In his book Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, William Rothman includes a fascinating chapter on The Thirty-nine Steps in which he elucidates the identity of the protagonist Richard Hannay. Rothman argues that Hannay is “exempt from having a self” and this lack of identity enables him to “face death without anguish” as he is free of any responsibility. It is his identity as a wanderer without an identity that gives him the freedom to pursue the mystery of Annabelle’s death and the concurrent plot.
Rothman argues that Hannay’s trip to Scotland is neither a “spiritual journey or a rite of passage.” He asserts that Hannay would not engage in a struggle for selfhood because “he is exempt from having a self.” From the first time the audience is introduced to Hannay in the theatre, he is marked as a n outsider and “outside the rigid system” by which we judge the other members of Mr. Memory’s audience. This transcendence of the limitations by which other characters hold to and are judged places Hannay in a totally different sphere. Rothman argues that this is a place where Hannay is “not a character.” His lack of identification through comparison with others combined with his easy acquiescence to Annabelle and willingness to help leave no way to clearly identify his character, Rothman argues. He is simply “reacting within a situation in which he is no more the author than we.” Hannay is a wandering force who happens to be drawn into this scenario and has the capability to see it through.
William Rothman’s chapter on The Thirty-nine Steps presents a unique perspective on the character of Richard Hannay. Rothman argues that because he has no explicable identity within the film, Hannay has the freedom to run off at a moments notice and defend the secrets of his country. It is only within this construct that his actions can be explained.
In Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film, Wesley Britton offers his opinion on the character of Richard Hannay as he relates to the beginnings of an interest in spy stories in general. Britton notes Hannay as an “unimportant archetype” in the historical development of spy novels and films.
Like many other writers, Britton recognizes the Hannay as the amateur hero. Unlike many other spy characters of the time, the Richard Hannay from The 39 Steps has no formal training in the art of espionage – he is an everyman who comes to foil an international plot against his country. This is not to say that he is not at an advantage – his lack of responsibilites or ties to his domestic space allow him the freedom to take on this new burden but the fact remains that he stands out by way of his lack of training. Interestingly, Britton notes that in Buchman’s later writings, Hannay becomes skilled, trained by “natives in South Africa.” This shift in Hannay’s character brings him more into line with the likes of James Bond. As the spy genre develops, it becomes necessary to sensationalize his character in a way that was absent from Buchman’s writing of the The 39 Steps and Hitchcock’s adaptation. It would seem that Hitchcock prefers the amateur spy, for even as Hannay develops, Hitchcock prefers to still portray an everyman surmounting fantastic obstacles, such as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest.
Wesley Britton’s explanation of the development of spy characters allows us to illuminate Richard Hannay in the context of the general development of the genre. In doing so, we also reveal Hitchcock’s preference toward the amateur hero rather than the polished secret agent that was beginning to come into vogue.
In his book Male Myths and Icons, Roger Horrock makes mention of Alfred Hitchcock and his portrayal of masculine figures in a number of his films. Interestingly, Horrock is of the opinion that Hitchcock does not elevate the masculine figure in these pieces – rather he writes that Hitchcock’s primary interest lies in the exposure of “male perversity.”
While Horrock notes that women “are the victims in Hitchcock films” rather than men, he does not use this as evidence for a dominant, strong male stereotype. Rather, Horrock notes the psycotic flaws Hitchcock introduces in many of his amle characters. Vertigo concerns itself with necrophilia, Frenzy with rape and the well-known Psycho with psychosis. This image of man as a flawed and dangerous character suggests that it would be “farcical to suggest that Hitchcock simply permits. . .an uncomplicated identification” of his male protagonists as the relatable, stereotypical male role. Rather, Hitchcock attempts to reveal the darker perversity of men. Although they retain their power, especially over women, it is of important note that these characters are not idyllic emblems of masculinity as is seen in The 39 Steps. Hitchcock is interested in and has the capacity too expose a perversity of the male psyche through a number of his later films.
Unlike The 39 Steps, other works of Hitchcock have exposed a flawed and disruptive male character. Roger Horrock exposes this trend, revealing Hitchcock’s ability and desire to show men as morally and socially perverse, disrupting the masculine stereotype applied so flawlessly in The 39 Steps.