Film Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978)

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The third adaptation of John Buchan’s classic pre-WWI set thriller is still the only version I’ve ever seen, and it’s apparently the one closest to the novel, even if general consensus remains that Hitchcock’s adaptation is the best. When I was at school, there were these small books that were novelisations of films from the 1970’s, crammed with stills and a condensing of the text that in retrospect, toned down the violence these PG rated films originally had. Films I remember being adapted were Silver Streak, Jaws 2, The Poseidon Adventure, Rollercoaster and this, so The Thirty-Nine Steps was one film that I knew nearly inside out before actually having watched it. One bit I couldn’t wait to see played out on screen was the finale on the clockface of Big Ben, which remains the most famous element of this film by a long shot.

England, 1914. War is just around the corner, and John Mills’ retired spy Colonel Scudder stumbles onto a plot to assassinate the Greek prime minister on his upcoming visit to London. Both of the high-ranking government-types he tells this to are murdered, and Scudder’s next in line, so he passes on his knowledge (but not too much, that would give away the plot) to the mining engineer who lives in the same block of flats as him. Yes, it’s Jesus himself – Robert Powell as Richard Hannay! What follows is a good old race against time, not to mention a flee from danger, as the two Prussian agents hired to track Hannay down are a right pair of menacing bastards. They used to scare me when I was little. Played by Ronald Pickup and Donald Pickering (the casting agent must have been feeling especially picky that day), they’re not by any means sadistic but they have absolutely no qualms in killing anyone who gets in their way. Their boss is played by David Warner, who is rarely ever a nice guy in cinema, and he establishes his credentials by greeting a man in a fog-strewn alley by killing him with a sword! This could almost be a lively romp were it not for the constant air of danger – director Don Sharp handles the suspense pretty well, especially in the opening act and climax. Ah yes, Big Ben. Apart from a few obvious back-projection shots, the sequence of Hannay hanging off the minute hand of the clock is pretty spectacular and exciting. You can’t beat a bit of hgh-altitude action for a nail-biting finale – Back to the Future did it, this did it….there are plenty more, I’m sure.

It’s not by any means perfect – the romantic subplot is pretty perfunctory, and the plot obstacle of a third-party (in this case an actually very nice fiance who’s bethrothed to the film’s single female character, poorly referred to by most parties as ‘the girl’) isn’t resolved with anything approaching sensitvity or realism. This is also the kind of film where a prisoner can feign a panic attack or whatnot and the stupid guard actually enters the cell unarmed so that he can be smacked unconscious with a heavy object. Then again, it’s also the kind of PG-rated film where we see someone shot in the head in the first ten minutes. You’d never get away with that these days. Robert Powell has such a fragile, precise, almost fey handsomeness that I can’t imagine you’d see in a modern-day blockbuster – he’s an arrogant character at times, but he’s played very well, and even with a dash of humour. I particularly liked the sequence when he’s been incapacitated and can only communicate via head movements (and in one hilarious bit, with his eyes). The film looks good thanks to its countryside locations, the music has the espionage atmosphere down pat and it mostly moves along at a fine old pace. Maybe the mostly straight-faced approach and stiff upper-lip demeanour results in a thriller that only very occasionally lets itself rip, but I for one liked its old-fashionedness. Besides, that ending is worthy of any big 1970’s blockbuster.

PS: The film’s none-more-1970’s credits font is more or less identical to the one director Don Sharp used for his cult classic horror Psychomania.

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