We Try It: The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps was the first Hitchcock thriller I ever saw. As part of my father’s epic plan to make me a cultured member of society (a plan that also included road-trip re-tellings of the plots to Guys and Dolls and Hello Dolly), he borrowed the classic thriller from our town library and sat my sister and I in front of the TV. Soon, I was engrossed in the tale of Richard Hannay and Mr. Memory, the man who truly knew too much. At the time, I was certain that this was one of the finest thrillers ever made.

39 Steps PosterYears passed and The 39 Steps was slowly eclipsed by North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Shadow of a Doubt. I became acquainted with Hitch’s style and love of the MacGuffin. I became able to recognize the traits and motifs of his work: the “wrong man” caught up in circumstances beyond his control, overbearing mothers, cool blondes, and the obsessive hunt for the perfect crime. But even as I watched Hitchcock refine his vision with each successive film, I still held onto my love for Richard Hannay.

Thankfully, others are beginning to cotton on. In 2006, a West End adaptation premiered to critical and popular acclaim. While being a comedic interpretation of the original, the adaptation by Patrick Barlow is essentially a straight reproduction of the film, only all of the supporting parts are played by two actors, with the romantic interests played by another actress. Barlow plays up some of the more absurd scenes of the film (c’mon, would anyone really believe that some confused Canadian dude was a speaker from Parliament?) and infuses the rest with a sense of camp. Seeing the London version over New Years 2008 renewed my interest in the film and, a year later, when I came across a small copy of the original novel in an English-language bookstore in Vienna, I bought it without a second thought.

As is often the case, the version of The Thirty-Nine Steps that I read was quite a bit different from The 39 Steps that I had watched. Firstly, the film was set in the 1930s and the novel described the run-up to the First World War. Published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps features a thinly-veiled appropriation of the then geo-political crisis– the threat of the assassination of a major political figure in the Balkans that would lead to global strife. There is no love interest and quite a lot of antisemitism. I finished the novel a day later on a train from Vienna to Prague, and I felt certain that nothing could shake my love for (the film version of) The 39 Steps and Robert Donat as Hannay.

With all of this in mind, I sat in front of my computer last week and started up the newest adaptation of The 39 Steps. Originally broadcast by the BBC in 2008, this version was aired on PBS in the fall of 2009. Supposedly, it was more true to the original text than the 1935 version. But, as I soon found, the only way The 39 Steps was similar to the original text was in its mediocrity.

Screenwriter Lizzie Mickery and director James Hawes did manage to capture the fast-pace and paranoid energy of the original (including a clever escape scene involving a ventriloquist’s dummy), but odd character choices and inexplicable plot twists bogged down what charm the film could have. Rupert Perry-Jones made a debonair Richard Hannay and at times almost made me forget Donat’s mustache, especially in the scenes where Hannay’s shirt mysteriously disappears. As the suffragette love interest, Lydia Leonard is spunky and clever and everything the audience could want from an unsuspecting foil. That is, until Mickery suddenly and inexplicably changes the nature of her character. With the heavy-handed opening of a door, the film’s central romance goes from happenstance to contrivance. Rather than Leonard’s Victoria simply being a woman at a political rally who happens to be caught up in an international spy-ring, a surrogate for the audience, she becomes a member of the shadowy-underworld that is never fully explained. Throw in a fifth-act death and resurrection and what was once a romp through beautifully-shot Scotland becomes a still gorgeous film that barely lingers in one’s memory.

Perhaps if I had not been brought up on Alfred Hitchcock I would have been able to appreciate this new 39 Steps on its own grounds. But throughout the movie, I kept feeling as though the cast and crew were trying desperately to make a version that would stand on it’s own. Surprisingly, the new 39 Steps would have, had not Mickery and Hawes spent the fifth act testing the audience’s suspension to disbelief (a German submarine in a Scottish loch?!) in an effort to outdo the original. But, like many such attempts to outshine classics, the remake was left looking pathetic and absurd. Perry-Jones can take his pecs and smirk, give me Donat in a tweed suit any day.

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Lizy Yagoda

A young writer living in Brooklyn, she likes to make food, eat food, and think about food. Follow @ElizabethYagoda

One thought on “We Try It: The 39 Steps”

  1. Robert Donat forever. I showed this film to my then 12 year old son who is not a fan of “mom’s old movies”, but he was caught up in the intrigue of this film and enjoyed it.

    It’s tough to remake this film because it’s so tied to Hitchcock. However there have been successful play versions.

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