Then suddenly I had an inspiration.
“Where is Scudder’s book?” I cried to Sir Walter. “Quick, man, I remember something in it.”
He unlocked the door of the bureau and gave it to me.
I found the place. “Thirty-nine steps,” I read, and again.. “Thirty-nine steps—I counted them—High tide, 10.17 P. M.”
The Admiralty man was looking at me as if he thought I had gone mad.
“Don’t you see it’s a clue?” I shouted.
The man who died sends the milkman on his travels to become the literary innkeeper and the radical candidate and the spectacled roadman and the bald archaeologist and the dry-fly fisherman, all coming to the Black Stone with various parties converging on the sea to find The Thirty-nine Steps. But although everyone has heard of them, they have all forgotten where they are, just as have the characters in John Buchan’s immortal book. The various versions of the movie—all of them terrific—each locate the steps differently. The outstanding Hitchcock 1939 version has it merely the name of a secret spy organisation, while the 70s version reckoned they were the number of steps up to Big Ben (of which there are several hundred). The right answer is on page 224 of the famous yellow jacket version.
The 39 Steps was far from Alfred Hitchcock’s first film—he began in England way back in the silent era—but it set in motion the long succession of comedy-thrillers that were the primary basis of his immortality. In this genre none could match him.