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Classic Films, Films

The 39 Steps: 1959 film adaptation

Not every hero has to possess the suave charm of James Bond or the action potential of a Marvel comic strip; some of the easiest characters to love are the ones who reek of normality and wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) is definitely part of this brigade, and he manages to carry the entire film of the 39 Steps with his apologetic stuntman routine and his determination to do the right thing, no matter what. We meet him as your everyday Londoner: a kind-hearted bloke who helps out a woman in need (okay, maybe not the stereotypical capital dweller, but let’s not nitpick). He soon becomes embroiled in a network of lies and disguises, where you can trust nobody and you must act on your instincts, and things truly seem to spiral when he meets the delectable schoolteacher, Fisher (Taina Elg).

So, what’s so great about this version compared to the numerous others that are available? For a start, the character of Fisher is really well fleshed out and there’s lots of detail in the school-related scenes which really allow Hannay’s personality to develop. Other female characters are well drawn and this doesn’t feel like a ‘boys only’ adventure, which many spy thrillers unfortunately can. The comedic atmosphere is most highlighted when Hannay is trying to make a getaway on a bicycle in a very embarrassing ‘holiday’ look of small blue shorts and a fairly tight t-shirt, which is in strong contrast to his natural outfits of suits and smart shirts. He also seems less restrained than in other adaptations, which is refreshing as you begin to like him even more when he loses his shell of sensibility and begins to dive behind objects and outwit his enemies like a moderately impressive professional (it wouldn’t work if he was perfect).

Why would I recommend this film? It’s fun and watchable, but very clever – you don’t feel like you’ve wasted an hour and a half doing nothing. You can become involved with the protagonists and jeer as the (very two-dimensionally portrayed) baddies turn up to cause further problems. It’s also a film that transcends age range and genre, as it could be both a gripping adult tale and a breezy Sunday afternoon watch. The beauty of viewing any adaptation is that the 39 Steps themselves tend to mean slightly different things in each one, including the original novel by John Buchan, although all definitions are linked to a dangerous spy ring. This means that there’s always a twist to keep even the person who’s read the book and seen the 1935 Hitchcock offering on their toes. And let’s face it: seeing the everyman figure saving the country is pretty inspiring.

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About Polly

I'm a journalist, based near Brighton. This blog, which is separate from my professional life, will document my reaction to current affairs, as well as some personal projects.

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