The Thirty-Nine Steps

Film and television productions based on the novel by John Buchan:

The 39 Steps (1935)
[SHOW CREDITS]
[HIDE]

Director Alfred Hitchcock; writer Charles Bennett; featuring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll

The 39 Steps (1959)
[SHOW CREDITS]
[HIDE]

Director Ralph Thomas; writer Frank Harvey; featuring Kenneth More, Taina Elg

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978)
[SHOW CREDITS]
[HIDE]

Director Don Sharp; writer Michael Robson; featuring Robert Powell

The 39 Steps (2008)
[SHOW CREDITS]
[HIDE]

Director James Hawes; writer Lizzie Mickery; featuring Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, Patrick Malahide

The Thirty-Nine Steps

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

The Thirty-Nine Steps scene 1935

Hannay (Robert Donat) finds the murder in his flat that launches his adventure in 1935's The 39 Steps.

More Hitchcock than Buchan

The novel The Thirty-Nine Steps is a modern classic of the espionage and thriller genre and the movie The 39 Steps (1935) is a great Hitchcock film, also a classic of the espionage and thriller genre.

Yet this first of three major film adaptations is nothing like the book it is supposedly based on. The main character played by Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) is still named Richard Hannay and he still goes on the lam in Scotland from both foreign spies and police who think he's murdered someone in London, just as in the book. But that's about the extent of the similarity between film and book.

In John Buchan's novel, Hannay had made his fortune in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe during colonial times) and is staying in England when a man in his building named Scudder tells him about an anarchist conspiracy to start war in the Balkans, this being just before the First World War. Scudder's murder leads to Hannay's flight, and he spends most of the novel playing cat and mouse with his pursuers in the highlands before he gets a government bigwig on his side and solves the mystery that has something to do with "thirty-nine steps".

Hitchcock's The 39 Steps however starts with gunfire during a mentalist act by a performer called Mr. Memory. Hannay is now a visiting Canadian who takes home from the curtailed performance a mysterious woman, a Miss Annabella Smith, who reveals a Nazi plot to steal top-secret papers from Britain, this being before the Second World War.

Her murder sends him scampering for his own life in Scotland where he is helped by two other women.One, played by blond-bombshell Madeleine Carroll, manages to get herself handcuffed to Hannay—leading to humourous and romantic complications.

In the end, Hannay returns to London and Mr. Memory to find a solution to the mystery that is altogether different from that of the book—entirely changing the significance of the title. No wonder the film's title (The 39 Steps) is spelled differently, using numerals instead of words.

All of which is to say, forget the book. This is a fun old movie. Somewhat dated of course, but Hitchcock knew what would make terrific drama for the audience of his time in his first great suspense thriller. He would make Secret Agent (again with Carroll as female lead) the next year and then Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes, among others, over the following three years in Britain before moving to Hollywood to make his most famous films.

— Eric

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

missing graphic
The 39 Steps (1935, DVD)
Get at Amazon
USCanUK

Follow on Twitter:
The Greatest Literature of All Time

Related:

Novels
The Thirty-Nine Steps

Author
John Buchan

See also:

Novels
Kidnapped

Author
Robert Louis Stevenson

Movies
Kidnapped

missing graphic
The Thirty-Nine Steps
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
The 39 Steps (1935, DVD remastered)
Get at Amazon
USCanUK