The plot is, of course, exultantly unlikely. John Buchan's book makes a kind of sense, full of manly vigour, dastardly foreign threat and the ultimate triumph of British pluck. Long-time Hitch collaborator Charles Bennett adapted Buchan with the ideal level of disrespect and produced a joyful confection of subversive humour, intelligent twists and wild sexual tension. The movie has all the elements I love in film – it likes people, doesn't stand on its dignity and knows that if your characters are right you can get away with anything. It allows its inhabitants to talk to one another and understands proper seduction is about how cleverly you can play with inexcusable transgression.
It introduces us to Richard Hannay, as played by the flawlessly beautiful, smoky-voiced Robert Donat in his charming and funny prime. Hannay is semi-accosted in an anarchic music hall by mysterious Annabella Smith. Annabella is clearly all kinds of trouble. She insists on being taken back to Hannay's flat, where he cooks her fish in a manly manner (that's not a euphemism) and she announces she's a spy. She's then murdered while he's asleep, having given him just enough information to spend the rest of the film defeating an extremely ill-defined spy ring who are using the music hall speciality act "Mr Memory" as a kind of living photocopier. Hannay is framed for Smith's murder, flees to Scotland, displays endless ingenuity and meets, beguiles and falls in love with feisty and resilient Pamela, played by the incomparable Madeleine Carroll.
Pamela – like so many of Hitchcock's women – has the gift of immaculate presentation. She climbs fences, falls over in the rain, struggles with wrongly accused men of mystery and spends exhausted and morally ambiguous nights asleep without her hair or clothes ever suffering. For most of the film, she sports one of history's most impractical blouses, which bears unruffled witness to her feminine qualities.
Together, Pamela and Hannay share adventures, swap lovely dialogue, bicker, flirt and scramble about a Scotland indistinguishable from Brigadoon.
Which brings me to why this film has probably slightly ruined my life. I watched it first when I was young and impressionable and, as a result, I will somewhere always believe a proper relationship begins with inexplicable kissing and a pure-hearted man in trouble, followed by running, a spot of shared peril and a happy ending.
I wasn't, initially, able to appreciate what is one of cinema's sexiest and funniest and wrongest scenes. And then I got older and I was. It has undoubtedly set my expectations of life very far adrift. To summarise, Hannay and Pamela have just run away from two fake and murderous policemen. They reach a quaint Highland inn, where Hannay pretends they have eloped and obtains a single room – and double bed – for them to share. Pamela isn't sure whether she's being abducted by a charismatic murderer or a handsomely decent chap. Nevertheless, she remains witty, lovely and chaste throughout, because those were the days when film-makers weren't threatened by classy, intelligent parts for women.
Pamela handles being swept up into a situation that combines kidnapping, romance, humour, irritation, play-acting, marriage, sexual threat, tenderness and handcuffs. It's intoxicating. Eventually, the couple – who aren't a couple and yet clearly are a couple – are left alone in the bedroom. They have been handcuffed to each other since the faux-police faux-arrested them. Pamela's stockings need to be removed because they are damp. (Yeah, right.) And slowly, marvellously, they are removed, Hannay's hand involuntarily assisting hers with just the right level of gently, unavoidable contact. The stockings are duly hung near the fire to dry and then – otherwise fully dressed and chaste – our pair go to bed, still chained together in a parody of a nervous wedding night. Few of reality's interludes will ever be that strange and lovely. Needless to say, it has set me up for a number of disappointments.
Still, I forgive the film every time I watch. I feel it is aspirational in all the right ways. The final shot – subtle, funny and tender – lets several varieties of mayhem recede while Hannay's hand reaches for Pamela's and Pamela's reaches for his. Her half of the handcuffs hangs free from Hannay's wrist. From now on, they have chosen to be together. Perfect.