CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
VOL. 11, No. 9
THE NEW VERSION
"THE 39 STEPS"
RUPERT PENRY-JONES as RICHARD HANNAY
in a scene from the new TV version of "The 39 Steps" that's
a clear homage to Alfred Hitchcock.
"THE 39 STEPS" premieres Feb. 28 at 9 PM
on PBS' MASTERPIECE CLASSIC
(Check your local TV and cable guides to make sure of
the times, dates and stations showing this film in your area.)
Latest remake of '39 Steps'
has lots going for it
By RON MILLER
Until now, all the attempts to remake Alfred Hitchcock's famous 1935 version of John Buchan's "The 39 Steps" have spent too much time trying to make it look like they're not stealing from Hitchcock.
But I was pleasantly surprised to see the new British version, which premieres Feb. 28 on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic," has a mind of its own and finds a new way to honor both the Buchan novel and the Hitchcock classic. In the meantime, it does a grand job of capturing the excitement and dash this grand old spy story.
First, you must remember that Hitchcock's movie, a bold thriller that made his name famous as a movie director internationally, played fast with the 1915 storyline, adding lots of twists and turns that Buchan never dreamed of having.
You can't forget, for instance, the love story that thrives when the hero, Richard Hannay, finds himself handcuffed to a beautiful young woman that he has to drag along with him as he attempts to evade both the police who want to book him on murder charges and the foreign spies who want to kill him on sight.
But there is no love story in the book and no girl handcuffed to Hannay.
The Hitchcock movie also works up a marvelous character called "Mr. Memory," an English music hall entertainer who has memorized all the secret plans that everybody's trying to find. There's no such guy in the book.
And then there's the mysterious mastermind behind the intrigue, who has a missing finger. That was all in the imagination of Hitchcock and his chief screenwriter, Charles Bennett.
The new British remake doesn't bother with many of Hitchcock's inventions, even though most of the earlier remakes did. The primary homage it pays to Hitchcock is to pair Hannay with a woman, but not like Hitch did. This time Hannay winds up with a hard-edged suffragette who's pushing for women's rights. In those extremely chauvinistic times, it works quite well as a plot device.
The fact that she also has a photographic memory makes it easy for the new version to discard Hitchcock's "Mr. Memory," a gimmick that never was very plausible, although it certainly was original.
In Buchan's story, Hannay is a former British intelligence man who has just returned from Africa in 1915 London and is drawn quickly into a spy plot when a British operative takes refuge in Hannay's flat and passes on to Hannay the secret code book that the enemy agents he's hiding from are after. When the British agent is murdered, the London police believe Hannay did it. At the same time, the killers now come after Hannay because they suspect he has the book full of coded secrets.
Forced to flee and unable to contact anyone in the British Secret Service, Hannay heads for Scotland, where the murdered man told him the enemy's spy headquarters is located. Suddenly Hannay is a fugitive with virtually nobody to turn to for help.
At one point, Hannay is fleeing across the moors in Scotland with enemy agents covering the roads and an airplane with machine guns trying to shoot him from above. These scenes are so much like Cary Grant fleeing the cop duster plane in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" that it most obviously was intended as a tip of the hat to Hitch.
Rupert Penry-Jones makes a most effective Hannay. He may not be quite as sophisticated as Hitchcock's Robert Donat, but he's a good deal more James Bondish than Donat was. Likewise, Lydia Leonard isn't the beauty that Madeleine Carroll was in the Hitchcock original, but she's rendered as a much pluckier girl who has her own credits as a risk-taker.
But the real plus here is the beautiful look this film has with its rich old touring cars, palatial estates and picturesque country settings. This is the most recent re-shaping of PBS' venerable "Masterpiece Theatre" after all--and those shows have always looked like gold among the dross of most TV productions.
Is it better than Hitchcock's original. Well, I don't think so. But its far better than the others made in the 1960s and 1980s. I think Hitchcock might have liked it, though I'm sure he would have sent pages of notes to the production crew if they gave him the opportunity.
©2010 by Ron Miller. The photo is courtesy of PBS. This column first posted Feb. 22, 2010.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He also was a co-author of "Masterpiece Theatre," the 25th anniversary celebration of that series.
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