The 39 Steps (1959)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: Ralph Thomas
Starring: Kenneth More, Taina Elg, Brenda De Banzie, Reginald Beckwith, Faith Brook, Michael Goodliffe, James Hayter, Sid James
Music: Clifton Parker
Based loosely on the novel by John Buchan (and the film by Alfred Hitchcock).

Some people do not like the films of producer Betty E. Box, and director Ralph Thomas. I am not one of them. I think they are great. Amongst their output are spy films like, Hot Enough For June, The High Commissioner, Deadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do. But before they made those ‘classics’, they remade Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The film gets slammed for not nearly being as good as Hitchcock’s version, but it is still a very good, and extremely enjoyable film.

The film opens innocently enough. On an idyllic afternoon in Regents Park, an elderly gentleman dressed like a sea captain manouvres his remote control model steam boat across the pond. But all is not as it seems. The steamer has been used to pass a secret message from one courier to another. The Captain retrieves his boat and pockets a message.

The park though, is full of people. Two of these people happen to be Nanny Robinson (Faith Brook), who is pushing a baby pram, and Richard Hannay (Kenneth More), who is practising his golf swing.
As the Captain leaves, Nanny Robinson follows. As he crosses the road, with an imperceptible nod, he signals to two men in a car. With Nanny tailing, as she crosses the road, the car takes off and ploughs straight into her. The pram wheels off on it’s own, into the street. Hannay witnesses all of this and rushes after the pram. He drags it to safety seconds before it is collected on the fender of a passing car.
But to Hannay’s surprise the pram is empty – almost. No baby, but a neat little 32 calibre pistol rests beneath the blankets. As the police arrive on the scene, Hannay tucks the gun, and Nanny’s purse into his jacket pockets, then hands the pram over to the constabulary.

Hannay learns that Nanny was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, so he heads over to return her belongings, only to find she has already checked out. He then charms nanny’s address from the duty nurse and heads off once again. No luck this time either. The address is a demolition site. He returns home beaten. At his apartment, he goes through her purse methodically. Inside are two tickets for The Palace Theatre. That’s where he heads next.

Sure enough Nanny Robinson turns up. She asks for the return of her property (the gun and purse). Hannay informs her that he left them at his apartment. He offers to take her to collect them, which she accepts, but first she wants to watch one of the acts performing at the theatre. The act is Mr. Memory, who has an encyclopaedic recall of all the information he has ever read in his life. During the act, audience members yell out questions for Mr. memory to answer. But Memory is being watched by a series of minders, and they notice Nanny in the crowd. Nanny is very astute, and notices the minders noticing her, and she decides to leave the theatre. Hannay escorts her back to his flat to collect her belongings.

The minders, or as you have no doubt guessed, the ‘enemy agents’ trail Hannay and Nanny back to his apartment and take up a vigil outside. Meanwhile, curiosity has got the better of Hannay and he begins to quizz Nanny Robinson, who explains that her work has to do with national security. In return she asks Hannay if he has heard of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’. He quips; ‘Is it a do it yourself kit?’ She then asks if he has heard of a project named ‘Boomerang’? Boomerang is the code word for a top-secret ballistic missile, and secret information regarding this project has been stolen and will be spirited out of the country in forty-eight hours. She also explains that to piece all the information together, she has to go to Scotland. All she has to go on, is that the head of the spy ring who stole the plans has the top joint of his little finger missing. Nanny tells all this to Hannay in case another attempt on her life is made.

After Nanny’s explanation, Hannay heads into the kitchen to prepare a nice hot cup of tea, only to find upon his return, Nanny dead on the floor with a knife in her back. In a panic, Hannay is not sure what to do and who to trust. Hannay goes through Nanny’s things once more and discovers a map of Scotland with Glen Kirk circled. With a little help from the early morning milkman, Hannay sneaks out of his appartment block, past the waiting enemy agents, and then heads to King’s Cross Station where he catches a train to Scotland.

Once Nanny Robinson’s body is discovered a nationwide search is mounted by the police – searching for ‘a mysterious man in a raincoat’ – Hannay. At his first opportunity, he ditches the coat, but still on board the train, as the compartments are searched, he has nowhere to run. As the police close in on Hannay, he spies a young woman, Miss Fisher (Taina Elg), a teacher from a girl’s school, who is travelling alone. As the police are upon him, he bustles into her train compartment, sits down beside her, grabs her, and then plants a very passionate kiss on her lips. The police officer, seeing two young lovers, chooses not to interrogate them and passes by.

After the police have moved on, Hannay apologizes and tries to explain to her that he is innocent of any crime, but when the police return to the compartment once more, she turns him in. Hannay has no alternative but to flee, and opens the outward door and crawls outside the carriage of the moving train. The emergency cord is pulled onboard, and the train comes to a halt on a railway bridge. Hannay quickly finds a  maintenance hatch which leads down under the bridge and onto the support girders. The police don’t see the hatch, and presume that Hannay is still on the train hiding somewhere. The train moves on, and the police continue their search on board.

After escaping from the train, on the road, Hannay receives a lift from a truck driver (an early cameo appearance by Sid James) who takes him to a boarding house run by Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie). Nellie is a spooky sort, you quickly devines that Hanany is no killer and she agrees to help him get to Glenkirk. The transport she arranges is not quite what Hannay had in mind, it is a bicycle – and he is travelling with a group of weekend cyclists.

After a diversion by Mr. Lumsden, Hannay squeezes through the police cordon to Glenkirk, and after a few enquiries is directed towards the home of Professor Logan (Barry Jones). Logan makes Hannay very welcome as he relays the details of the last hours of Nannie Robinson – but as he tells the story it slowly dawns on him that Logan is not Nannie’s contact, but in fact the head of the spy ring that Nannie was investigating – the ones who have stolen the plans for the ‘Boomerang’.

Hannay quickly escapes with now, not only the police, but a cadre of enemy spies on his trail. Logic would dictate, that maybe it’s time to go to the police and tell them the whole story, and hopefully they’d act and clear his name – so that’s what he does. But, as it so happens, the chief of police in the area is a close friend to professor Logan, and refuses to believe Hannay’s wild story. Hannay is forced to escape again and go on the lam. His escapades lead him to the girl school where Miss Fisher – the lady from the train – is teaching. After she assists the police in his re-apprehension, he blurts out Professor Logan’s plans to Fisher, trying in vain to make her believe he is telling the truth.. Suddenly the police have to take her into custody too – because now she knows too much.

Even though he is handcuffed to Fisher, Hannay still manages to manufacture another escape attempt and the two of them scramble off into the countryside, and later Hannay is finally able to convince her of the truth.

In many respects this version is quite similar to Hitchcock’s film, but tweaks the story just enough to still invest it with qualities worth viewing. Its main asset however, is Kenneth More as Richard Hannay, and while he may not have Robert Donat’s charm, he is in some ways, a more believable figure as the man wrongly accused and hunted along the length of the United Kingdom.

Taina Elg does the best she can with the role of Miss Fisher. Due to the way the story is constructed, unfortunately most of her scenes involve her complaining either to the police about Hannay, or to Hannay about being dragged about. But she is a very beautiful lady, and the scene where she removes her stockings, while still handcuffed to Hannay, creates quite a few sparks.

I guess this version of The 39 Steps will always live in the shadow of Hitchcock’s version – and as there’s no doubt that Hitch’s version is a masterpiece, that leaves this version to exist as only ‘a good film’. And it is a good film – a damn fine entertaining film, but the fact that it treads so closely to Hitch’s version, rather than trying to break out and do its own thing – which subsequent versions have tried to do – means that it is a pale imitation.

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