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The 39 Steps (1959)

This remake of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film comes by way of producer Betty E. Box and director Ralph Thomas. The same duo who teamed for titles including The Clouded Yellow, The Iron Petticoat and the Dirk Bogarde “Doctor” series. Knowing this is a remake of one of the Master’s early films, this isn’t to be read as a comparison to the early version. Strictly my first time viewing which features the stalwart Kenneth More in the leading role that just seems to cry out for Cary Grant.

39-steps-foreign

“Where are the 39 steps?”

Espionage is front and center when the mild mannered but oh so nosy, Kenneth More takes a stroll through a park on a beautiful, sunny day in England. After conversing with a Nanny over a lost baby toy, she moves on her way only to be deliberately struck down by a car. When More fetches the runaway stroller to check on the child, he finds nothing but her purse and a hand gun under the baby blanket. Now this is where I’ll have to admit, if I were in More’s shoes, I’d turn the entire find over to the constable on the scene. But no, More pockets the weapon and takes the purse first before handing the stroller over.

More is a man looking for adventure and he’s found it when finally tracking the Nanny down after her short stay in a hospital. She may have escaped death once but won’t be so lucky the next time. She is soon to be murdered in More’s flat as she confides her mission to him. While in dire need of a tea (it’s no wonder we North American’s think that tea is the only drink the English partake in), More goes off to the kitchen only to return to the living room of his flat to find her with a dagger in her back. He’ll then take up her end of the mission for Queen and country only to find himself a wanted man for the Nanny’s murder by local police.

more-in-39-steps

He’ll need to get to Glenkirk to foul up the opposing team of espionage agents and takes to trains, bicycles and hitchhiking a ride with a trucker played by Sidney James.

sid-in-39-steps

Along the way he’ll have a fun stopover with a pair of con artists played by Brenda de Banzie and Reginald Beckwith and a short get together aboard the train with Taina Elg who will figure prominently in the latter half of the film when the duo find themselves handcuffed together.

When things don’t go as planned in Glenkirk, More finds himself on the run from both police and enemy agents. It’s at this point that the film’s most enjoyable scene will play itself out when he seeks refuge at an all girls college where he is mistaken for a visiting professor and shuffled onto the stage to deliver a lecture. All the while, police are closing in. It’s at this point that he’ll run into Miss Elg once again and she will soon be joining him on his espionage adventure against her will.

more-and-elg

Filmed in color, this version of the story plays well but I’ll admit to not finding it all that enthralling as a whole. It’s the sum of it’s parts along the journey that taken individually are quite enjoyable and while More is fine in the role, it really does have Cary Grant written all over it though if a star of his magnitude were involved, the whole budget would be blown out of proportion and a director of ……. yes a director of Hitchcock’s reputation would have to be brought on board. But then again, Hitch and Cary had a good thing going with that other espionage flick of 1959 didn’t they. I believe it was called North By Northwest.

Filmed at Pinewood, this is a passable adventure that has more than a couple scenes that will illicit a smile or two. Honestly, I’m not even sure I was aware of it’s existence until happening across a discarded copy on DVD at a local trade in shop. It  was released by the fine folks at VCI if you intend to get a look at it yourself.

There has since been a 1978 filming of The 39 steps from Don Sharp that featured Robert Powell in the leading role. Haven’t seen it so feel free to let me know if I should track it down.

39-steps-foreign2

21 Comments »

  1. The 1978 adaptation is no great shakes either, and the same goes for the Powell-starring TV series derived from it — in fact, the two or three episodes of the latter that I watched had me cringing. There’s a 2008 TVM adaptation that I haven’t seen, but would like to.

  2. This is a film that suffers in comparison to the original – I think the Powell movie has a slightly better reputation. If you can keep the Hitchcock version out of your mind though, and take it on its own terms, it does offer entertainment. More was always very personable as a lead and the color photography is nice.

  3. I’m a great fan of Buchan’s novels, and The 39 Steps is one of his better ones. I do wish someone would put a decent version of the novel on screen. Or of Greenmantle — even better!

      • My beef isn’t that the Hitchcock movie — which I like — isn’t as good as the book, or any cliche like that. It’s that it isn’t actually an adaptation of the book, which is a tense adventure/thriller rather than a borderline comedy. Carroll’s character doesn’t exist in the novel, etc. See here for a (very) detailed summary of the plot.

  4. The original is incomparable, and beautifully reflects the Expressionism that influenced most of Hitchcock’s early films. Robert Donat is a perfect foil for Madeleine Carroll, who is always beyond reproach. The More version is at once pallid and lacking in the tautness so necessary to a film of this kind. More is no Hannay, and by way of obiter dictum, no Crichton either.

    • The “original” is Buchan’s novel, and Hitchcock’s adaptation is a travesty of that. I actually enjoy Hitchcock’s adaptation, but it’s folly to look on it as some kind of authoritative text.

      • I had meant to compare the two films as films, the original being the Hitchcock version (not that Hitchcock had unerring judgement). I am thoroughly familiar with the novel, and believe that most novels do not translate to the screen without losing their essence.

  5. Love those foreign posters. More and Elg could never compare with Donat and Carroll. It’s hard not to make comparisons. Kenneth More was very popular in the 50s – Doctor in the House, A Night to Remember, Reach for the Sky.

  6. I was thinking it was ‘The 39 Steps’ that starred Cybill Sheperd, a VHS which I found in a video store years ago and wanted nothing to do with, but I just now figured out it was a remake of ‘The Lady Vanishes’ that she’d starred in. Never heard of this version of ‘The 39 Steps’, nor any of the others mentioned above…I think I’ll stick with the Hitchcock version. Those two posters are pretty cool, though.

  7. The BBC did a remake of The 39 Steps not so long since – they wanted to do a version that was more faithful to the novel than the Hitchcock film – it didn’t work for me. Then they redid The Lady Vanishes along similar lines and that was a load of rubbish as well.

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