Though it namechecks the Nazis rather than the ‘agents of an unnamed power’ who are the villains in The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, this Alfred Hitchcock thriller is exactly the same kind of highly-wrought entertainment. The plot straggles from London to Holland as amiable, two-fisted McCrea gets into and out of a series of scrapes, aided by a sardonic, covertly-patriotic British journo (Sanders) and resisting the obvious deduction that the woman he’s in love with (Day) is intimately involved with the conspiracy.
Indulging his theory that suspense sequences should be keyed to the cliche associations of any locale, Hitchcock’s visit to Holland prompts set-pieces involving rain (a fleeing assassin disturbs a sea of umbrellas) and windmills (amid a crowd of slowly-revolving mills, one is turning the wrong way). I
n London, Edmund Gwenn has a wonderful, creepy cameo as a cheery private eye-bodyguard (‘I may not be lean, sir, but I’m quick) who is actually a hit-man hired to shove the hero off a cathedral. The climax, set on the day war broke out, is a plane crash that was an effects stunner in its day and still delivers a punch. An add-on, made after a few months more war had convinced everyone how serious the situation was, finds McCrea broadcasting from the heart of the blitz, talking about the lights going out and calling America to arms (with the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ over the end title!); it’s the sort of naked, bleeding patriotism only possible in wartime, but it can still raise a tear sixty-five years on.