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 Scudder has been replaced by a mysterious female foreign agent, Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim).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!

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