Hitchcock Becomes Synonymous with Suspense

With The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hitchcock revitalized a sagging career, creating a mixture of themes and cinematic techniques that would make his name synonymous with suspense.

Summary of Event

By 1933, Alfred Hitchcock was stymied; his career appeared to be going nowhere. In 1926, he had made The Lodger, Lodger, The (film) a melodramatic thriller involving a Jack-the-Ripper motif that had won stunning praise and instantly placed him among Great Britain’s top directors. The Lodger had been his third film, but since then he had directed thirteen more, none of which matched The Lodger’s popularity. Although some of his pictures had been well received, most met with indifference, and his last few films had been outright flops. He had tried other thrillers, romance, comedy, filmed plays, and even musicals, but nothing seemed to work. At this point, as he seriously questioned whether he had any future in the film industry, Hitchcock was approached by an old colleague, Michael Balcon. Balcon, who had produced some of Hitchcock’s early pictures, including The Lodger, was now in charge of production for the Gaumont-British Studio, and he wanted Hitchcock for his film company. Some of Hitchcock’s problems in the past had stemmed from his working for studios that gave him little control over which films he was to direct. Balcon offered Hitchcock freedom of choice and personal moral support. Agreeing to join Balcon, Hitchcock decided to return to the genre that he preferred and that had given him his first success—the thriller. [kw]Hitchcock Becomes Synonymous with Suspense (1934-1935)
[kw]Suspense, Hitchcock Becomes Synonymous with (1934-1935)
Motion pictures;The Man Who Knew Too Much[Man Who Knew Too Much]
Motion pictures;The Thirty-Nine Steps[Thirty Nine Steps]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Alfred Hitchcock[Hitchcock]
[g]England;1934-1935: Hitchcock Becomes Synonymous with Suspense[08550]
[c]Motion pictures;1934-1935: Hitchcock Becomes Synonymous with Suspense[08550]
[c]Entertainment;1934-1935: Hitchcock Becomes Synonymous with Suspense[08550]
Hitchcock, Alfred
Balcon, Michael
Donat, Robert
Carroll, Madeleine
Lorre, Peter

The Man Who Knew Too Much, released in 1934, was a tale of murder, kidnapping, and attempted assassination centering on an English family caught in a web of international intrigue. While vacationing in Switzerland, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) inadvertently stumble on a plot to slay a leading European statesman in London. Their young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) is then abducted by the conspirators. Bob and Jill return to England and, through a series of adventures, foil the assassination and rescue Betty. The Man Who Knew Too Much reawakened interest in Hitchcock and captured public and critical acclaim, but The Thirty-Nine Steps, released in 1935, would be an even greater triumph.

The Thirty-Nine Steps deals with espionage. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London, meets a mysterious woman who tells him that she is trying to stop a group of spies from smuggling an important military secret out of the country. She is murdered in Hannay’s apartment; Hannay is suspected and flees from the police. He soon discovers that the foreign agents are trying to kill him in order to prevent him from revealing their plans, and he is pursued from London to the Scottish Highlands, across fog-swept moors, and back to London. In the process, he becomes romantically involved with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a young woman who at first believes he is a killer and who then becomes convinced of his innocence. Together, Hannay and Pamela save the secret, help break up the spy ring, clear Hannay’s name, and go off to live happily ever after.


The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Thirty-Nine Steps reestablished Alfred Hitchcock as Great Britain’s premier director, setting him on a path that would lead to Hollywood and greater fame. The two films represent the mature realization of several of Hitchcock’s trademark techniques and approaches. He had always favored spectacular scenes, an expressionist mood, and editing that kept viewers off balance and the pace moving. Both films skillfully mix these elements. The Man Who Knew Too Much features several exciting moments, including three scenes that have become part of Hitchcockian lore: the assassination attempt during a symphony in the vast Albert Hall, a shootout with besieged conspirators that seems to engage half of London’s police force, and a desperate moment at the picture’s conclusion, when one of the assassins stalks Betty across a high roof in an attempt to kill her before she can be saved. Although The Thirty-Nine Steps does not offer as many memorable scenes, it does have a striking conclusion in London’s Palladium; it is also a faster-paced film, with almost nonstop action. Both films are darkly expressionistic, and both are filled with sudden, jarring changes of mood.

Although sound was still a primitive art in the industry, Hitchcock was among the first to experiment with the different ways it could be used to enhance films. He made great strides in this area in these two pictures. The films’ use of dialogue is more extensive and more assured than in Hitchcock’s previous talkies. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock employed sound to accompany the assassination; the attempt is made in the midst of a symphonic performance, at the precise instant when the drums beat and the cymbals clash. The music becomes an integral part of the plot, heightening the anxiety for the viewer. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, when a maid finds the murdered woman in Hannay’s apartment, she opens her mouth to scream, but what the audience hears is the whistle of the train on which Hannay is fleeing London. Sudden and unsettling, the segue became one of the historic cinematic moments. With it, Hitchcock broke with the convention of early sound films that required the camera and the soundtrack to stay in sync, and in doing so he enlarged the possibilities for the use of sound in films.

Hitchcock liked to utilize humor to relieve tension, and he also liked to follow comic incidents with the return of menace, allowing the humor to make the shift to danger all the more potent. The Man Who Knew Too Much was, to that point, his most extensive melding of the comical into the thriller, but the film’s humor is largely limited to witty dialogue. In contrast, humor permeates The Thirty-Nine Steps. The banter is even sharper than that of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the film is replete with laughable situations that temporarily mask Hannay’s peril. Hannay is sitting in a railway car, expecting to be caught, and he finds himself having to listen to a lingerie salesman display his wares and make risqué jokes. Running from the police, Hannay stumbles into a political meeting, is mistaken for a speaker, and gives an absurd oration. Pamela and Hannay are handcuffed together and awkwardly try to eat and sleep together. These are diverting, antic scenes; however, they soon give way to renewed suspense. In The Thirty-Nine Steps (and in other films) Hitchcock never allows his viewers to relax fully.

These two films also introduced new elements that would be crucial in the evolution of Hitchcock’s work. The Man Who Knew Too Much was his first foray into espionage. By 1934, fascism was entrenched in Italy, Adolf Hitler had taken power in Germany, and the English were beginning to feel the onset of war jitters. Fear was in the air, and Hitchcock’s ability to tap this apprehension helped to ensure the success of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Thirty-Nine Steps. After 1934, a significant proportion of Hitchcock’s work would revolve around international intrigue. The world would be plagued by tension and conflict for the rest of his life; the espionage film would become a special type of thriller, and Hitchcock was one of its most skilled practitioners. Part of the reason was financial—spies could be big successes in the box office, as Hitchcock discovered with The Man Who Knew Too Much—yet he also found he enjoyed fashioning stories around the shadowy life of the secret agent.

The archetypal Hitchcock hero, heroine, and villain were first seen in these films. The Man Who Knew Too Much provides the villain in the leader of the conspirators, played by Peter Lorre. Dangerous, yet perversely appealing, a terrorist at once droll, sophisticated, and menacing, Lorre is the most dynamic character in the film; his character was the first of a number of similarly fascinating evil figures who would energize many of Hitchcock’s future films. After The Thirty-Nine Steps, moreover, Hitchcock’s male and female protagonists would be made to resemble Hannay and Pamela. His previous heroes and heroines, including the Lawrences in The Man Who Knew Too Much, tended to be one-dimensional; their characters were secondary to plot and to Hitchcock’s special cinematic techniques. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, both primary roles are multifaceted and central to the story’s development, and they are played by actors of major talent and star presence. Hannay, as envisioned by Hitchcock and realized by Robert Donat, is a witty and courageous man of action and charm. Similar characters would reappear in Hitchcock films over the years in roles played by Michael Redgrave, James Stewart, Paul Newman, and Cary Grant. Madeleine Carroll is the original “Hitchcock blond”; strong blond women, seemingly icy but actually passionate, would become a Hitchcock hallmark. While he had featured blond women in films before The Thirty-Nine Steps, Madeleine Carroll’s Pamela was the first personification of his ideal heroine. Later Hitchcock stars such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and Tippi Hedren were cast in her lineage.

The Thirty-Nine Steps presents one of Hitchcock’s favorite thriller structures: An honest man, made to look guilty by circumstances, is chased over long and picturesque distances while trying to establish his innocence. It also contributes the legendary Hitchcock device, the “MacGuffin.” The MacGuffin is a secret that inaugurates the action, a secret apparently so crucial that everyone wants to control it, although it ultimately turns out to be rather inconsequential. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, the MacGuffin is a military secret, a type of aircraft engine design. The viewer never really learns much about it, and, indeed, the secret is soon lost sight of in the plot. The film is not about the engine design; it is about Hannay’s attempt to prove his innocence and his growing relationship with Pamela. The MacGuffin could have been anything; its only real importance is to get events started. After The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hitchcock incorporated the MacGuffin into his repertoire, and a favorite game for Hitchcock buffs would be to look for the MacGuffins in his pictures.

Of the two films that restored Hitchcock’s reputation, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the more significant. Audiences at the time felt this was so, as did critics. Hitchcock himself believed it a richer, more professional accomplishment, and cinema scholars have agreed. They see it as a compendium of his best early work and the first clear indication of the Hitchcock that was to come. Nevertheless, The Man Who Knew Too Much is not without its importance. The film did begin Hitchcock’s relationship with the spy thriller and was quite popular, and its success was the turning point of Hitchcock’s career. After that film, there was no doubt of Hitchcock’s ability as a director.

Hitchcock crafted two more espionage thrillers for Michael Balcon: Secret Agent (1936) and Sabotage (1936). While neither was as admired as The Man Who Knew Too Much or The Thirty-Nine Steps, both added to his indisputable standing as Great Britain’s finest director. The fruitful collaboration with Balcon, however, did not last. Gaumont-British, destroyed by executive wrangling, gave up film production. Hitchcock made two films for Gainsborough Studios: Young and Innocent (1937), a lighthearted thriller, and The Lady Vanishes (1938), Lady Vanishes, The (film) a spy film that many consider one of his best. He then decided to quit Great Britain for the United States. Ever since making The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Thirty-Nine Steps, he had received approaches from Hollywood. After much hesitation, he finally chose to accept an offer from David O. Selznick. The working relationship with Michael Balcon was gone, and there would be more money, better production facilities, and perhaps more artistic challenges in the United States. Before he left, he directed one last film, Jamaica Inn(1939), Jamaica Inn (film) a pirate melodrama, for actor and producer Charles Laughton. Although the film earned money, it was a critical failure and confirmed evidence that his strength lay in thrillers.

Hitchcock went to the United States in 1939; he would die there in 1980. The forty-one years in Hollywood would make him perhaps the best-known filmmaker in the world. Building on his experience in Great Britain, he would create a remarkable number of varied landmark thrillers, including Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). He would influence generations of filmmakers, especially in the suspense genre. His films continue to be watched, and universities and film schools produce studies in ever-increasing numbers that interpret his pictures in minute detail. If Hitchcock had not made The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Thirty-Nine Steps, none of this might have happened. Motion pictures;The Man Who Knew Too Much[Man Who Knew Too Much]
Motion pictures;The Thirty-Nine Steps[Thirty Nine Steps]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Alfred Hitchcock[Hitchcock]

Further Reading

  • Chandler, Charlotte. It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock—A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Chandler’s treatment is less than scholarly, but her book includes a number of rare, entertaining, and revealing insights about Hitchcock, most of which were provided by his family.
  • Durgnat, Raymond. The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974. Especially helpful in illuminating Hitchcock’s work in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Quite intellectual in its approach, but written clearly enough for the general reader. Bibliography, filmography, and index.
  • Harris, Robert A., and Michael S. Lasky. The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Rev. ed. Sacramento, Calif.: Citadel Press, 2002. A fully illustrated analysis of all Hitchcock’s work, picture by picture. Despite its slick appearance, this is a serious, well-written overview of the films.
  • Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. 1976. Rev. ed. New York: Doubleday, 1992. This massive book looks at each film separately. Spoto’s style is accessible, and his insights are rewarding. A necessary source. Index and filmography.
  • Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. 1967. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A series of interviews of Hitchcock by Truffaut, the noted French director, in which Hitchcock tells his own story. Illustrations, extended filmography, short bibliography, index.
  • Taylor, John Russell. Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Perhaps the best biography of Hitchcock; easy to read and comprehensive. Index.

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