39 Steps, The (1959 with Kenneth More and Taina Elg)

UK / 1959

Director: Ralph Thomas
Writer: Frank Harvey (based on John Buchan’s novel)
Cast: Kenneth More, Taina Elg, Brenda De Banzie, Barry Jones, Reginald Beckwith, Faith Brook, Michael Goodliffe, James Hayter, Duncan Lamont, Jameson Clark, Andrew Cruikshank, Leslie Dwyer, Betty Henderson, Joan Hickson, Sidney James, Brian Oulton

Ralph Thomas’s film is the least well-known of three cinematic versions of John Buchan’s ripping chase yarn. And yet, as Variety assures, it, “should not disappoint those who remember the (Hitchcock) original with affection.”

Englishman, Richard Hannay (Kenneth More), is swept into a deadly plot when a government agent posing as a nanny (Faith Brook) turns up at his London flat, garbles something about uncovering a treacherous plot to smuggle top-secret defence information out of the country, and promptly dies. She’s been fatally stabbed by assassins working for the international spy ring behind the smuggling operation.

Framed for the murder, Hannay has only 48 hours to save himself and possibly many others by solving the riddle of The 39 Steps – the nanny’s enigmatic dying words. With police and villains in hot pursuit, Hannay’s investigations take him on a wild romp around the Scottish moors as he pits his wits against evil ringleader, Professor Logan (Barry Jones), and becomes entangled with pretty schoolmistress Fisher (Taina Elg), before returning to London for the gripping climactic denouement.

Less an adaptation of Buchan’s book than a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, the 1959 version borrows many of Hitch’s narrative inventions, most notably the creation of a romantic foil for Hannay (Fisher) and the couple’s handcuffed flight across the picturesque Caledonian countryside. A potentially foolish approach, perhaps, seeing as the original film is so fondly regarded. But director Thomas and script-writer, Frank Harvey, pulled it off by lightening the heavy suspense of Hitchcock’s work. As Variety noted: “The film starts off brilliantly with tremendous tension and a suitably sinister atmosphere. After a while that mood wears off as the pic settles down to an exciting and often amusing chase yarn.”

The casting of More works a treat. At the peak of his career, he is as engaging and amiable as ever.

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