The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 July (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

For me, debates over the best screen adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps begin and end with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic. Slavish fans of the text may be disappointed with the Master of Suspense’s fast and loose treatment of the source material, but the end product is cracking, an exercise in mounting tension and memorable scenes that retains its power nearly eighty years later. It’s these qualities that are more likely to be missing in Don Sharp’s 1978 version, which promises a more faithful version of the novel but loses the thrills. Nowhere to be found is anything as quietly riveting as the scene with the missing finger, as stylish as the scream dissolving into a train leaving the station, or as much fun as the sparks flying between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.

Not that this edition of The Thirty Nine Steps is a bad film. It simply wasn’t put together by a genius and thereby lacks the flair and panache he brought to the table. Instead, what we get is a perfectly serviceable thriller, the sort of post-lunch, Bank Holiday ninety minutes that pass amiably enough. The cast is a who’s who of British stalwarts, headed by Robert Powell as a slightly distant Richard Hannay. There’s nothing wrong with him as such, neither is there anything especially engaging. Perhaps it’s the sensation that he’s going through the motions without ever really connecting with his work, that despite spending much of the film on the run he never appears to be in a great deal of peril. The rather blank-faced Karen Dotrice as the love interest doesn’t help. There’s a slightly unsettling moment when her fiancé is killed and she doesn’t bat an eyelid, possibly a cutting room oversight but it reduces our level of investment when supporting characters are disposed of so ruthlessly just to make certain pieces fit together.

Fortunately, there are some great turns from John Mills as an ageing spy, and David Warner playing the double agent aligned against him. Warner makes a brilliant baddie. Overused in this role as the years dragged on and lazy casting found him playing the same villainous blackguard (the same recurring limbo Charles Dance would later find himself trapped in), it’s easy to see why he became the go-to man for embodying screen nastiness. Looming and sombre looking, he barely moves in the film, an interesting contrast to the animated Hannay, and leaves all the chasing to his rifle toting henchmen.

Sharp doesn’t let The Thirty Nine Steps slow down, which is good as there isn’t a lot going on beneath the surface. Why Hannay simply doesn’t hand himself into the police after Mills’s character is knifed beats me. Instead, he heads up to Scotland, following both the book and key moments of the 1935 film in traversing endless miles of rugged countryside and frequently being pursued along the way. The Scottish highlands have a bleak, foreboding feel about them, which chimes nicely with Hannay’s plight. There are also some fine action scenes to take in, including the famous Big Ben finale, which was borrowed from an old Will Hay film, My Learned Friend, and does a great job of actually suggesting Hannay’s bitten off more than he can chew for once.

By this point, viewers should have spotted the obvious – comparisons with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps may be a blind alley, but doing the same with North by Northwest most certainly is not. The murder scene in the train station – check. The aeroplane chase – it’s there. The set piece climax involving a famous landmark – got it. Hardly a bad film to borrow from, but it only really highlights the lesser talents behind this one.

The Thirty Nine Steps: **

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2 Replies to “The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)”

  1. Greta post Mike and I really like what you had to say about David Warner – you’re spot on there. I saw this when it came out at the pictures and liked it a lot – but then I hadn’t seen the Hitchcock version yet … Still, it’s way better than the Ralph Thomas version and frankly I also prefer it to the recent BBC farrago starring Rupert Penry-Jones. The Big Ben finale is ludicrous, but everyone remembers it, which surely has to count for something. As a kid I remember loving the fact that Hannay was flinty enough that during his intiial interrogation he got annoyed and called Porter a ‘dummkopf’. And it is certainly much better than the remake of THE LADY VANISHES made around the same time too …

    1. Thanks Sergio. I didn’t see this at the pictures, but I remember the regular double Bank Holiday dosage of Powell – in this over Christmas and as Jesus over the Easter period. It’s a long, long time since I last watched Jesus of Nazareth, but I recall him making a quite affecting Son of God, which is almost an impossible acting job really, considering you’re never going to please everyone. He certainly shows very different sides of his personality in the two films – Timothy Dalton’s grumpy James Bond reminds me a lot of Hannay as played by Powell. I’d certainly agree that this and the Hitchcock film are the two versions of the book worth watching, which is kind of weird because it’s such a slim, action packed tome that getting it right should be par for the course. Re the Big Ben scene, my driving instructor in Rochdale used to spend our slow moving lessons around town passing on bits of local history. According to him, the Rochdale Town Hall clock – a surprisingly grand, Gothic affair – was used for the Big Ben stunt. I was therefore disappointed to find nothing about this titbit, and in any event the story wasn’t as good as the one about Hitler being a big Town Hall admirer, andplanning to ship the building to Germany after his successful invasion of Britain…

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