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The 100 Best British Films Ever
Blighty goes toe-to-toe with Hollywood's finest

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52
The 39 Steps Poster The 39 Steps (1935)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie

Before presided over Ealing Studios' golden age, Michael Balcon is best remembered for giving a talented East London filmmaker a leg-up in the tough-as-knuckles British film industry. That man? Alfred Hitchcock. He turned out early potboilers for Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures in the '20s before moving across London with Balcon to Lime Grove Studios, the home of this classic romp. The 39 Steps is a compendium of classic Hitchcock trademarks, from Robert Donat's 'wrong man' to a sinister MacGuffin and a Hitch cameo upset that'd make mortal enemies of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. Witness, too, the chemistry he sparks between his romantic leads - the feisty pairing of Donat and Carroll squabble their way across the Scottish Highlands and into each other's arms - and the ever-building paranoia as that spy ring does its nefarious work. The identity of those spies is never specified, but if they're not carrying travel editions of Mein Kampf, you can melt our faces.

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Masterpiece: The 39 Steps
His first masterpiece, the high watermark of the 'British years', Hitchcock's great chase set the blue-print for the Hitchcockian thriller...

The 39 Steps

Hitchcock made numerous alterations to John Buchan's famous novel of espionage and escapade, but none more significant than the addition of the blonde and the handcuffs. Buchan's novel of a wrongly accused man caught up in the nefarious plots of secret organisations, hotfooting it across the Highlands from both the forces of good and evil, had scant romance to speak of. Which wouldn't do at all. Thus Hitchcock added the lovely-if-bad-tempered blonde dragged (quite literally) into proceedings by a 'chance' encounter. The handcuffs? Well, how better to be sure that your leading man (Robert Donat's Richard Hannay) and unwitting female accomplice (Madeleine Carroll's Pamela) stick together?

Of course, the young director wasn't insensible to the saucy connotations of his plot device. There's every possibility he only hit upon the notion to allow him to squeeze some good-natured S&M into his quaint little thriller, a workout for one of his dark little fantasies. It also offered the opportunity for some director-imposed Method between his lead couple. Donat and Carroll had never met, and Hitchcock kept them apart until the first day of shooting in the spring of 1935. As the story goes, the moment they shook hands he whipped out the cuffs and locked them together. It was, after all, a necessity of the scene they were due to shoot — a pick-up from the chase across the moors and tame starting point for the movie. A few takes later, the director was satisfied. When they approached to be separated, Hitchcock was seen to pat down his pockets, pull a hammy look of shock, and claim to have lost the keys. "I must find them," he implored and departed the soundstage. He wasn't to return for hours.

Soon enough, the inevitable issues came up. They got annoyed, both with the director and with one another. Exactly like the characters in the film. How they negotiated toilet breaks sadly goes unrecorded. Eventually, they just sat down and started to talk. When Hitch spotted them finally laughing, he withdrew the key from his waistcoat and grinned, "Now that you two know each other we can go ahead."

"The handcuffs brought all kinds of thoughts in [audiences'] minds," he openly admitted. "It relates more to sex than anything else." There's no arguing it led to one of pre-War cinema's most sexualised scenes. Soaked through, after an encounter with a Scottish brook, Carroll's thoroughly irked Pamela decides to remove her sodden stockings. A task that inevitably enjoins Hannay's cuffed hand in the trip up and down her exposed leg; the camera lasciviously following every twitch of Donat's fingers. This was 1935. It remains outrageously erotic to this day.

While there's no missing the age — The 39 Steps may look slightly arthritic and formal to modern eyes — here was the arrival of the cinematic template for the romantic thriller. There's also no missing all the vital components of what would become Hitchcockery. The film might be one of his lighter playful ones, but thick, black streaks of paranoia run through it like rock. That's one of the most important things about Hitch's philosophy — for the audience to think they could readily be in Hannay's shoes. Fate (or the director) was a fickle creature. That cinematic staple, the 'ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances', was all Hitch's doing.

Hannay is framed by accident. A female agent dies in his front room, stabbed in the back — the rotters — clutching a map of Scotland in a dying hand. From there the film is flung into motion, a wronged man on the run, one mysterious location his only hope for exoneration. Far-fetched? Not half.

But then, who is watching Hitch for realism? He had no truck for those "plausibles" who spoiled it for everyone, happily interceding on behalf of his put-upon heroes through miraculous happenstance: Hannay survives a point-blank gunshot when the bullet is embedded in a hymn book concealed in the overcoat he has recently purloined. Call it deus ex Hitchina: the director as meddlesome deity.

The 39 Steps

Such is the film's spirited momentum, switching back and forth between thrilling escapes and comic dialogue, it makes no odds that Hitch doesn't bother explaining the title. In the book, the '39 steps' are a passage of steps down towards the sea from the headquarters of the spy organisation; in the film the phrase merely serves (without explanation) as the code name for the organisation. Here the title was the MacGuffin. Hannay steals his way north on a train, the first encounter with one of those perilous Hitchcock train-rides. Train journeys always conjured up the romance of far-flung travel for the Leytonstone boy — he then added the chases and murder and sex.

Stylistically, too, the film bursts with Hitchcock's exuberance and trickery. He was happily stretching both moral and filmic convention, threading the film with memorable craft. As a maid discovers a corpse, her scream is drowned out by the train's whistle, a 'sound bridge' butting in from the following scene. Shock cuts abound, and witty juxtapositions of sound and image, like the jaunty score playing over a music hall stampede, or a death scene framed against a swinging chorus line luring the eye away from the drama. Terror intermingled with humour. Murder as a black joke.

And here was a perfect Hitchcockian couple. The dashing yet innocent hero — a sly wit to go with his handsome looks, Donat is the archetype for Cary Grant, a prototype Bond weary of his own courage. And here was a blonde: smart, sassy and beautiful — ready for Hitchcock to torment. And so he did. Carroll was pushed from pillar to post, soaked, bruised and derided by her director. "Bring on the Birmingham tart!" he would holler when she arrived on set. He was intent on "breaking her down", wanting her to "be herself". It worked. Carroll is a dream, gorgeous and forthright, and her role grew and grew as the shoot progressed. She was to receive the ultimate compliment from her director as "the first blonde who was a real Hitchcock type..." Rumours even leaked that a romance had been kindled between the leading couple. Rumours, no doubt, put about by their director, the old tittle-tattle.

The last shot is perfect Hitchcock: a punchline, a memory and a titter at what could be to come. At last, case resolved, Hannay and Pamela join hands, and inch-by-inch Hitch's camera zooms in, framing the handcuffs still locked to Hannay's wrist. Just wait until later.

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Your Comments

1 100 Best British Films Ever??
Ok. I know everyone will have disagreements, (isn't that why we have lists) but surely there should be room for 'Brassed Off'! More

Posted on Sunday August 17, 2014, 00:44 by Gabriel2301
2 Only 29th, surely a mistake ?
Kes More

Posted on Friday February 14, 2014, 20:47 by mike lloyd
3 This should be No.1
Get Carter More

Posted on Friday February 14, 2014, 20:25 by mike lloyd
4 The Zulu film
Hey the Zulu film is there! Cool :-). That film is personal to me because my great (or great great) granddad was the man who won that war for us. He was known as Sargent Coal I think. :-p More

Posted on Monday June 17, 2013, 12:57 by Jackie Anne
5 BORAT is sick and disgusting
@ hollyinhd Borat should not be on here well said ... i hate BORAT .. sick sad excuse for a film More

Posted on Friday November 23, 2012, 15:24 by bill the butcher
6 Gandhi and the Kings speech
how are these two films lower than the Harry Potter films More

Posted on Wednesday November 21, 2012, 22:13 by nirvanaomid
7
Borat should not be on here, the Italian Job needs to be in the top ten. More

Posted on Friday October 5, 2012, 15:37 by hollyinhd
8
Just re-read this after a few months - the lack of Get Carter and The Innocents still hurts. It really does. More

Posted on Wednesday June 13, 2012, 22:31 by SDHoneymonster
9 94?!?!?
How can Tinker Tailor be at 94?! It is possibly one of the most uncompromisingly British films in history, and you've put it lower than WALLACE AND GROMIT?! OK, I'm done now. 94?! More

Posted on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 10:20 by Mr. Fincher
10 Wait.. Where's Sleuth?
I don't want to hate on this, I mean, it had some of my favorites, but hey Empire. Where is Sleuth? It's maybe the best british film I've seen. More

Posted on Thursday December 15, 2011, 17:03 by MrPinkBatman
11 Wait.
More

Posted on Thursday December 15, 2011, 17:00 by MrPinkBatman
12 Sexy Beast Wrong Way 'Round
While I'll agree with the selection of Sexy Beast for the list, my problem stems from all the critical super hype over Sir Ben's Don Loggan. For me his character is so over the top as to be comic relief. Where as Ian McShanes Teddy Bass was villain of nightmares. The scene in the hotel cafe, over breakfast, all he does is smile at Ray Winstone, and you feel that you need to hide beneath your seat. More

Posted on Saturday December 3, 2011, 00:13 by zeprin
13 Sexy Beast Wrong Way 'Round
While I'll agree with the selection of Sexy Beast for the list, my problem stems from all the critical super hype over Sir Ben's Don Loggan. For me his character is so over the top as to be comic relief. Where as Ian McShanes Teddy Bass was villain of nightmares. The scene in the hotel cafe, over breakfast, all he does is smile at Ray Winstone, and you feel that you need to hide beneath your seat. More

Posted on Saturday December 3, 2011, 00:13 by zeprin
14 The worst list ever
I registered just to vent my spleen. This list is awful. How is Monsters there and not Get Carter. What about I'm Alright Jack and the myriad of pre-1950s classics. What about Kidulthood and the Hammer/Amicus films. More

Posted on Friday December 2, 2011, 10:57 by Fredlocks
15 EMpire, the mag for teens!!!
reading this list and quit simply amazed that some harry potter films are in there!!! these films obviously voted on popularity not the acting nor the story!!! a list this bad im supprised that spiceworld the movie wasnt at no 1!!!! More

Posted on Tuesday October 25, 2011, 20:22 by daveo1973
16 goog list
good list but wheres films such as Get carter, The Elephant Man, Scum, Quadrophenia etc More

Posted on Tuesday October 25, 2011, 20:19 by daveo1973
17 goog list
good list but wheres films such as Get carter, The Elephant Man, Scum, Quadrophenia etc More

Posted on Tuesday October 25, 2011, 20:15 by daveo1973
18 Re: The 100 Best British Films
Boy have you blown it. How could you leave out TOMMY, the all time best film of any country or decade?????? Sure Ann-Margret's incestuous overtones as Mrs. Walker were a tad much, but otherwise, Ken Russell directed a masterpiece. How can the stunningly beautiful Roger Daltrey's portrayal of the title role not move you to tears????? The Rocky Horror Picture Show was another overlooked British masterpiece. You just don't know what a truly great British film consists of! More

Posted on Tuesday October 25, 2011, 17:13 by TommyGirl
19 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
L: JohnChard How can someone with such great taste in Westerns have such bad taste in British comedy? Dreadful? Really? Even Kim Newman here gave it 3/5, with his only argument for not rating higher being that it's dated! Which is a "dreadful" excuse to use on any old classic film. The film is highly rated by other British Film Institutes and Forums. Not your thing? I can truck with that of course, but dreadful isn't a word I've ever seen attributed to Oh! Mr Porter before now. ppose comedy's a very subjective thing, so if you don't think it works, you /i] don't think it works. I just didn't laugh at the film and I found Hay's mugging really tiresome. Also, you know the way that comedies rich in non-sequiturs might not play well in another 50 years' time? That's kind of how I feel about Porter!me of Groucho Marx's jokes (not many, just some) - not only do I not find them funny, but I don't understand they were once funny. Incidentally, '30s comedy is very much my thing (More

Posted on Tuesday October 25, 2011, 13:53 by rick_7
20 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
L: rick_7 L: JohnChard Oh Mr Porter! and Ask A Policeman Surely one of these Will Hay classics deserve to make any Great British list, especially when said list here contains A Fish Called Wanda and Four Weddings & A Funeral. FFS. ke trains and I /i] like Launder and Gilliat (actually, they like trains, don't they - y Vanishesght Train to Munich but orter!adful. sp; How can someone with such great taste in Westerns have such bad taste in British comedy?   Dreadful? Really? Even Kim Newman here gave it 3/5, with his only argument for not rating higher being that it's dated! Which is a "dreadful" excuse to use on any old classic film. The film is highly rated by other British Film Institutes and Forums. Not your thing? I can truck with that of course, but dreadful isn't a word I've ever seen attributed to Oh! Mr Porter before now. More

Posted on Tuesday October 25, 2011, 01:53 by JohnChard
21 Oh dear...
"The King's Speech"? "Shakespeare in Love"? There are more than a few films which have been overhyped but are truly terrible. And did "Shaun of the Dead" really deserve to be that high? Don't get me wrong, I'm a massive Edgar Wright fan, but... More

Posted on Monday October 24, 2011, 15:00 by fiedleraufdemdach
22 What?
I can think of a few that was so shamelessly left off the list. "Mona Lisa" and "The Crying Game" would be better choices than some of the Harry Potter movies you have on the list. More

Posted on Monday October 24, 2011, 13:09 by domino1003
23 A joke
Shaun of the dead is a better film than bridge over the river Kwai and Zulu?THAT's WHY these lists are pure rubbish. More

Posted on Monday October 24, 2011, 00:22 by Billmcgarrity
24 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
L: rick_7 L: JohnChard Oh Mr Porter! and Ask A Policeman Surely one of these Will Hay classics deserve to make any Great British list, especially when said list here contains A Fish Called Wanda and Four Weddings & A Funeral. FFS. ke trains and I /i] like Launder and Gilliat (actually, they like trains, don't they - y Vanishesght Train to Munich but orter!adful. ooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!! Rick, I thought I could count on you to love a little Will. More

Posted on Saturday October 22, 2011, 04:33 by rawlinson
25 I believe this list is "...according to our readers" ?
That would explain its quirkiness (in some people's opinion). These things tend to be dominated by the latest fad, so nice to see something sensible at no. 1 A better way to do this would be weight the votes by how old the film is. Anything that still gets a vote after 40 years should be considered a lot better than something that gets 40 votes after 1 year. If you have any doubts about that, try guessing what's on the novel best-seller list for 1910. Then have a look. I doubt you'll have heard of many of the authors, never mind the books. Yet these are the Harry Potters of their day. Here they are: http://www.arosebooks.com/58/best-selling-books -1910-1919/ I hope my point is made! More

Posted on Saturday October 22, 2011, 02:36 by LizR
26 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
L: JohnChard Oh Mr Porter! and Ask A Policeman Surely one of these Will Hay classics deserve to make any Great British list, especially when said list here contains A Fish Called Wanda and Four Weddings & A Funeral. FFS. ke trains and I /i] like Launder and Gilliat (actually, they like trains, don't they - y Vanishesght Train to Munich but orter!adful. More

Posted on Thursday October 20, 2011, 14:57 by rick_7
27 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
Oh Mr Porter! and Ask A Policeman   Surely one of these Will Hay classics deserve to make any Great British list, especially when said list here contains A Fish Called Wanda and Four Weddings & A Funeral. FFS. More

Posted on Thursday October 20, 2011, 14:04 by JohnChard
28
Please use this format for future "best" lists, as I found it so much easier to navigate, and didn't get bored by clicking the next button continously. Also, you're never going to please everyone with lists. There are films I love that weren't added to this list, but I'm not going to stop reading empire because of it. Sure, I'll be a bit pissed, but I'll let it pass, as it isn't that important. More

Posted on Thursday October 20, 2011, 10:58 by Aileenfraser
29 Not bad for a small island.
People always moan when you get 'best' or 'greatest' lists (I used to) but there really is no need to take them seriously, they chop and change like the wind! No other nation could top a chart with names like Brian and Lawrence and for that alone we should be commended. More

Posted on Thursday October 20, 2011, 10:28 by thefacehead
30 RE: You missed somethng
Hmm.../b] should have perhaps just labelled this '100 Great British Films' and left off the 'Ever' bit. Even then there would have been cries of 'What?!' and 'Where?!' but less justified. As it is there are a fair few glaring omissions or strange placings (as with any list) but I have one major beef. NDITS? sk. Any list that contains TWO Harry Potter films but not Gilliam's truly delightful fantasy film for the family (if just the Harry Potter films could have had some of the same feel) is a list I cannot respect. JEDI BOBSTER More

Posted on Tuesday October 18, 2011, 22:24 by JediBobster
31 You missed somethng
How the hell is Oliver! not in there? I love a bit of 60s New wave realism as much as the next man but surely, one jaunty, fantastically scored musical wouldn't go amiss in this list. It's not as though Britain makes many. Also, Lean's Oliver Twist is better than Great Expectations. Pleased to have guessed 12 of the top 15 (omission of the two olivers hurt me obviously). List was ok, though would have expected: The importance of being earnest ('48) In which we serve Dead of Night and even a bit of Bridget Jones. More

Posted on Tuesday October 18, 2011, 15:48 by stapes
32 Basil Radford
Btw, Basil Radford is in the Lady Vanishes and not Basil Rathbone. Although, confusion is understood as Basil Radford does remind me of Nigel Bruce who was Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock. Talking about Basil Radford, hoping that I've still got Dead of Night to see on this list ... More

Posted on Monday October 17, 2011, 15:06 by stapes
33 Where is...
A Taste of Honey The League of Gentlemen Ice Cold In Alex Whisky Galore In The Name of the Father crap crap crappity list.... More

Posted on Monday October 17, 2011, 15:06 by artilleryman
34 Seriously?
Is this list in order of excellence? Cause if it is Empire needs to shut down this web site immediately and stop publication......cause that list is pure shite. More

Posted on Monday October 17, 2011, 06:06 by mattyq
35 Where is...
...Kidulthood?? More

Posted on Sunday October 16, 2011, 20:20 by caz1974
36 Where is
Gosford Park? More

Posted on Sunday October 16, 2011, 18:25 by sjj
37 RE: Dracula at "90" surely not so low
It only revolutionised horror cinema and brought about a renaissance of British horror. And no American Werewolf in London, Masque of the Red Death or the Shining. This is a poor list Empire. I mean, there's some real populist shit in there. More

Posted on Sunday October 16, 2011, 18:08 by Count Karnstein
38 About Antonioni: it's Notte, not Notta! (La Notte= The Night)
We're in digital times and you just can not copy and paste two simple, easy words correctly? Add this to the Middle Age-like overdose of capital letters in late 2011 English and I get how such a crap of a "list" comes out. More

Posted on Saturday October 15, 2011, 16:33 by debora.milano
39 Oh my
Brazil, The Remains of the Day, A Room With a View, BLOW-UP (!!!) at the bottom places. And A Clockwork Orange just eleventh. Ok, I'm over. More

Posted on Saturday October 15, 2011, 16:15 by debora.milano
40 A masterpiece like Kes
"ranking" only 29th???? More

Posted on Saturday October 15, 2011, 15:58 by debora.milano
41 What about ...
Scum? More

Posted on Saturday October 15, 2011, 13:49 by jackcrompton
42 Will Hay
Have you ever seen a Will Hay film? More

Posted on Friday October 14, 2011, 21:09 by kirkj
43 Truly terrible list - sucking up to Simon Pegg!
Casino Royale - a joke surely. More

Posted on Friday October 14, 2011, 11:01 by acertree
44 RE: Get Carter... on the lst
Lets face it Empire FUCKED THIS LIST UP ROYALY! 4.gif] More

Posted on Thursday October 13, 2011, 10:46 by Wild about Wilder
45 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
Terrible list. More

Posted on Wednesday October 12, 2011, 13:44 by spamandham
46 RE:
93. Brazil 77. Deathly Hallows I mean really? Wow. More

Posted on Monday October 10, 2011, 19:56 by Piles
47 RE: dctuck
I wasn't complaining about people commenting, just the people who sounded like they were leaving Empire just because Empire posted a list different to what they would have expected. Debate's always a good thing! I disagree with some (quite a bit) of the list, but I'm not leaving to go to Total Film just because of this list... More

Posted on Monday October 10, 2011, 12:18 by dctuck
48 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
L: elab49 With British creative talent and money behind it f that's why Hunger is included, then surely so should In Bruges? More

Posted on Saturday October 8, 2011, 22:08 by martygillan
49 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
Dear Empire, Just glancing over your 100 Best British Films Ever - an imaginative and comprehensive list. I was just checking if any of my movies were in there and lo and behold at No. 82 is Mr. Hitchcock's classic "The Lady Vanishes". But I am afraid you have made an error - my part was played by the excellent character actor Basil Radford not Basil rathbone whom if you remember was the achetypal Sherlock Holmes and a very hissable Guy of Gisborne. Anyhow, carry on with the good work - you are all doing very well! More

Posted on Saturday October 8, 2011, 09:16 by Charters
50 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
Part of the UK, but not Britain. I just meant it doesn't really fit with the rest of the movies here From the looks of this list the idea of 'Britishness' seems to have been interpreted as Englishness (with the exception of only 5 films; Gregory's Girl, My name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) More

Posted on Friday October 7, 2011, 22:26 by martygillan
51 RE: The 100 Best British Films Ever
Actually it's set in Northern Ireland - which is part of the United Kingdom. With British creative talent and money behind it. Since the 50s film funding has been incredibly muddled with particularly the US taking UK bases and UK tax advantages. So I'd assume when looking at a list of this sort that common sense would be used as there is very little 'purity' to rely upon. More

Posted on Friday October 7, 2011, 21:59 by elab49
52 RE: Unknown movie at NO1?That's dissapointing.
L: Dalekbuster523 Ridiculous that the british film at NO1 is a total unknown.And why isn't "Mr Bean's holiday" on the list?I loved that movie. 'm all for people having their own opinions but Lawrence of Arabia a total unknown? I'm not sure a film forum is the best place for you. More

Posted on Friday October 7, 2011, 21:07 by Funkyrae
53 RE: Unknown movie at NO1?That's dissapointing.
L: Dalekbuster523 Ridiculous that the british film at NO1 is a total unknown.And why isn't "Mr Bean's holiday" on the list?I loved that movie. eriously ? On both those points. Has to be a joke. More

Posted on Friday October 7, 2011, 21:00 by JIm R
54 RE: Unknown movie at NO1?That's dissapointing.
An interesting list to compare to the one run within the forum. Apart from that though I wanted to say thank you to whoever has reformatted the lists in the main site - this was so much better than having to slog through single page after single page. Thank you - much better layout  More

Posted on Friday October 7, 2011, 20:37 by elab49
55 RE: Unknown movie at NO1?That's dissapointing.
So let e get tis straight, Monsters is on the list but Get Carter & Harry Brown arent???? More

Posted on Friday October 7, 2011, 20:09 by snaze1

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