Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps has been praised by many critics for its witty dark comedy, its atmospheric handling of different settings, and for some fetching performances, especially that of the star, Robert Donat. Donat plays an innocent man accused of a murder on the run from both the police and the group of spies who are actually guilty. While the plot borders on the silly at times, the film has a kind of innocent charm—with Madeleine Carroll and Donat chastely handcuffed together in an old Scottish inn and its dark scenic shots of the chase through the Scottish countryside, not to mention Donat's bravura impromptu speech before a political rally and the shooting at the Palladium with the villain jumping to the stage a la John Wilkes Booth. And, of course there is the iconic image of the woman's scream merging into the whistle of the railroad train carrying the fleeing Donat.
Still despite the fairly positive criticism of this early work by one of filmdom's great directors, The 39 Steps is a film ripe for remake. Although the plot does have its moments, it has its problems as well. Character motivation is an issue. The plot can be somewhat confusing, and the climactic revelation is something of a letdown. Moreover, the script is quite an embellishment on the actual source material. So it is not surprising that it was revisited in 1959 in color and then again in 1978. The latter is the version that is credited with being closest to the source.
Now comes a 2008 BBC adaptation newly available on DVD. This version stars Rupert Penry-Jones as the innocent on the run and Lydia Leonard as his companion in flight and unlikely love interest, and while closer to the novel than the Hitchcock, it probably takes more liberties than the 1978 film. Overall this new adaptation emphasizes the thriller aspects of the story; there is a lot more gunplay, an airplane attack, and some tumbling down hillsides in front of oncoming cars, just the kind of thing we have come to expect from modern action heroes chasing spies. There is less of the dark comedy that distinguishes the 1935 adaptation, and what there is lacks the Hitchcock charm. There are certainly some beautifully filmed scenes of the Scottish countryside. Location shots of Scottish castles and manors are excellent. Most importantly, the plot is not quite as far-fetched, and most of what is most difficult to swallow is explained by surprise revelations, which is better than nothing.
There are some nice little bits of homage to Hitchcock: some shots of running legs, a shot of the two killer spies from the rear dressed in coats and fedoras, and a merging of a little girl screaming and the attempts to start cranking a car motor (which seems to echo the classic railroad whistle/scream from North by Northwest). But for the most part, this is its own movie. It does a fine job of evoking the feeling of pre-WWI England, beginning with the stuffy London men's club and the Scottish manor house to an accurate portrayal of the British attitudes to the Germans before the beginning of the war. Although as it was pointed out when the film first aired there were quite a few historical blunders in the film's use of planes with machine guns and trains which were not available in 1914.
Performances reek with BBC restraint. Penry-Jones is dashing and noble as Richard Hannnay the bored engineer newly returned from Africa unhappy in stuffy old London who learns, under duress, to value his country. Every once in awhile he meanders towards James Bond, but he never really gets there. Lydia Leonard's Victoria Sinclair is a modern woman looking for a greater role in the world and capable of taking on that greater role. She is less a damsel in distress than a reliable partner in crime. Although some complain that she is an unnecessary addition to the original. Patrick Malahide is the gentleman villain, ruthless but understated. Eddie Marsan, Inspector Lestrade in the new Sherlock Holmes film, plays Scudder, the spy who sets everything in motion when he runs into Hannay's apartment and gives him the code book before he gets killed.
While there is nothing especially memorable about this remake of The 39 Steps, there is no Mr. Memory shot at the Palladium, there is no one hanging from the hands of Big Ben, the DVD does provide a pleasantly entertaining hour and a half.
I might add, although it has nothing to do with the film, the DVD does contain a very clever advertisement for BBC America. Don't skip it.
The 39 Steps premieres on PBS's Masterpiece Classic on February 28th. Check your local listings.