The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

39steps2

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)

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)

The Jigsaw Man (1983)

Director: Terence Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Susan George, Robert Powell, Charles Gray, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Peter Burton
Music: John Cameron
Song: ‘Only You And I’ performed by Dionne Warwick
Based on the novel by Dorothea Bennett

The Jigsaw Man opens with a rather paunchy, grey old Englishman living in Russia receiving a visit from a Boris Medvachian (Morteza Kazerouni), a KGB agent. Medvachian tells the elderly gent that he is dead. Literally, as he shows him a newspaper with his obituary dated six months in advance. The elderly man is outraged. He insists he is an important person and cannot be treated this way. His name is Philip Kimberley (obviously a play on Kim Philby – played by Richard Aylen), and he used to be the Director General of the British Secret Service before he defected to Russia. And although Kimberley is quite old, every time he speaks, the voice of Michael Caine escapes from his lips. Is this a clever makeup job? No, it is a poor piece of dubbing. It seems that Kimberley has become a drunken embarrassment and the Russian powers-that-be want him out of the way. Kimberley is drugged and bundled into an ambulance which takes him to a private hospital. At the hospital Kimberley undergoes plastic surgery, and when he awakes, not only does he sound like Michael Caine, but now he looks like him, but with dark hair and a porn star moustache. Next we launch into a low-rent training montage which has delusions of being in the Rocky vein, but without the sweat and sculptured physical specimens. Kimberley is being turned into a killing machine.

After six months, Kimberley’s training is complete and the scars from the surgery have healed. To complement his new face, he is given a new name, Sergei Kozminsky. And he is given a mission. He is to go back to England. It is believed, that when he defected, he stole a payroll list of all the convert Russian agents working in Britain. He is to retrieve this list.
At this time it is also announced to the world the Philip Kimberley has died and a Russian State funeral is held in his honour.

Kozminsky/Kimberley (for the purposes of this review and to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to him only as Kimberley from now on) arrives at Heathrow. As he passes through customs, an official finds a note planted in his passport which says that he is a KGB agent and wants to defect. Within seconds, he is surrounded by security officers and spirited away to The Home Office. Medvachian and the KGB are not happy.

Meanwhile another flight lands at Heathrow. This one is carrying Jamie Fraser (Robert Powell), a top flight secret agent who poses as a United Nations diplomat. Upon arrival in London, the first thing he does is report to headquarters and his controller, Admiral Gerald Scaith (Laurence Olivier). During a heated debriefing it appears that Fraser has lost a fellow operative on his last assignment. The agent concerned was a homosexual who hanged himself in disgrace. It also appears that Scaith is not happy about Kimberley’s death and it is revealed that Fraser is now bedding Kimberley’s daughter, Penny (Susan George). It’s all rather tangled and contrived. Sorry, dear reader, it gets worse, but more on that later…..

Afterwards, Fraser heads to Penny’s apartment. She is being hounded by the press for a story about her late father. Fraser helps her through the wall of reporters and takes her to her country cottage. Meanwhile back at the Home Office, after his defection, Kimberley has escaped from custody. Scaith isn’t happy about this either, as Sir James Chorley (Charles Gray) mocks him for losing his prize. Scaith orders the room fingerprinted, but doesn’t expect much.

Scaith is portrayed and a bitter and twisted old man. Why is he bitter? When Kimberley defected, Scaith moved in on Kimberley’s abandoned wife. But rather than marry Scaith, she chose suicide. We see this via flashback as Scaith wanders the streets at night, heading home. On route, as he pauses to light a cigarette, who should pop up? Kimberley. But Scaith doesn’t recognise him as Kimberley. He thinks it is genuinely a defector call Kozminsky. Adopting a cringe inducing Russian accent, Kimberley as Kozminsky tells Scaith that back in Russia, he was close friends with the deceased Kimberley. Er, does that make sense? Kimberley also says he has access to the stolen Russian payroll documents and will sell them for one million dollars. As the two gentlemen stroll, they get closer to Scaith’s house. As a high ranking official, he always has a policeman patrolling his home. When they are within range, Scaith blows a whistle and the police officer comes running. Kimberley is forced to flee. More police flood into the area, and Kimberley has to disable two officers to make his escape. When it appears that Kimberley is in the clear, a green van pulls along side, and unknown assailant shoots Kimberley in the side. The van then drives off. When I say ‘unknown assailant’, it is pretty obvious who it is. After all, the British want their defector alive. There is only one other side – the Russians. But how they found him is a mystery. Oh well, just another poorly plotted red herring, in a piss-poor script.

Onwards. The following morning, in a sequence that seems like bureaucracy at it’s worst (or more poor plotting), Scaith asks Sir James Chorley to get his Special Branch men involved in the search for the defector. But Chorley says his Branch is stretched tight and asks to borrow some men for the task. First, he asks for Fraser’s partner – the homosexual who killed himself. Chorley is told of his recent demise. Then Chorley asks for Fraser. Scaith agrees. (Surely Scaith, as Fraser’s controller could have simply set him loose on Kimberley without bringing Chorley into it?) But after all that bullshit, Fraser is now working for Chorley to track down a defector called Kozminsky, who has access to the Russian payroll list.

Penny, now residing at her country cottage arrives home to find the tap dripping. She turn the faucet only to find it is covered in blood. Before she can react, Kimberley grabs her from behind, and confesses to be her father, despite his appearance. It doesn’t take long for him to convince her, as he reveals some intimate details from her past that only her father would know. She patches up his bullet wound the best she can, and puts him up in a hotel run by some of her friends.

Back at Scaith’s office, a Scotland Yard fingerprint expert explains that the fingerprints found at the Home Office, when the defector escaped, belong to Philip Kimberley. Scaith can’t believe it, but somehow is pleased that he will have a chance to go up against his old adversary once more. He also decides to keep this bit of information to himself. So Chorley and Fraser still believe they are after Kozminsky.

Kimberley decides it is time for one further change of appearance. He shaves off the moustache and dies his hair light brown. The transformation is complete – we now have pure Michael Caine. Next Kimberley ducks into a local church and retrieves a micro film he had secreted there many years ago. hidden in a statue, naturally. Kimberley then mails a small portion to Scaith as evidence that he still has the documents, and that he still wants his million dollars.

Back in London, Penny loans her apartment to a girlfriend named Susan (Maureen Bennett). Not a great idea, because the Russians are watching the flat and mistake Susan for Penny. Susan is kidnapped and whisked away to Russia.

Now this is where the story gets weird. Fraser and Chorley are still trying to track down Kozminsky and are staying at the same Hotel. After taking a shower, Fraser walks into his bedroom to find Chorley in the room wearing only a dressing gown. Chorley is a homosexual and because Fraser’s ex-partner was also gay, Chorley assumes that Fraser is. Fraser sets Chorley straight. It’s not an easy scene to watch. Not because of the homosexual theme – but because Charles Gray is lumbered with a poorly applied skull cap. It appears his character is bald and he wears a selection of different length wigs each day to intimate that his hair is growing. But the makeup in this scene is so badly applied, that rather than being a defining moment for these two characters, it simply becomes creepy!

Back to Penny. She makes a trip to her apartment to check on Susan who is not answering the phone. He finds the apartment has been trashed and Susan missing. In hysterics she calls Kimberley, but the phone is tapped. Scaith turns up and takes Penny into custody. Kimberley flees from the hotel he is staying at and calls Scaith. He still wants to make the exchange and organises a swap, cash for the payroll, at the church where the microfilm is hidden. Scaith agrees and sets Penny up as the delivery girl. She has to take the money to her father.

Naturally enough it is a trap, and all agents converge on the church, including Chorley and Fraser. As the exchange is taking place, Kimberley grabs Penny and puts a gun to her head. It’s a ruse, because he won’t kill his own daughter but Chorley and Fraser don’t realise that Kozminsky is Kimberley. Scaith realises its a ploy, but doesn’t let on. It does, however allow Kimberley to escape and he steals a car. Fraser ‘borrows’ a police motorbike and follows. For some reason, the chase and following shootout take place in a lion park. It just happened to be there, I guess (Why did the chicken cross the road?)

As I mentioned in the paragraph above, once the cars and bike have come to a halt, there is a shootout. Poor old Chorley buys it, but it appears he was working for the Russians anyway. That about wraps it up – there is a bit more but not worth discussing. In the context of the story and the past history these characters have, it doesn’t make sense. But, oh well, that sums up the movie really!

One of the most annoying things about this movie is the constant references to the Cambridge Spies, Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. Barely a set piece goes by without mention or allusion to these four men. I presume this is because of the publication of Climate Of Treason by Andrew Boyle, the book that outed Anthony Blunt as the fourth man, a few years earlier. As I mentioned at the start, Caine’s character is Philip Kimberley obviously a play on Kim Philby, and the comparison’s in life story are similar (Head of British Intelligence defects to Russian etc..). Maybe that is clever, simplistic, but a fare enough foundation to hang a film on. But the film makers aren’t happy with this. they have to go further. They imply that Philby exists also, which implies that two Heads of British Intelligence have defected. It is just clumsy, and reeks of name dropping for the sake of credibility.

Another clumsy aspect of the film is the way homosexuals are represented. In the film homosexuality seems to imply that one is a Communist. A dated view of the world, which would be sure to raise the ire of certain groups in the community. Fraser’s partner kills him self in shame, and at one point, Scaith says that if homosexuality had been legal in Britain at the time, Burgess and Maclean wouldn’t have defected. And as it turns out Sir James Chorley is a Communist spy, and he too is homosexual.

This has to be one of the most disappointing films in the genre. Why? Although it is not the worst film to be found on these pages (but it’s close), the talent associated with this project should have ensured a top-flight production. Let’s start with the team behind the camera. Firstly, director Terence Young has a proven track record with spy films, having directed Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball and Triple Cross. The second unit director is Peter Hunt. He worked with Young on the early Bond films and directed one of the best, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Then we move onto the people in front of the camera. Michael Caine, yep Harry Palmer himself, a doyen of the spy film, gives possibly the worst performance of his career. His attempt at a Russian accent is painful. Next we have Olivier. Well, it’s no secret that he made a lot of crap in the autumn of his years, but for an actor who is undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century to stoop to this level is quite sad. Then we have Robert Powell. He escapes my scathing tongue, by virtue that he is underused. The film features some fantastic character actors, who have been, or were the mainstays of the spy genre, like Vladek Sheybal (From Russia With Love, Billion Dollar Brain, Puppet On A Chain, Scorpio) and Anthony Dawson (Dr. No, Operation Kid Brother, and Blofeld’s voice in Thunderball). So despite all these seasoned campaigners behind and in front of the camera, they cannot lift this turkey up above the bottom rung. That’s why it is such a disappointment.

Maybe this review, with all the name dropping in the previous paragraph has peaked your interest. Please, don’t be fooled. This movie is only for spy or Michael Caine completists.

The Jigsaw Man (1983)