|The Thirty Nine Steps|
Original British cinema poster by Vic Fair
|Directed by||Don Sharp|
|Produced by||Greg Smith|
|Written by||Michael Robson|
|Based on|| The Thirty-Nine Steps |
by John Buchan
|Starring|| Robert Powell |
|Music by||Ed Welch|
Norfolk International Pictures
|Distributed by||The Rank Organisation|
|Budget||$2 million or £1.5 million|
|Box office||$10 million (outside US as at April 1980) |
The Thirty Nine Steps[ sic ] is a British 1978 thriller film directed by Don Sharp, with screenplay by British playwright Michael Robson, based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It was the third film version of the 1915 novel.
This version of Buchan's tale starred Robert Powell as Richard Hannay, Karen Dotrice as Alex, John Mills as Colonel Scudder, and a host of other well-known British actors in smaller parts. It is generally regarded as the closest to the novel, being set before the Great War. The early events and overall feel of the film bear much resemblance to Buchan's original story, albeit with a few changes such as the re-casting of Scudder as a more immediately sympathetic character and the introduction of a love interest. It also introduces a different meaning for the "thirty-nine steps", although unlike its filmed predecessors it returns to Buchan's original notion of being an actual staircase. It is known for the Big Ben sequence near the end, inspired by the film My Learned Friend (1943) starring Will Hay, although this is its most fundamental deviation from Buchan's original story, which reaches its culmination in a coastal location in Kent.
Powell later reprised the role in the ITV series Hannay which ran for 13 episodes from 1988 to 1989.
In 1914, German spies are everywhere in London. After a spate of assassinations of important British politicians, a retired British intelligence officer, Colonel Scudder, realises his life and his mysterious black notebook are in danger. He turns to Richard Hannay, a mining engineer who is visiting Britain for a short time before returning to South Africa, who happens to be staying in a flat in the same building. Scudder tells Hannay of a plot by Prussian (German) 'sleeper' agents, who are planning to precipitate a war against the Triple Entente powers by assassinating the Greek prime minister visiting the UK.
Hannay reluctantly gives Scudder shelter in his flat, despite his initial distrust of him. In the morning, Hannay leaves to purchase a train ticket to his family hometown, the village of Strathallan in Scotland, while Scudder remains at work on his notes in the flat. When the Prussian agents attempt to enter the flat, Scudder flees down the fire escape but he is spotted. Posting a package containing his secret notebook in a pillar box, Scudder flees to the St Pancras railway station, where he knows Hannay will be, to give him a second black book.
At the railway station, just seconds before he can reach Hannay, Scudder is murdered by the agents. With his dying breath he gives Hannay a message he doesn't understand. Hannay is mistaken by witnesses at the railway station as being the assailant and is arrested but is soon captured by the Prussians while being transferred to jail. During their interrogation of Hannay, they ask what he knows of the "Thirty Nine Steps". The Prussians allow him to escape in the hope he will lead them to the secret notebook. At St Pancras, Hannay manages to find Scudder's second notebook, but this turns out to be a dummy, with only a three-word riddle in it. Only Hannay can understand the riddle, which sends him to Scotland to find the real notebook. Hannay flees to Scotland on a train, but he is forced to make a daredevil escape on a bridge when the police board.
Hannay attempts to solve the mystery whilst on the run from the police, led by Chief Supt Lomas (Eric Porter), and the Prussian agents, led by Sir Edmund Appleton, a Prussian sympathiser highly placed in the British government.
On the Scottish moors Hannay, claiming to be on the run as part of a wager, meets Alex Mackenzie and her fiance, David Hamilton. On the run again, Hannay has to pose as a Liberal Party orator and ad lib a speech at an election husting. He indicates the identity of the Prussian agents to Alex Mackenzie and David Hamilton and with their help Scudder's book is found, but Hamilton is killed by the Prussians. The coded information is partly deciphered and the true plans of the Prussian agents are revealed. The agents intend to murder the visiting Greek Prime Minister by planting a bomb in parliament, thus leading to unrest in the Balkans and causing a world war. The "Thirty Nine Steps" refers to the number of stairs in the clock tower of Big Ben (from "Lauderdale Door to the clock itself").
When the police and Hannay reach the top of the clock tower, the agents have already planted the bomb and have locked the clock room. Hannay realises that the bomb is to be set off by the clock at 11.45am. To give the police more time, Hannay breaks the glass of the clock-face, climbs out onto the face of the clock and physically stops the minute hand as it moves towards the figure IX. By hanging from the end of the minute hand, Hannay manages to jam the clock at 11.44am long enough for the police to break into the clock room where they kill the remaining spies and deactivate the bomb. The clock mechanism stops working and the clock's minute hand falls into a vertical position, but Hannay hangs on and one of the officers saves him with a looped rope. Lomas recognises a River Police uniform and at the docks Hannay and other officers capture Appleton, who had also stolen details of the deployment of all Royal Navy ships.
Sir Edmund Appleton is convicted of treason and Richard Hannay is declared a hero for helping Britain gain valuable time to prepare for the Great War. In the closing shot, Hannay is shown walking arm in arm with Alex Mackenzie.
Producer Greg Smith said he wanted to make the film because he had always been a fan of John Buchan's books and wanted to do a version of The Thirty-Nine Steps which was "true to the period in which the novel was set, just prior to the Great War, when Europe was one huge powderkeg and nobody knew what a world war was."
Smith claimed "the Hitchcock version was about 20 percent Buchan and 80 percent Hitchcock. Our goal was to turn it around and make the film 80 percent Buchan and 20 percent invention."Smith chose Sharp to direct "because he's one of Britain's best action adventure directors and he was familiar with the period." Sharp had recently shot a remake of The Four Feathers.
Robert Powell was cast in part because of his success in the mini series Jesus of Nazareth . The script did add a romantic interest for Hannay, played by Karen Dotrice. "You can't make a movie without women", said Smith. "You can't go through life without women."
The film added a new climax with Hannay climbing on to Big Ben. Smith:
In the book, the 39 steps lead down to a beach and filmically there is not much you can do with that. Today, audiences demand more of a grandstand finish. That was the major liberty we took – the ending. People can say, 'You're not being true to the ending,' as they stay away by the millions... [Big Ben was chosen for the end] because it was an analogy we were working for – Europe was a time bomb in 1914. And we figured that the centre of European politics would undoubtedly have been the House of Commons. So we thought, 'Why not finish the film in the political seat of Britain?'
The film was the first in a series of films financed by Tony Williams at the Rank Organisation which was (temporarily as it turned out) increasing its film production in the late '70s.
"You have to go back in time to tell a story that doesn't have to face '70s problems", said Williams in 1978. "What people are nostalgic for isn't necessarily any particular period, but the happier values that are missing today."
Williams defended the idea of adapting a previously adapted novel:
The old films suffer technically against today's. The pace of modern films is much faster. The style of acting is different. Those old actors were marvelous, but if you consult the man in the street, he's more interested in seeing a current artist than someone who's been dead for years.
A replica of the clock was built at Pinewood Studios. Powell recalls that although in a controlled environment, he was still hanging at a significant height above the studio floor.The idea of Hannay dangling from the hands of Big Ben came in part from a stunt performed by Harold Lloyd in the silent comedy classic Safety Last (1923). The privately owned Severn Valley Railway loaned the film a steam engine, together with rolling stock and a section of track, for shooting.
A soundtrack album was released on United Artists Records. In addition to cues from the film, Ed Welch composed The Thirty Nine Steps Concerto, an extended piece for piano and orchestra in a vein similar to Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto . Christopher Headington was the soloist, with the Rank Studio Orchestra conducted by the composer. It has not yet reappeared on CD.
The film was one of the most popular movies of 1979 at the British box office.
Greg Smith said that John Buchan's son, Lord Tweedsmuir, was pleased the film used more of his father's book, and that he thought his father would have liked the Big Ben ending.
Safety Last! is a 1923 American silent romantic comedy film starring Harold Lloyd. It includes one of the most famous images from the silent film era: Lloyd clutching the hands of a large clock as he dangles from the outside of a skyscraper above moving traffic. The film was highly successful and critically hailed, and it cemented Lloyd's status as a major figure in early motion pictures. It is still popular at revivals, and it is viewed today as one of the great film comedies.
John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir was a Scottish novelist, historian, and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada, the 15th since Canadian Confederation.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure novel by the Scottish author John Buchan. It first appeared as a serial in Blackwood's Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. It is the first of the five novels featuring Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of tricky situations.
Robert Powell is an English actor who is known for the title roles in Mahler (1974) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and for his portrayal of secret agent Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps (1978) and its subsequent spinoff television series. Other major screen roles have included Tobias "Toby" Wren in the BBC science-fiction programme Doomwatch (1970), David Briggs in the sitcom The Detectives (1993–1997) alongside Jasper Carrott, and Mark Williams in the medical drama Holby City (2005–2011).
Greenmantle is the second of five novels by John Buchan featuring the character of Richard Hannay, first published in 1916 by Hodder & Stoughton, London. It is one of two Hannay novels set during the First World War, the other being Mr Standfast (1919); Hannay's first and best-known adventure, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), is set in the period immediately preceding the war.
Major-General Sir Richard Hannay, KCB, OBE, DSO, is a fictional character created by Scottish novelist John Buchan and further made popular by the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, very loosely based on Buchan's 1915 novel of the same name. In his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, Buchan suggests that the character is based, in part, on Edmund Ironside, from Edinburgh, a spy during the Second Boer War.
Mr Standfast is the third of five Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan, first published in 1919 by Hodder & Stoughton, London.
David Robb is a Scottish actor.
The Three Hostages is the fourth of five Richard Hannay novels by Scottish author John Buchan, first published in 1924 by Hodder & Stoughton, London.
The 39 Steps is a 1935 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It is very loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It concerns an everyman civilian in London, Richard Hannay, who becomes caught up in preventing an organisation of spies called "The 39 Steps" from stealing British military secrets. After being mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland and becomes tangled up with an attractive woman while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name.
The 39 Steps is a 1959 British thriller film directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Kenneth More and Taina Elg. Produced by Betty Box, it is a remake of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, loosely based on the 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
Ludovic "Sandy" Gustavus Arbuthnot, later 16th Lord Clanroyden is a fictional character who appears in various books by John Buchan in the Richard Hannay series. These books include Greenmantle, The Three Hostages, The Courts of the Morning, and The Island of Sheep, but not the first in the series, The Thirty-Nine Steps. He also appears in The League of Heroes by Xavier Mauméjean. His particular expertise is in adopting disguises which completely take in Hannay, the "friend [he] knows best in the world".
Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the striking clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster; the name is frequently extended to refer to both the clock and the clock tower. The official name of the tower in which Big Ben is located was originally the Clock Tower; it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom.
Karen Dotrice is a British actress, known primarily for her role as Jane Banks in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins, the feature film adaptation of the Mary Poppins book series. Dotrice was born in Guernsey on the Channel Islands to two stage actors. Her career began on stage, and expanded into film and television, including starring roles as a young girl whose beloved cat magically reappears in Disney's The Three Lives of Thomasina and with Thomasina co-star Matthew Garber as one of two children pining for their parents' attentions in Poppins. She appeared in five television programmes between 1972 and 1978, when she made her only feature film as an adult. Her life as an actress concluded with a short run as Desdemona in the 1981 pre-Broadway production of Othello.
Hannay was a 1988 ITV television series, a prequel spin-off from the 1978 film version of John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps. The film and series starred Robert Powell as Richard Hannay in the post Second Boer War years.
Peter Pienaar is a character from John Buchan's series of Richard Hannay books. He is described by Hannay as being "five foot ten, very thin and active, and as strong as a buffalo [with] pale blue eyes, a face as gentle as a girl's, and a soft sleepy voice."
The 39 Steps is a parody adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. The original concept and production of a four-actor version of the story was by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Patrick Barlow rewrote this adaptation in 2005.
John Scantlebury Blenkiron is a fictional character who appears in several books by John Buchan, including Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Courts of the Morning and Sick Heart River. Blenkiron comes from the United States, and has assisted Richard Hannay. When Hannay first meets Blenkiron, it is revealed that he suffers from dyspepsia and so often drinks boiled milk, eats dry toast and fish. Subsequently he has an operation where a part of his duodenum is replaced by rubber tubing and his digestion is restored.
The 39 Steps is a 2008 British television adventure thriller feature-length adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel The Thirty-Nine Steps produced by the BBC. It was written by Lizzie Mickery, directed by James Hawes, and filmed on location in Scotland, starring Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, David Haig, Eddie Marsan, and Patrick Malahide. Following three screen versions of the novel and the 1952 and 1977 television adaptations of The Three Hostages, Penry-Jones became the sixth actor to portray Hannay on screen. This adaptation is set on the eve of the First World War and sees mining engineer Richard Hannay caught up in an espionage conspiracy following the death of a British spy in his flat.
Portland Place is a street in the Marylebone district of central London. Named for the Third Duke of Portland, the unusually wide street is home to the BBC Broadcasting House, Chinese and Polish embassies, and the Royal Institute of British Architects.