The Thirty-Nine Steps

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

The 39 Steps (1935)
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Director Alfred Hitchcock; writer Charles Bennett; featuring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll

The 39 Steps (1959)
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Director Ralph Thomas; writer Frank Harvey; featuring Kenneth More, Taina Elg

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978)
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Director Don Sharp; writer Michael Robson; featuring Robert Powell

The 39 Steps (2008)
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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 1978

Robert Powell is on the run across the highlands as Richard Hannay in 1978's The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Boring Buchan

For verisimilitude with the book, you have to go the 1978 movie of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the third made-in-the-UK production, which is hard to find today.

Hannay, ably portrayed by Robert Powell, is from the African colonies, the time is pre-WWI, the murdered man is Scudder, there is no Mr. Memory, and there are no women trying to seduce our hero or get themselves otherwise hitched to him. That is to say, the plot of this Thirty-Nine Steps pretty well follows the Buchan novel, except for a thrilling finale atop Big Ben. David Warner, as always, is a delicious villain.

Until near the end though, this film is somewhat dull. Perhaps Hitchcock had known what he was doing when he replaced the Buchan story with dramatic, updated material.

Powell went on to portray the continuing escapades of the same character in a 13-episode series for British TV called Hannay in 1988. Rather stagy, Masterpiece Theatre kind of productions.

By the way, if that scene on England's Big Ben in the 1978 Thirty-Nine Steps reminds you of another Hitchcock film, North by Northwest (1959), in which the hero nearly ends up being pushed off that most American monument, Mount Rushmore, it may not be accidental. Despite returning The Thirty-Nine Steps to the original novel, the 1978 Thirty-Nine Steps has several elements that pay homage to Hitchcock.

Moreover, North by Northwest is considered by some to be Hitchcock's own remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps. An innocent man flees by train and on foot across the Midwest (the U.S. equivalent to the Scottish Highlands in the U.K.), pursued by both spies and government agents who think he's a killer.

I don't think it's the same film. But whether or not we count North by Northwest as an adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the similarity of its plot at least shows the great influence Buchan's slender novel has had on the thriller and suspense genre. You can probably find twenty or thirty movies with this general storyline throughout the history of cinema right up to the present time.

— Eric

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

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The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978, DVD)
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Related:

Novels
The Thirty-Nine Steps

Author
John Buchan

See also:

Novels
Kidnapped

Author
Robert Louis Stevenson

Movies
Kidnapped

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The Thirty-Nine Steps
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

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North by Northwest (1959, DVD)
Get at Amazon: USCanUK