Young and Innocent, Saboteur, Spellbound, The Wrong Man, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, and Frenzy.
The Ordinary Person: This motif takes two forms: the accidental elevating of an ordinary man or woman into a position of a hero (see especially Secret Agent and The Man Who Knew Too Much), and the support of the common people. In The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, and Saboteur “there is at the center an amiably roguish hero whose journey around the country satirizes mores and illuminates the life of the common folk.” (Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock). The villains, on the other hand, are the more sophisticated people, like Professor Jordan.
The MacGuffin: This was Hitchcock’s word for the thing that everyone is after; in this case, the secret information the spies are trying to take out of the country. What makes it a MacGuffin is that the concrete details around it (what it is, who the bad guys are, what country they are taking the secret to, what will happen if they succeed, etc.) are of absolutely no importance to Hitchcock, and ultimately, to us. They are not mentioned; politics remain vague. The MacGuffin is just an excuse for the chase and the suspense as we wonder if the hero will be caught. MacGuffins figure in Torn Curtain, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, North by Northwest, Notorious, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, and, of course, in The 39 Steps, to name a few.
The Smooth Villain (sometimes, the Likeable Sociopath): Hitchcock featured smooth, handsome, articulate, and frequently upper class villains in The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, and Dial M for Murder, among others.
Trains: the setting for many Hitchcock sequences, especially in Number Seventeen , The 39 Steps , Secret Agent , The Lady Vanishes , Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt , Spellbound , The Paradine Case , Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest .
Blonde Women: The Hitchcock blonde had as its prototype Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. The character of Pamela is perhaps a little feistier than the characters created by Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Tippi Hedron, but the cool exterior that (unsuccessfully) concealed a warm sensuality was a standard feature in Hitchcock’s films. See glossary for more information.
Violence in a Theater: a theater is a favorite locale for an eruption of chaos, as we see in The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Saboteur, Stage Fright, Torn Curtain, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Theater and its implications play another important role in Hitchcock films: the awareness of the theatre connects us to themes of disguise, identity, role-playing, and illusion, all of which play a major role in creating the suspense of the story. Nothing is really as it seems.
The Pursuit or Disclosure of a Hidden Person: The Lady Vanishes, Spellbound, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The 39 Steps.
Music as a Story Element: In The 39 Steps, it’s the Mr. Memory tune that Hannay can’t get out of his head. Tunes are used in a similar way in The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of a Doubt, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.