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The Thirty-Nine Steps novel


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The 39 Steps (1935, DVD)
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The 39 Steps (1935, DVD remastered)
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North by Northwest
(1959, DVD)

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The 39 Steps
(2008, DVD)

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  1935 The 39 Steps
dir. Alfred Hitchcock; writ. Charles Bennett; featuring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
  1959 The 39 Steps
dir. Ralph Thomas; writ. Frank Harvey; featuring Kenneth More
  1978 The Thirty-Nine Steps
dir. Don Sharp; writ. Michael Robson; featuring Robert Powell
  2008 The 39 Steps
dir. James Hawes; writ. Lizzie Mickery; featuring Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, Patrick Malahide

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The novel The Thirty-Nine Steps is a modern classic of the espionage and thriller genre and the movie The 39 Steps 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. 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".

More Hitchcock than Buchan
Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) 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.

Same idea many years later
This film though was remade more than two decades later, with Mr. Memory and many of the same plot elements that Hitchcock's writers had created.

In 1959's The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hannay, played by dependable British actor Kenneth More, is pulled into the plot by the murder of a nanny whom he has met in the park and who has vital national secrets.

This version appear to be readily available on video, but fans and critics are evenly split on whether it's a step up or step down from the 1935 film, as it's very similar. Some think the fact that this version shows Scotland in colour, compared to the black and white of Hitchcock's version, is enough of an improvement to recommend it.

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. 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 more dramatic 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.

Buchan sexed up
Speaking of North by Northwest, a scene from that movie in which the fugitive is chased by a aircraft, somehow finds its way into the most recent video version of Buchan's thriller. In The 39 Steps of 2008, our hero Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) is inexplicably strafed by a plane in the hills of Scotland.

It's one of several action elements that have been added to this latest Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Buchan's book to keep it from becoming as dull as the previous attempt. We also get an escape accomplished by bomb blast, a shoot-out at a Scottish loch while a German submarine stands by, and a romantic fling with a suffragette. The time is supposedly 1914 and you may find a few anachronisms in all this, not to mention cars from the 1920s being used.

But it's all good clean fun, accomplished without straying too far from the book and, mercifully, without CGI special effects you might expect in a twenty-first century update of an original thriller. Even the addition of the love interest, the early feminist who may be something more than an innocent bystander (Lydia Leonard), brings much needed humour and romance to the otherwise earnest tale.

Sure, the blond and buff Penry-Jones is impossibly good-looking as Buchan's supposedly nondescript, everyman hero and his Hannay is given a background to explain his skilled and resourceful dealing with police and espionage agents. But the film keeps things moving along quickly enough that you don't have time to question it. The only big credulity-straining lapse is at the end when...well, I won't give it away, but it's a doozy.

— Eric

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© Copyright 2002–2010 Eric McMillan. All rights reserved.

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