The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)


Country: United Kingdom
Director: Don Sharp
Starring: Robert Powell, David Warner, John Mills, Eric Porter, Karen Dotrice, George Baker, William Squire, Timothy West
Music:Ed Welch
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.

39Steps1The 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.

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The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

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.

The 39 Steps (1959)

Hannay: The Terrors of the Earth

HannayCountry: United Kingdom
Director: Ken Hannan
Starring: Robert Powell, Gavin Richards, Alex Kingston, Frank Moorey, Jonathan Oliver
Music: Denis King
Based on characters created by John Buchan

The Terrors of the Earth is the second episode of the second season of Thames Hannay television series – (or the eighth episode – there were thirteen made all up). I have never really warmed to Hannay. I dearly want to, as I have enjoyed practically every version of The 39 Steps – even the ones that most people screw their noses up at. Hannay is a character I like, but this series seems unsure on how to present the character.

In this episode, Dr. Nils Larssen (Frank Moorey) is a Swedish Scientist working for the British Government. He has been working on a series of preventative vaccines for such diseases as Cholera, Typhus, and Tuberculosis. One afternoon, he returns early to his laboratory, which is being sponsored by Lord Hurst (David Howey), and finds that his junior assistant, Edgar Voce (Jonathan Oliver) has locked the door. After pounding on the door, Voce finally lets his Larssen into the lab. Larssen has sharp eyes and immediately notices that a cupboard is open and inside is a microscope that his Voce has hastily tried to conceal.

Larssen retrieves the microscope and looks down through the eye-piece. On a slide he is disturbed to discover hundreds – soon to be thousands – of micro-organisms rapidly multiplying.Voce is reprimanded, and removed from the lab. Furthermore he is told that from now on his duties will be solely administerial.

Later that day, as a guest of, and accompanied by an old chum, Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) arrives at Lord Hurst’s estate for the evening. He has been invited to become an investor in Larssen’s research. That evening he is also introduced to Larssen’s lovely daughter, Kirsty (Alex Kingston).

Meanwhile, back in London, Count Von Schwabing (Gavin Richards), a German spy – and essentially Hannay’s arch-enemy throughout this series – is being briefed on germ warfare and an operation that is currently underway in Britain. It seems that Voce is actually a German agent, and plans to steal Dr. Larssen’s research. Von Schwabing is required to provide safe passage out of the country.

Voce begins his scheme, by first placing a few drops of a virulent cocktail into Larssen’s drinking water. Overnight, Larssen takes ill, and is spirited away once it is discovered that he is sick. Fearing an outbreak, Lord Hurst has the Doctor taken secretively to a nearby army hospital to be kept in quarantine.

Lord Hurst refuses to allow Kirsty to see her father – believing that she may contribute to an outbreak. Hannay, unaware of the true facts, believing that it is only chivalrous, decides to assist Kirsty in finding her father. And after a bit of derring-do, they do find him, although the incident does land Hannay in trouble with the authorities once again.

Meanwhile Voce has used the distraction to make his getaway with a lethal canister of bacteria – sort of a cocktail of all the worst diseases known to man. Naturally, Hannay’s investigations into Larssen’s illness and confinement, put him on a collision course with his nemesis Von Schwabing – and including the almost pre-requisite set-piece where Hannay is captured and locked away in a strange location from which he has to escape. In this instance that strange location happens to be in a room at the top of a wind mill.

All-in-all, this is a sprightly little episode in the Hannay series. Like all the episodes it still suffers from budget constraints. Put simply, Richard Hannay is a man of adventure, and this series should be an adventure series, but at times plays out like a thinking man’s show. Now I have nothing against a good cerebral drama, but if you a making such a show, then you’d invest it with great dialogue and a thoughtful plot. Hannay seems to straddle a line between being a thoughtful drama and a knockabout adventure series, and as such never quite succeeds at being either. Still, for spy fans, this is one of the best episodes of the series.

Hannay: The Terrors of the Earth

Hannay: The Fellowship Of The Black Stone (1988)

Directed by David Giles
Robert Powell, Charles Gray, Gavin Richards, David Waller, Christopher Scoular, Dominique Barnes, Davyd Harries
Music by Denis King

I did a quick overview of the Hannay series a few years back, but I thought it was worth going back and looking at a couple of individual episodes. I afraid though, that this revisitation hasn’t made me change my original opinion that Hannay is sluggish and lacks atmosphere.

The Fellowship Of The Black Stone is the first episode in this thirteen part series. The show opens in Damaraland S.W. Africa in 1912, or so we are told – it looks like a gravel pit outside London. But regardless, we meet our hero Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) riding a horse through a tortuous sandy landscape. Hiding amongst the sandy peaks is Count Von Schwabing (Gavin Richards) who is brandishing a riffle. As Hannay rides past, Von Schwabing shoots him. Hannay falls off his horse – the wound appears to be fatal. Pleased with his handy work, Von Schwabing scoots out from his hiding place and approaches Hannay’s inert body, then presses a smooth black stone into Hannay’s hand. Naturally he expects Hannay to die from the wound.

Some time later, we join Hannay on a steamer bound for London. On the last night of the trip, Hannay receives an invite from Lord Hazelmere (David Waller) to join him for drinks. While Hannay is enjoying Hazelmere’s hospitality, a gloved figure (we do not see their face) places a wrapped parcel in Hannay’s steamer trunk.

In London, Hannay has an old army acquaintance, Reggie Armitage (Christopher Scoular) who has arranged lodging for him at the ‘20th Century Club’ in Pall Mall. Over a few stiff drinks, Hannay retells the tale of his near death experience at the hands of Count Von Schwabing. Armitage, who it appears is a member of the Foreign Office (or possibly even the Secret Service) confesses that in Africa he has lost five agents and two couriers over the past few months – all of them found with a black stone in their hands.

Later that evening, Hannay unpacks his steamer trunk and discovers the parcel. It is addressed, so he takes the parcel to the address and hands it over unopened. For his trouble he is blackjacked from behind. When he awakens, he is tied to a chair in a stone dungeon with an imposing figure standing over him. The gentleman happens to be a henchman for Von Schwabing who is now operating out of London.

As the story unfolds, Hannay not only ends up involved in a plot by the villainous Germans, but also end up being pursued by Commander Neville of Scotland Yard (Charles Gray), wanted on two counts of murder.

While I profess to having enjoyed all three filmic version of The 39 Steps, I must admit that I find the Hannay series rather cold and lacking atmosphere. The pacing, for this episode at least, is quite okay and the story is a pure ‘stiff upper lip’ British Imperial adventure, but strangely I am not drawn into this world. I want to like the series, but there’s a lack of chemistry happening on the screen. Initially I thought that this was because it was filmed on videotape and lacked visual depth, and that barrier was distracting me – but soon after watching this show, I watched some episodes (quite a few actually) of The Sandbaggers which utilises the same production techniques. Instantly I was drawn into the world of The Sandbaggers – but not so Hannay. I’m afraid, for me, this series just doesn’t work.

To read my original overview of the series click here.

Hannay: The Fellowship Of The Black Stone (1988)

Hannay (1988-89)

TV Series 13 Episodes
Directed by David Giles, Guy Slater, Jeremy Summers.
Robert Powell, Charles Gray, Gavin Richards Christopher Scoular

Who is Hannay? Richard Hannay was a character created by John Buchan, and first appeared in the book The Thirty Nine Steps. He subsequently appeared in further adventures (Greenmantle is the easiest to locate).
Why is Hannay important? Along with Somerset Maughm’s Ashendon and Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, Hannay is considered one of the characters that inspired Fleming and subsequently the whole sixties spy boom.

In this series, Robert Powell plays Hannay, a character he had played before in the underrated 1976 version of The Thirty Nine Steps, directed by Don Sharp. For espionage lovers this TV series is a mixed bag. Some episodes have Hannay battling Count Von Schwabing (Gavin Richards), a German diplomat who is secretly planning for Germany’s entrance into World War One. One episode Voyage Into Fear, is similar to The Ipcress File in style.

Other episodes in the series, Hannay tends to battle the usual swag of underworld criminals. These episodes, are probably more like Sherlock Holmes or Bulldog Drummond (Coleman rather than Richard Johnson) than spy stories.

It’s an enjoyable series, but beware as it was only meant for television and done on the cheap. The interiors were filmed on video tape which looks incredibly flat. Everything is in focus, so there is no depth – it almost looks as if it is stage bound – it isn’t. The sets and costumes are good, but the filming technique really lets it down – there are even burn mark and trails when the camera passes a blight light, candle or match.

In the end, the series is an interesting historical footnote (similar to Reilly: Ace Of Spies), but unless you are a spy completist, or an avid fan of Robert Powell, I wouldn’t spend too much time, tracking the series down.

The Episodes Are:

1. The Fellowship Of The Black Stone
2. A Point Of Honour
3. Voyage Into Fear
4. Death With Due Notice
5. Act Of Riot
6. The Hazard Of The Die
7. Coup De Grace
8. The Terrors Of The Earth
9. Double Jeopardy
10. The Good Samaritan
11. That Rough Music
12. The Confidence
13. Say The Bells Of Shoreditch

Hannay (1988-89)