Alfred Hitchcock was married for 54 years, until his death in 1980. In 1935, nine years into his marriage to Alma Reville, he directed The 39 Steps, a film frequently cited as a criticism of the state of marriage and female identity. The film presents several separate images of marriage which parallel stereotypes in society, all inevitably challenged by Hitchcock.
“Are you married?”
“Yes, but don’t rub it in!”
Early in The 39 Steps, Hannay (Robert Donat), desperate to escape the scene of a murder in his flat, tries to convince a milk man to give up his uniform so he can stealthily sneak away from the building. The milkman is originally reluctant to help, until Hannay falsely divulges he is fleeing the husband and brother of a married woman with whom he just had relations. This changes everything. The above exchange is part of their conversation, which Hannay uses to his advantage. The milkman is obviously resentful of marriage and only willing to help once he is fraudulently informed Hannay’s actions work in opposition of another marriage. It's as if the opportunity to vicariously stick it to someone else's matrimony excites him.
This is soon followed by Hannay overhearing a conversation aboard a train wherein two men disrespectfully joke about their wives. One is a bra salesman, and the two cajole about 1930s women being more free and open than their old-fashioned spouses. It comments on the nature of marriage over time and the melancholy and indifference that often develops between partners.
Compounding that is the unpleasant union of John (John Laurie) and Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft), a husband and wife who live in seclusion outside the city. Hannay stumbles upon them and seeks refuge for the night, and we are quickly privy to John's jealous nature and lack of affection for his younger, obviously unsatisfied wife. John is suspicious and crabby where the pitiable Margaret is trusting and open and ultimately comes to Hannay’s rescue despite the repercussions it will cause with her husband. The two clearly don’t live happily, and Hannay’s presence gives Margaret a jolt of interesting and eventful experience that is obviously missing in her routine. Hannay is a moment of desperately-needed company which she is willing to enamor over with little convincing.
Forward, the 9.5-fingered Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) and his unnamed wife (Helen Haye) give the impression of marriage for the purposes of professional protection. When the truth is revealed about Jordan’s identity, it becomes clear that the majority of his image is a front. It’s thus likely that his marriage falls within that territory of superficiality. Their union is not opaquely deplorable like John's mistreatment of Margaret, but as a loveless marriage existing for professional benefit, it is another example of the institution's authenticity being disrespected.
Finally, we see the innkeepers, the wife happily willing to protect a couple she believes is passionately in love.
The idea of marriage as a sexually challenging construct is something Hitchcock would revisit in many later films. Of course, Hannay and his eventual screen partner Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) are not married in The 39 Steps, but their connection via handcuffs is a figurative bond that stands as a cynical interpretation of a wedding ring attaching two people forever. Hannay and Pamela resent each other throughout nearly the entire picture. That said, it is also their feigned marriage which saves both characters. When two men come to the inn attempting to find them, the innkeeper waves the men away, believing the “in love” couple ought to be left alone. Equally poignant is the fact Pamela stays in Hannay’s company once unchained from him. The two find resolution in one another in the end by working as a team.
From the first scene of The 39 Steps, as Hannay is watching Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) perform his feats of memory, we receive commentary on marriage and the role of females in married society of the era. Wives in the audience ask Mr. Memory questions like “Where does my husband go at night?” while men ask mocking questions about their spouses. The take-away is that in 1930s Britain, the interpretation of marriage was very male-centric, where women were commodities that denied men freedom and grew troublesome with time. Each of the above scenarios reinforce this. Even the most positive marriage depicted, the one between the innkeepers, is perpetuated by the wife’s obsession with the love lives of younger, fresher, happier people. Her husband appears rather disinterested in it all.
The 39 Steps is Hitchcock’s response against this perception of marriage. The ending of the film finds Hannay and Pamela holding hands, together as a partnership, with the chain of their handcuffs dangling from Hannay’s wrist. They have chosen to bind themselves to each other as opposed to having company forced upon them. They have become a unit. Both characters work through their issues with the other and get past them, implying that marriage and partnership are worth the effort, but it takes both sides. We see the consequences of disrespectful men projecting marriage as a trap to be avoided throughout the picture, but are left with an image of unity. It’s easy to interpret that as the impression of a married man, hopeful about changing gender roles.