Country: United Kingdom
Director: Don Sharp
Starring: Robert Powell, David Warner, John Mills, Eric Porter, Karen Dotrice, George Baker, William Squire, Timothy West
Based on the novel by John Buchan
Because Alfred Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps is considered one of the greatest movies of all time – a point of view that I fully concur with, this version of The Thirty Nine Steps is often written off as rubbish, or as an un-necessary remake. Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, it is not rubbish – it’s actually a finely crafted thriller that had me riveted from beginning to end. And secondly, it is not a remake. Hitchcock didn’t adhere too closely to John Buchan’s novel. This film, while it too takes its artistic liberties, is a far more faithful rendering of Buchan’s novel.
The film opens with a brief message on the screen. It says, ‘Early in 1914 a coded cable was sent from a European power to a house in West London. Decoded it read: LET THE SLEEPERS AWAKE’.
In London three men are meeting on a boat on the Thames. One man is Scudder (John Mills) and he is a secret agents. He has gathered information that suggests that a political leader in the Balkans is about to be assassinated. This assassination is only the tip of the tentacle, as this murder is intended as a prelude to war. The two men that Scudder is reporting to are Lord Harkness (William Squire) and Sir Hugh Portan (Timothy West). Both men agree that war is coming but not for some time. They dismiss Scudder’s theories as wild and unsubstantiated.
On the shore, watching discreetly is Sir Edmund Appleton (David Warner). Appleton, despite his upper class veneer is actually a Prussian spy. Gathered around he has assembeled a band of cronies who have to silence Scudder. And now that he has told Harkness and Portan they are targets too. As Scudder’s meeting with Harkness and Portan comes to end, he leaves the boat. Waiting for him is one of Appleton’s assassin’s but he cannot take a clean shot due to a particularly thick pea-soup fog.
Appleton decides to take care of Harkness personally and meets him as he walks home that evening. As they walk, Appleton pulls a knife from his cane and stabs Harkness.
The next day, Scudder reads about Harkness’ death in the newspaper and rushes to warn Portan, but he only gets close enough to witness his assassination. The unusual thing about the killing, is the second before Portan was shot, Appleton grabs his arm, holding him in place. Scudder sees Appleton and realises he is behind the plot. Scudder scurries off into the crowd and heads back to his apartment.
Appleton is no fool and sends two men to Scudders apartment and they arrive as Scudder is trying to leave. With the stairs blocked and no way to go down, he chooses to go up and knock on the door of the gentleman upstairs. This gentleman happens to be Richard Hannay (Robert Powell). Scudder tells his story and Hannay gives him sanctuary for the night.
The following morning, Hannay has to leave Scudder. Hannay is on his way to South Africa and has a train to catch. He leaves Scudder in his apartment, but it doesn’t take long for the Prussian agents to work out where he has been hiding. They come for him. Scudder escapes via the fire escape window and makes his way to the train station. As he makes his way onto the crowded platform, he spots Hannay and calls to him. Hannay turns and comes to meet him, but in the few metres between then, one of the Prussian agents catches up to Scudder and sticks a knife in his back. Scudder falls forward into Hannay’s arms. As he falls he tries to pass over a diary with important information about the assassination plot, but the diary falls to the ground and then is unwittingly kicked under a set of scales by a passer-by.
Hannay tends to Scudder and as he turns him over, notices the knife in his back. That too, is when the bystanders on the train platform notice that Scudder is dead. All they see is Hannay standing over a dead man with a knife in his back. They falsely believe that Hannay is the murderer. It’s not an isolated view either. Hannay is taken into police custody, and without the diary as evidence, he is quickly tried and sentenced for murder. His penalty is to be hung by the neck until dead.
As Hannay is being transported from the court, Appleton’s Prussian agents rescue him at gunpoint and spirit him away to Appleton’s palatial headquarters. Appleton enquires about the whereabouts of Scudder’s diary. Hannay claims to have no knowledge of the diary. Appleton almost believes him, but still has him locked away. But he makes it rather easy for Hannay to escape. Hannay needs Scudder’s diary to prove his innocence, so Appleton assume that if Hannay were free, he would search for the diary.
In time, Hannay does escape, and Appleton has his men discreetly follow Hannay who returns to the train station and starts searching high and low for the missing diary. From there on it begins to fall into line with other filmic incarnations of the tale – that is, until the climax, which I won’t spoil here – but the film posters tend to give a lot away.
The Thirty Nine Steps is a brilliant old-fashioned thriller. Sure the politics at the start are a little confusing but they don’t really matter. This is first and foremost a chase film, and this film provides one hell of a chase, culminating in a spectacular climax with Richard Hannay dangling from one of the hands of the Big Ben clock face. This film may not have the same reputation as Alfred Hitchcock’s version, but it is still a film well worth investing your time in.