Film of the Book: The 39 Steps

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1935)

From the book review of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan:

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know, Scudder, turns up at his door seeking help. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

You can read the full book review by clicking here

I found the book a shade disappointing, with an almost incomprehensible plot that relied far too much on coincidence and got a little tedious in the middle as our hero ran around over the moors of Scotland, dodging the bad guys. I’d seen the Hitchcock film before but my memory of it was vague, although I remembered enjoying it. So time for a refresher!

Hitchcock’s cameo

Ah, Hitchcock! He’s the master! Scudder has been replaced by a mysterious female foreign agent, Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim). Hannay has been at a music hall where, in the midst of a performance by Mr Memory (the clue to his act is in his name), shots ring out causing the audience to flee. Hannay finds himself protecting the beautiful Miss Smith, who begs him to take her to his flat. Once there, rather than burbling incoherently about vague conspiracies in far-off lands as Scudder does in the book, Annabelle tells Hannay (Robert Donat) that there is a plot to steal plans from the British Military and that she must go to Scotland to meet a man in order to stop it. Later that night, she is stabbed and gives a marvellously ham death scene worthy of Jimmy Cagney at his finest. Fortunately she has left a map of Scotland, carefully marked with the relevant location, and Hannay decides to take her place, especially when he realises the police think he’s the one who murdered her.

Lucie Mannheim and Robert Donat – you can tell she’s a mysterious foreign agent by the way she knocks back her whisky…

This actually gives Hannay a reason to go to Scotland and a purpose when he gets there. In the book, he goes to Scotland merely to fill in a few weeks which (for no reason that made sense to me) Scudder had insisted he wait before going to the authorities. So book Hannay wanders aimlessly around the countryside followed by the baddies on whom he chanced by coincidence, while film Hannay goes to Scotland intentionally to thwart the baddies.

Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno as two commercial travellers Hannay shares a carriage with on the Flying Scotsman train. Their humour seems like a precursor to the characters of Caldicott and Charters in the later The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The second major change that Hitchcock makes – and this should come as a surprise to no-one – is to introduce a blonde! The book sadly lacks female characters in general, and a love interest for Hannay in particular – clearly Buchan didn’t realise that all great action heroes must have a love interest! Hitchcock puts this right. As Hannay travels up to Scotland on the train, he encounters Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). This first meeting doesn’t go well (and frankly, since he bursts into her carriage, grabs her and kisses her, this is not altogether surprising), but the audience know that they are destined to meet again. Pamela is fun – she’s feisty and independent and not easily won over by Donat’s rough wooing, but she’s also a woman of sense and intelligence who, once she’s convinced he’s the good guy, gives him real help. There’s lots of stuff that seems a bit sexist now, but it was 1935, and I don’t care.

Madeleine Carroll as the shocked Pamela – but he only did it to escape from the baddies…

The Scottish scenes are great. Hitchcock clearly hired real Scots for the bit parts of railway guards and so on, with the result that the accents are authentic, and he moved the locations from the lowland moors to the Highlands – much more dramatic scenery, better suited to film, even if the bulk of the film was probably shot in the studio. John Laurie (much later Private Frazer in Dad’s Army) shows up as a grim bullying crofter with Peggy Ashcroft as his put-upon wife.

John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft may only have small roles, but they’re still both great…

The plot plays out well, with a lot of humour in the scenes between Hannay and Pamela, and plenty of drama and danger to provide the thrills. The dénouement, I must admit, is nearly as silly as the one in the book, though quite different – but it’s very well done, both dramatic and quite moving, and at least it makes sense.

The two stars give sparkling performances, but they’re not alone – most of the actors in the smaller roles are excellent too. Poor Lucie Mannheim did remind me a little of Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain – she has all the exaggerated over-dramatic gestures of the silent era, especially in her death scene, but it all added to the fun. The film itself shows its age a little at points, such as when Hannay is running and it gives that speeded up impression you get in movies of the Charlie Chaplin era. But on the whole it has held up brilliantly – exciting, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So the choice is easy this time. Hitchcock’s changes turned an OK book into a great film – a true classic. If you haven’t seen it, you should!

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

THE FILM!

* * * * *

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

Book 29 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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