39 STEPS, THE - DVD review

It does a respectable job not only with the story's adventure but with its humor.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

In 1935 Alfred Hitchcock made the definitive film version of Scottish author John Buchan's 1915 adventure novel "The 39 Steps." Since then, there have been two more big-screen adaptations, a TV movie, and a possible upcoming film. The one we're considering here is the second, 1959 movie version, made by the British Rank Organization in widescreen and color. One can see from all the film renditions why the story became a template for later Hitchcock films like "North By Northwest" and why it even influenced Ian Fleming and the Bond books and movies.

When Buchan wrote the novel, he called it a "shocker," by which he meant a story with an improbable plot and characters, where the author never really expected his readers to believe fully in the events, just to accept and enjoy them. It's what we have come today to call a thriller or an action-adventure, and it's practically a mainstay of the movie industry. No, Buchan didn't invent the idea, but he did help popularize it.

The 1959 film doesn't stay any more true to Buchan's original novel than Hitchcock's film did, and, in fact, it pretty much duplicates Hitchcock's film without quite the puckish touch of the master director. Still, the newer movie has Ralph Thomas at the helm, the fellow who gave us all those "Doctor" comedies ("Doctor in the House," "Doctor at Sea," "Doctor at Large," "Doctor in Love," etc.). So, yeah, there is still more than a little tongue-in-cheek humor involved. Again, think of "North By Northwest" or the Sean Connery or Roger Moore Bonds.

The story line of "The 39 Steps" concerns an average, ordinary, innocent man wrongly accused of a crime he knows nothing about and then pursued by baddies and police alike, a man with nowhere to turn, who must survive by his wits alone. The man is Richard Hannay, a character whose popularity in "The 39 Steps" resulted in his starring in four more Buchan novels.

In this one, English actor Kenneth More plays Hannay. While More is no Robert Donat, the actor who had starred earlier, he is appropriately genial, happy-go-lucky, and nonchalant in the role. He doesn't take the movie or its exaggerated goings-on any more seriously than the director does, both of them remembering to play it with lighthearted panache.

Anyway, Hannay is walking along in the park one day, minding his own business, when he encounters a nanny (Faith Brook) pushing a baby carriage. Suddenly, as the nanny is crossing a street, a car runs her down, apparently trying purposely to kill her. The car rushes on, and an ambulance comes to take the nanny away. But she's left her purse behind, and Hannay, always the gentleman, decides to find her and return it. Alas, she's left the hospital by the time he arrives, and he must find her in some other way. He notices she has tickets to a music-hall show, so he shows up there, hoping to run into her. He does, they meet, and they return to his apartment, where she proceeds to tell him she's a spy, and the people who tried to run her down are still attempting to kill her, led by a man with part of his little finger missing. It's an assignment at which the enemy spies are successful, and when Hannay leaves the living room and returns, he finds the nanny dead, with a knife in her back.

Hannay's problem? The police think he did it. With the police and the enemy spies pursuing him, Hannay heads for the only place he thinks he might be able to unravel the mystery and clear his name: Scotland, which he figures out from a map in the dead woman's purse.

So it's off we go, as Hannay traverses the countryside by train, car, bicycle, and foot, going the length and breadth of Scotland trying to find the three-fingered man. Along the way, of course, he meets a beautiful young woman, with whom he shares his quest. She's Ms. Fisher, a teacher at a girls' school chaperoning a group of students. Unlike Madeleine Carroll in the Hitchcock movie, Finnish actress Taina Elg plays the heroine in a more serious, schoolmarmish manner, failing to light up the screen quite the way Ms. Carroll did. The movie also fails to explain why her character speaks in a Finnish accent.

The 1959 movie follows the general outline of the Hitchcock film and the Buchan novel, adding a few new wrinkles, new characters, and new action, while cutting short on other elements. Nevertheless, neither the Hitchcock movie nor the newer one ends the way the book does. No matter: The newer leads are appealing; director Thomas keeps the story moving at a commendable pace; the location shooting in London and Scotland adds to the movie's credibility and its visual pleasure; and Clifton Parker's musical score is mostly frothy and light, with a sense of high purpose in the more melodramatic interludes.

This "39 Steps" is trivial fare, to be sure, yet for fans of the action-comedy genre, it has its moments and makes a worthy successor to the more delightful Hitchcock rendering. On a trivia note, the Rank Organization made this film the same year Hitchcock made "North By Northwest," with both films following practically the same theme. I'm not suggesting a qualitative comparison here, just making a casual observation.

VCI Entertainment digitally restored the film and transferred it to DVD in something near its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, here rendered at 1.78:1, anamorphic, enhanced for widescreen TV's. The restoration does a good job cleaning up any signs of age deterioration, with nary a fleck, speck, line, or fade in sight. It also renders colors quite well, with reasonably deep black levels and natural facial tones. Its only weakness is a degree of softness throughout, a minor bleed-through; close-ups look detailed enough, but medium and long shots appear slightly blurred. Still, given the film's age, the video looks fine.

The disc offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix as an alternative to its default monaural soundtrack. However, you have to look for the 5.1 track under the disc's extras and change it at start-up unless you want to miss out on the better audio. The mono track sounds somewhat pinched and nasal, with a limited frequency response and little impact. The multichannel sound is smoother, with a wider front-channel spread. Both tracks are clear and clean, but neither one offers anything really substantial in the rear channels.

For bonus materials, you'll find the aforementioned 5.1 audio track, plus a widescreen theatrical trailer, a four-and-a-half minute, black-and-white photo gallery, and twelve scene selections.

Parting Thoughts:
This 1959 version of "The 39 Steps" is a laudable attempt to translate both the novel and the Hitchcock film to screen in improved picture and sound. If it lacks the master's impish touch, that is something we might have expected. Nevertheless, it does a respectable job not only with the story's adventure but with its humor, never, as I've said, taking itself too seriously. It's worth a look.


Film Value