One Spy to Another: The 39 Steps



I can’t name the first Hitchcock movie I ever saw. I’ve loved him for so long it’s impossible to say where my obsession began. But I can name the last one I watched: The 39 Steps. Being #20 in the holds list at my local library for Psycho sort of bumped it off my article possibilities list and I haven’t watched The Birds in so long that I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice anyway. Plus, it might be too macabre. So the idea was presented to me for a comparison between Hitchcock’s 39 Steps and the 2008 film starring Rupert Penry-Jones. Why not? Thus began my examination.

The story of The 39 Steps is of a Londoner, Richard Hannay, who finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in German espionage in England during the 1st world war. Unless we’re talking Hitchcock, then he’s a Canadian tourist to London and it’s a precursor to the 2nd world war. You say po-ta-TOE and I say po-TA-toe. The era doesn’t really matter. Hitchcock’s Hannay visits a London music hall where gunshots are heard and general panic ensues. In the mayhem, Hannay acquires a lovely young woman with a German accent who pleads for his assistance. What else could a gentleman do but take her home? It also helps that she has a gun. To make a long story short and so I don’t give away all the details, this woman is killed for information she’s trying to protect about a naval secret. She gives Hannay a name before dying and he heads to Scotland in the hopes of finding some answers and stopping the Germans from their nefarious plot against England.

The best part about the first 39 Steps is how it’s so classically Hitchcock before he even was that classic Hitchcock. When distributed in 1935, he was a relative unknown at this juncture. But the movie still has everything that made Hitchcock such a fantastic director. Prone to the innocent man in a world of trouble motif, the character of Richard Hannay was his very first attempt at that theme. Cinematically, the movie is very much in the mid-1930s with a semi-decent budget yet he still managed to film some incredible cinematography that is very much in keeping with his style.

Take, for example, the scene on the train. Yes, Hitchcock has always loved trains, from The Lady Vanishes to Strangers on a Train. This is another of his motifs he used more than once. There’s a scene where Hannay’s hanging from a train car while desperate and evil men pursue him. While the scene might not be much by today’s standards, the special effects were stellar then. I’m not even completely sure how he managed that scene and I watched it more than once.

It might have been a mistake to watch Hitchcock’s movie first. I found myself comparing practically everything in the new film to the way Hitchcock presented it. That’s never a good idea because I fear the 2008 film fell short of my expectations. I’m not sure what I was hoping for but I guess it was another Hitchcock. Admittedly, neither Hitchcock’s version nor the 2008 version are much like the novel by John Buchan. Each deviates in different ways. For example Hannay encountered more than one woman on his journey and never fell in love with any of them so there was no main love interest as in the 2008 version. He also wasn’t a visitor from Canada and the person that started the ball rolling by getting murdered in his flat was not a woman but a man named Scudder which the 2008 version does have and Hitchcock’s did not.

If there’s one thing to be said for the 2008 version, it’s that the plot is more cohesive. I did struggle a bit with Hitchcock’s film, which rarely happens to me. The version with Rupert Penry-Jones felt more manageable as plots go. The characterization of Hannay is a likeable guy made even more likeable when he decides to risk life and limb for king and country. He’s somewhat disillusioned by his government but this adventure reawakens his patriotic feelings towards England. And that’s very encouraging. The heroine is charming and the ending, while very different from Hitchcock’s, seems to make more sense on an intuitive level. The plot can be more easily followed than Hitchcock’s. The cinematography is good but not spectacular and I was expecting the latter. After I’d been so impressed with the setting and filming of Hitchcock’s version this one was a little bit of a disappointment.

The question all boils down to this: what type of movie do you want to watch? If you want the cinematic genius of Alfred Hitchcock his 39 Steps fits the bill perfectly. The lead actor Robert Donat delivers snarky lines with dark comedic timing and he’s just plain fun from the moment he steals a kiss on the train to the entire last half of the movie where he and the female lead played by Madeleine Carroll are handcuffed together. This is Hitchcock at a very singular moment in his career, perhaps the moment when he started becoming the Hitchcock audiences grew to love and appreciate for generations to come.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denouncing the 2008 39 Steps. I was entertained and enjoyed the movie. If I’d seen it first I would have loved it, but being such a rabid Hitchcock aficionado the version I’m salivating to re-watch has Robert Donat slogging through the Scottish countryside with an angry heroine handcuffed to his side. I guess the snark won me over. ■


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carissa Horton sews, knits, and writes. She works for Compassion International, which finds sponsors for third world children, and dreams of being an agent at a publishing house. She blogs about life, faith, relationships, and fandom in her free time.


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