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The Thirty-Nine Steps

Critique Quotes At the movies

1935, 1959, 1978, 2008

The Thirty-Nine Steps, first editionFirst edition
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First publication

Literature form

Crime, mystery, espionage

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 41,000 words

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

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978): Film, 102 minutes, director Don Sharp; writer Michael Robson; featuring Robert Powell, David Warner, John Mills

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 otherwise get 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.

But the film was popular and 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.

Trailer for the 1978 adaptation of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.

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.

The crop duster scenes from Hitchcock's North by Northwest of 1959.

I don't think it's the same film. But whether or not we count North by Northwest as a 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


Critique Quotes At the movies

1935, 1959, 1978, 2008