Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

Well, right enough. No Hitchcockian is ever likely to think of The Thirty-Nine Steps straight off as “a Don Sharp film”, but it doesn’t suffer all that much. It does sag fairly droopily in its middle section, and for long stretches you can forget the true-to-Buchan claim, for the film is full of invented stuff, to the extent of pairing Richard Hannay off with a girl (Karen Dotrice, the tiny tot of Mary Poppins). Though the unrestrained swiping of Thomas’s film isn’t copied, a fairly massive amount is, shall we say, in the Hitchcock manner. The new-fangled climax, for instance, takes place in a belltower (Vertigo); since the bell in question is Big Ben, it’s also in a famous London building (Foreign Correspondent); a villain just has to fall from a great height, whilst the hero, in keeping with North by Northwest and Saboteur (sort of – it was the bad guy there), dangles perilously. Elsewhere, the hero is framed for murder when a stiff with a knife in its back topples across his path; a monoplane skirts him dangerously over open fields (though let hommage-spotters beware – that was in the book!); and the forces of wickedness are conned into thinking him dead after the Secret Service gets in on the act. Some of these little or not-so-little allusions are quite charming (the knife-slaying is done with very nearly as much finesse here, at St. Pancras Railway Station, as was the equivalent scene at the U.N. in NxNW) , but others rub in all too clearly the plain fact that a masterwork gets to be one by virtue of its inimitability. The development of the screenplay is jerky, and, where it should build, it all too often slips away into triteness.

Even so, there’s more to cheer than deride. Robert Powell is a sprightly Hannay, John Mills (in the Lucie Mannheim part, as it were) hasn’t been so good since The Family Way in 1966, and David Warner, Ronald Pickup, and Donald Pickering make an unusually striking trio of Prussian villains, mainly because they’re so English. The photography of John Coquillon doesn’t match his best work for Peckinpah but is nonetheless distinguished, and there is some genuinely phenomenal location work on what would appear to be highly recognizable and normally very busy London landmarks. (Or was the production designer even cleverer than I had supposed?) Don Sharp has been around for a long time (since the late Forties) and has vaguely the same reputation within British films that Don Siegel used to have in American films in the 1950s. Sharp has never made an Invasion of the Body Snatchers or a Riot in Cell Block 11, but he has bailed out little companies with unpromising projects more times than you could shake a stick at. Some of his work is poor (like The Face of Fu Manchu, a dim piece of 1965 campery), some of it is dull (like his Jules Verne adaptation Rocket to the Moon, aka Those Fantastic Flying Fools), and at least one of his films has to be classed with the all-time weirdos (Rasputin the Mad Monk, the only film about that gentleman to forget totally that there was some political unrest in Russia at the time). But all in all he has a noble record of doing a lot with what must have seemed a little. Of his generally obscure oeuvre, Linda (1960), The Kiss of the Vampire (Kiss of Evil, 1963), and Dark Places and Callan (both 1974) are all well worth catching on late-night TV, the only place where you might now see them. The Thirty-Nine Steps looks to be fairly posh, and its little-known producers are very likely hoping for a big box-office to project them into bigger things. Don Sharp could do with a step up to bigger things, too; now in his late fifties, he’s more or less the same age Don Siegel was when Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff gave his career such a deserved fillip.

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS
Direction: Don Sharp. Screenplay: Michael Robson, after the novel by John Buchan. Cinematography: John Coquillon. Production design: Harry Pottle. Editing: Eric Boyd-Perkins. Music: Ed Welch. Production: Greg Smith.
The players: Robert Powell, David Warner, Eric Porter, John Mills, Karen Dotrice, Ronald Pickup, Donald Pickering, Miles Anderson, Andrew Keir, George Baker, Timothy West.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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