The Thirty-Nine Steps

Movie Information

In Brief: Often touted as being a faithful adaptation of John Buchan's novel, Don Sharp's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978) — the only version of the story where 39 is spelled out — might better be called "more faithful than the earlier versions." As a film, it's not in the same universe as Hitchcock's 1935 version, but it's slick fun that seems more inclined to want to cash in on the popularity of the Agatha Christie films than anything else – but with a lot less budget. Robert Powell makes a good lead — though he lacks the humor of Robert Donat in the Hitchcock film — and the rest of the cast certainly help. The most distinctive aspect of this version may be the decision to play it like a thrill comedy, especially in its climax with Powell dangling from the face of Big Ben. The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Thirty-Nine Steps Sunday, Oct. 12, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Genre: Mystery Thriller
Director: Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire)
Starring: Robert Powell, David Warner, Eric Porter, Karen Dotrice, John Mills, Ronald Pickup
Rated: PG

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Yes, Don Sharp’s version of The Thirty-Nine Steps keeps the novel’s 1914 period, and, yes, it retains more of the incidents from the novel than does Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), but it’s hardly a faithful rendering of John Buchan’s book. It’s also neither as stylish, nor as much fun as Hitchcock’s classic. It is, however, a nice little film with a good cast that presents the story more in terms of a thrill comedy than an outright suspense thriller. Think of it as the story done as if it starred Harold Lloyd. There’s easily as much comedy here as in Hitchcock’s film, but it’s off a different, more, frankly, slapstick kind — but slapstick mixed with genuine peril.


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Robert Powell stars as Hannay — the innocent man on the run for a murder he didn’t commit (the murder itself owes much to North by Northwest, which was essentially Hitch’s ultimate take on the concept). He lacks the easy charisma of Robert Donat, but makes for an agreeable hero. That the bad guys are played by the likes of David Warner and Ronald Pickup (viewers may recognize him as the sex-obsessed occupant of 2011’s The Best Marigold Hotel) helps. The biggest drawback — other than pretty much blowing the political meeting scene — is that the movie wants to be on a par with the big budget Agatha Christie movies of the same era and the money just isn’t there. The film makes a game try, though, even if too much of it relies on economical scenes of Hannay running around in the woods. (Ed Welch’s too cute score, on the other hand, sounds like an ersatz Ron Goodwin score from the 1960s Miss Marple movies.)


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There are a few pretty great thrill scenes, starting with Hannay dangling under a railway bridge, moving on to a drugged Hannay taking a wild ride in a wheelchair, and finally moving on to the film’s big scene on Big Ben. American viewers probably take this big scene as something out of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), but it’s actually taken from the 1943 British-made Will Hay comedy My Learned Friend which also offered its hero (Hay) dangling from the hands of the famous clock. (But, hey, mightn’t this be where Hitch got the idea for Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint clinging to Mount Rushmore?) It’s handled a bit more seriously here — and a bit more realistically — providing the film with a bang-up ending.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Thirty-Nine Steps Sunday, Oct. 12, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps

  1. One for the useless trivia stakes – the film features two Professor Moriartys, one Dr Watson, one Barrymore and one Sherlock Holmes.

  2. David Warner played Sherlock Holmes in an audio drama production of the William Gillette play a few years back.
    Eric Porter played Moriarty in the 80s UK TV series that starred Jeremy Brett as Holmes.
    Ronald Pickup played Moriarty in the 90s BBC Radio adaptation of THE VALLEY OF FEAR and Barrymore in the Jeremy Brett THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.
    And John Mills played Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes in a TV movie called THE MASKS OF DEATH.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Radio and TV…and you wonder why these didn’t leap to my non-Holmes obsessed mind?

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