John Buchan wrote The 39 Steps in 1915, creating the genre of the espionage thriller, particularly that subset involving the upper-class gentleman spy. In the book, Richard Hannay, had recently returned to London after years of living in Africa, serving in the Boer War and then working as a mining engineer. It is late spring of 1914; he is bored blind by his present life, and ready for some action. He gets his wish when his neighbor, Scudder, entrusts a mysterious notebook and story of spies about to destroy the British Navy to Hannay and gets killed by German spies in his flat. Naturally, Hannay is assumed guilty of the murder, and, with both spies and police searching for him, he goes to Scotland to unravel the story and thus be found innocent. Like all stories of intricate and slightly implausible plot, the tale unfolds at breakneck speed. Buchan’s book is filled with chance encounters, plot twists, double crosses, chases across the Scottish moors, once with an airplane tracing his movements, and ends with Hannay back in England, uncovering the traitor and foiling the German plot. The book was a huge success.
In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock undertook the challenge of making The 39 Steps into a movie. It was a challenge because of the intricate details and large cast in the book, so Hitchcock developed a very different version: he kept Hannay’s name, the murder of the agent in Hannay’s apartment, and the trip to Scotland to discover whatever he could. But Hitchcock updated the time of the action to the mid-30s, made Hannay Canadian and the spies vaguer in nationality, incorporated a music hall performer named Mr. Memory, and changed the 39 steps from a physical location to a conjuring trick. He also brought in a woman to provide the requisite cinema love interest; they meet cute and dash across the moors of Scotland, handcuffed together for some of the time. Robert Donat played the hapless Canadian Hannay; he was the best part of the movie.
The 39 Steps, as broadcast by PBS Sunday night, is much truer to the original. Rupert Penry-Jones, who has the jaded upper class part down cold, plays Hannay, once again the bored Brit. He is aloof when Scudder barrels into his apartment, disbelieving of the story, until the milkman breaks in and Scudder is murdered. Penry-Jones, who previously appeared as Captain Wentworth in Masterpiece’s broadcast of Persuasion, plays a somewhat understated hero. He is quick off the mark, and, in the manner of such heroes, good looking in face and form. Lizzie Mickery, who adapted the novel for this screenplay, also added female interest: Victoria Sinclair, played with spirit by Lydia Leonard, is a suffragist and also a British agent. Again, there are a number of runs across the moors displaying some really splendid scenery. And once again, Hannay is chased by an airplane; although in a clear homage to Hitchcock, the folks in the plane don’t simply spot him, they shoot at him a la North by Northwest – another great Hitchcock spy caper.
Captain Maynard, my trustee co-viewer, was delighted to note that the cars and guns were all authentic to the 1914 date. He loves the wonderful Masterpiece productions for this reason. And in my fashion, I liked the accuracy of the costumes, both men and women. The story starts very quickly and tautly, and unwinds without a moment wasted; we were both drawn into it immediately.
We enjoyed the Hitchcock version of the movie, although I thought the addition of the music hall unnecessary, even while recognizing that this was a favorite Hitchcock device. (See also, The Man Who Knew Too Much.) And I could see no purpose to have Donat be Canadian; things were already difficult enough. Hitchcock also likes his hero to be pretty clueless, bumbling from one near-disaster to the next, until he finally adds up the pieces and solves the riddle. Over all, I like my hero to have a little more on the ball, and in this 2008 update, Penry-Jones is quick-witted and in charge; he solves the cipher, recognizes his foes, and works through the puzzle ahead of the Secret Service. He is a nice combination of James Bond and Lord Peter Wimsey: not so over the top or predatory as Bond, a little more physical than Wimsey. The love story is believable, not the comic relief of the Hitchcock version. Victoria is also sharp, has a photographic memory, runs without falling down in a swoon, and altogether plays an effective sidekick. One thing did strike a false note: Victoria calls herself a suffragette rather than suffragist, the less derisive term used always by those indomitable women. The story plays out against the beginning of World War I, building both tension and reality for the spy plot. The last scene shows Hannay, now an officer in the British Army, at St. Pancras station setting off for France. The tantalizing hope is that he and Victoria will have a future after the war. And at this point, Co-viewer and I have changed our allegiance: truer to the book, while building in a female character, this remake is by far the better 39 Steps.
Gentle Readers: My good friend, Lady Anne, an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, wrote this review for my blog. I am, as always, ever so grateful for her learned insights. Watch The 39 Steps online at PBS until March 30. 2010.