Books and films: The Thirty-Nine Steps


(c) Gaumont-British


In late August, the Eastgate Theatre in Peebles, my hometown, gave a showing of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  That was the 1935 movie adaptation, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, of the novel of the same name written by John Buchan and published in 1915.  Although he was born in Perth, Buchan had strong links with Peebles and there is now a John Buchan Museum doing business on its High Street.


Before the film began, the audience received a short talk from Buchan’s granddaughter, Lady Deborah Stewartly, about the several film versions of The Thirty-Nine Steps – of which Hitchcock’s was the first.


It turned out that Lady Stewartly’s opinions of those films accord with my own opinions of them.  The 1935 one, which had Robert Donat in the role of the book’s adventurer-hero Richard Hannay, is the best, but there’s considerably more Hitchcock in it than there is Buchan.  The second version, made in 1959, directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Kenneth More as Hannay, is basically a colour remake of the Hitchcock movie and is pretty piss-poor.  I liked Kenneth More when he was older, with sufficient grey hairs, wrinkles and gravitas to make him an impressive character actor, but I could never understand his appeal as a young leading man in the 1950s – back then I found him dully stiff-upper-lip and wearily earnest and he was, I thought, miscast as Hannay.  The third and final movie version to date was made in 1978 by the prolific, workmanlike and underrated director Don Sharpe and starred Robert Powell as a credible Hannay.  It’s more faithful to Buchan and is fairly good, although it’s botched by an over-the-top ending, which has Powell dangling from a giant hand on the clock-face of Big Ben.


Having seen Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps again, and on a big screen, I thought it’d be interesting to dig out Buchan’s novel, re-read it and compare book and film.  I originally read the novel when I was twelve years old and wasn’t very impressed by it.  Possibly this was because at the time I’d just read four or five of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and The Thirty-Nine Steps couldn’t help but seem creaky and low-key in comparison.  With hindsight, this was a bit unfair of me, considering how Hannay is now considered one of the main prototypes for Bond and generally Fleming owes Buchan a big debt.  (It should be also noted that The Thirty-Nine Steps, with its plot about an innocent man on the run, accused of a crime he didn’t commit and pursued by police and villains alike, provides a blueprint that’d serve Hitchcock well in his later films like Saboteur, North by Northwest and Frenzy.)


(c) Penguin 


My second reading of The Thirty-Nine Steps got off to a good start, for Buchan’s opening paragraph is a cracker.  It perfectly sets the scene for what’s to follow: “I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.  I had been three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it.  If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that, I should have laughed at him, but there was the fact.  The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun.  ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”


In fact, those opening lines establish a theme that none of the film versions really capture.  When we first encounter Hannay, who has spent the past years living in Bulawayo in Rhodesia, he’s desperately bored.  He’s had a bellyful of London and its supposed sophistications and he’s desperate to return to the wide open spaces of the veld.  “I would give,” he says on page 2, “the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.”


No sooner has he decided this, of course, than he is fitted into something.  His American neighbour and spy-on-the-run Franklin Scudder turns up at his door and confides in him about a massive anarchist plot to plunge Europe into chaos and war.  (Actually, Scudder’s initial claim is that it’s a plot directed by the Jews – but later, and in time to save the story from accusations of anti-Semitism, it transpires the real villains are the Germans, itching to invade Britain before World War I gets properly going.)


Before long, Scudder is slain “with a long knife through his heart, which skewered him to the floor”, Hannay is under suspicion for his murder and, knowing that the bad guys are coming after him too, he jumps on a northbound train and attempts to go to ground in Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland.  There, Hannay admits that he “actually felt light-hearted.  I might have been a boy out for a spring holiday tramp, instead of a man of thirty-seven very much wanted by the police.  I felt just as I used to feel when I was starting for a big trek on a frosty morning on the high veld.”  Dire though Hannay’s predicament is, it’s at least provided him with the adventure that he’s missed for so long.


The adventure in Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps is strictly of the boys’ adventure variety.  The novel is sexless and women barely get a mention.  The only female characters who appear are the wife of a cattle-herd – she and her husband allow Hannay to stay in their cottage for a night and occupy the narrative for two paragraphs – and later on an old woman, another herd’s wife, who lets Hannay sit by her kitchen fire and gives him “a bowl of milk with a dash of whisky in it”.  She’s also in it for two paragraphs.


Predictably, this changed in 1935 when Hitchcock got his hands on the property.  Franklin Scudder becomes the attractive lady spy Annabella Smith, played by Lucie Mannheim, who picks up Robert Donat’s Hannay following a shooting incident at the local music hall – though before romance can blossom between the two of them, she’s murdered (the knife being administered to her back rather than through her heart).


In Hitchcock’s film the action shifts from the Southern Uplands to the Highlands, and the cattle herd who takes Hannay in for the night becomes a crofter, a flinty and untrustworthy one played by John Laurie, who later wrote the rulebook for playing dour Scotsmen when he portrayed Private Fraser in the legendary TV comedy show Dad’s Army.  His wife, meanwhile, is a young and innocent creature played by Peggy Ashcroft, who’s obviously drawn to Donat’s dashing version of Hannay – to the point where she gives him her husband’s coat just before he has to flee the police again.  The crofter’s coat contains in its breast pocket a Presbyterian hymn-book, which, later, handily stops a villain’s bullet.


Of course, the biggest example of Hitchcock sexing up Buchan’s story comes with the addition of a new character, Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who ends up handcuffed to Hannay for part of the manhunt in Scotland.  The scene where Pamela has to remove her stockings and Donat’s shackled hand gets trailed up and down her legs is a typical flourish from the plump and famously pervy director.


In the book Hannay is no lady’s man, but he’s certainly adept at the art of disguise.  In the fifth chapter, Hannay persuades a Scottish road-worker to change places with him and, when the bad guys arrive on the scene, he successfully fools them into thinking that he’s just a manual-labouring local, not the man they’re pursuing.  As he rubs road-dust into his boots, trouser-legs, neck and eyes, scrapes away the edges of his fingernails, and breaks and reties one of his boot-laces, he reflects: “I remembered an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in his day, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it.  You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it.”  That may be so, but I can’t see how the well-to-do Hannay, whose family supposedly left Scotland when he was six years old, can give his pursuers a convincing mouthful of working-class Scots when they interview him in his road-worker’s guise: “I wasna up very early…  Ye see my dochter was merrit last nicht, and we keepit up late…”


The theme of disguise resurfaces later in the book when the villains display their skills at method-acting as well.  One of them infiltrates a top meeting of defence officials at St Anne’s Gate in London disguised as Lord Alloa, the First Sea Lord.  When Hannay reveals the ruse, someone splutters, “Do you mean to tell me that that man came here and sat beside me for the best part of half an hour and I didn’t detect the imposture?”


And at the end of the book, instead of the expected action-packed climax – Hitchcock has it happen back in the London music hall, where it turns out that the villains are using the photographic-memory act, Mr Memory, to store top-secret information – there’s an unsettling episode where Hannay bursts into a middle-class household on the southern-England coast, by the top of thirty-nine steps that descend to the sea.  Hannay believes that Britain’s military secrets will be conveyed down those steps, from the house, to a rendezvous with a German ship.  He finds himself in the presence of three men who appear to be respectable, golf-and-tennis-loving English businessmen with names like Bob and Percy and who wear “the colours of some club or school”.  Indeed, he begins to wonder if they are the villains in disguise and not authentic members of the middle class: “It couldn’t be acting, it was too confoundedly genuine.  My heart went into my boots, and my first impulse was to apologize and clear out…  There was nothing in their appearance to prevent them being the three who had hunted me in Scotland, but there was nothing to identify them.”


(It doesn’t help Hannay’s mission here that he professes himself entirely ignorant of the English middle class: “A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower…  But what fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs.”  To be uncharitable to Hannay, you might say he doesn’t understand the layer of society that isn’t as wealthy as he is, but also isn’t poor enough to have to work as his servants.)


For me, this recurrent theme of disguise, play-acting and deception is what gives Buchan’s book a special flavour and, nearly one hundred years on, makes it seem a little more than a run-of-the-mill adventure yarn.  However, Hitchcock – who in 1960 would direct one of cinema’s most cunning essays about the art of disguise, Psycho – ignores this theme and concentrates on making his Thirty Steps purely an adventure yarn, if a very good one.  He does, I have to say, invest the plot with a little more logic than Buchan did.  I may have missed an important piece of information in the book, but I can’t for the life of me understand how Hannay, on the run for days across the moors of south-west Scotland, can suddenly stumble across a farming estate that’s actually the villains’ headquarters, compete with a storeroom full of explosives and “an oval of green turf… like a big cricket field” that’s used as a secret airfield.


In Hitchcock’s movie, Annabella Smith expires clutching a map of Scotland with a particular location on it encircled, and it’s to this area that Hannay makes his way.  Thus, we know that the foreign agents are hiding out there.  In the book, the fact that Hannay – who could have holed up in any part of Britain – discovers their lair seems like a colossal coincidence.


Buchan strains credibility further by inserting another wild coincidence into the story (which again isn’t in the Hitchcock film).  Whilst on the run, Hannay bumps into an acquaintance called Marmaduke Jopley – “a sort of blood stockbroker, who did his business by toadying eldest sons and rich young peers and foolish old ladies”, and who “was an offence to creation.”  In fact, Jopley’s touring car appears “by an amazing chance” on a lonely moorland road just after Hannay’s been in disguise as the road-worker, and he has no qualms about hijacking the car for a couple of pages.  All these coincidences leave one with the impression that a century ago Dumfries and Galloway was quite the happening place.