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Richard Hannay witnesses a hit-and-run involving a woman pushing a pram. Looking in the pram he sees a gun instead of a baby. He tracks the woman down and she reveals that she is a secret agent trying to stop foreign spies leaving the country with important military secrets. Later that night she is murdered in Hannay's flat. Hannay takes it on himself to thwart the enemy agents. This involves travelling to Scotland and keeping one step ahead of the police who are looking for him in connection with the murder of the woman. Written by
Kenneth More was at his peak when "The 39 Steps" came out: trim and the right side of 50 but capable and sagacious, the paradigm of the modest, unflappable and humorous British gent.
But his chances were limited by the grey blanket thrown over the Rank Organisation's contract players by its calculating accountant boss, John Davis. More's loyalty to the uninspired producer-director team of Box and Thomas did him no favours either. Stodginess suffuses "The 39 Steps": it seems all too fitting that this must be one of the last action pictures whose hero wears a business suit and tie throughout.
As a modernised, colour remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, it makes the Highland scenery look good. And it follows the original (a cheerful travesty of Buchan's yarn) pretty closely save for a few pointless changes, such as making the hunted hero lecture giggling girls instead of a political gathering. Yet it is lifeless compared with More's previous and subsequent movies, "A Night to Remember" and "North West Frontier".
It's not Kenny's fault: he is Donat's equal in resourcefulness and blitheness. One flaw is games mistress and love interest Taina Elg, one of several drippy Continental misses imported to exoticise British films in those faraway days (cf Maria Schell, Anouk Aimee, Odile Versois). Ms Elg's mousy Finnish looks and manner cannot begin to compare with Hitch's haughty but seducible blonde, Madeleine Carroll: the stocking-changing scene, for instance, packs no heat.
But the big problem is Thomas's pedestrian handling. Toning down the erotic charge is only one way in which he garbles his tale. The constant flashes of imagination and twists which Hitch extracted from genre material-- such as the glimpse of the crofter and his young wife through the window after Hannay leaves, or the chorus line's legs kicking heedlessly behind the pitiable Mr Memory-- have all vanished, like a master-painter's brushwork obscured by clumsy retouching.
That poignant final scene in the music hall could serve as a film-school case study in the gap between genius and mediocrity. Thomas hustles us through it. Mr Memory has no time to display his skills, nor has Hannay time to work out the mystery, before the assassin strikes. Hitch's backstage show-must-go-on flurry is omitted; Thomas reproduces the famous hands-and-handcuffs shot, then tries to cap the scene with a silly epilogue showing More in a flat cap with a walking stick, strolling arm in arm with Elg by the river. A banal happy ending to a listless entertainment. Only Van Sant's misbegotten remake of "Psycho" served the Master's memory worse.
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