The Thirty Nine Steps (1978) starring Robert Powell, David Warner, Eric Porter, Karen Dotrice, John Mills, George Baker directed by Don Sharp Movie Review

The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Robert Powell as Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

Hannay Deserves a Big Hand

So to the third adaptation of John Buchan's novel "The Thirty Nine Steps" and I say adaptation on purpose because this is certainly not a remake of the previous two versions. It still shares the same basic storyline of Richard Hannay ending up on the run as he is accused of murder and has shady men after him, leading him try and solve a mystery whilst proving his innocence but the actual details are different. Whether those details are closer to Buchan's novel I can't say because I have never read it but by being different to both Hitchcock's and Thomas's versions works in its favour and helps make it a movie in its own right rather than just another version of the same story.

Mining engineer Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) finds himself accused of the murder of his neighbour Colonel Scudder (John Mills - The Singer Not the Song) who calls on him for some help as Scudder as uncovered a plot by Prussian agents to assassinate a foreign ambassador. Forced to go on the run Hannay not only has to deal with the police after him but also the group of agents who want to know what Scudder knew. With little to go on Hannay makes his way to Scotland meeting the beautiful Alex (Karen Dotrice - The Gnome-Mobile) along the way who becomes an important ally and trying to work out how to prove his innocence whilst also stopping the Prussian agents from achieving their goal.

Karen Dotrice as Alex in The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

So as already mentioned the basic storyline to "The Thirty Nine Steps" is the same as in previous versions but it is in the detail where it changes from it being Colonel Scudder who ends up involving Hannay to what happens as he makes his way to Scotland. Some of the events stay the same, we still have the fun scene as Hannay finds himself having to give a speech at a political meeting but then we get big differences such as the stunning climax at the top of Big Ben. And along the way there are some nods to Hitchcock who made the first adaptation with a scene featuring a plane which seems to be tipping its hat to "North by Northwest".

All of which makes "The Thirty Nine Steps" a much better movie than I anticipated because just another remake would have been a bore. But that brings me to an issue because you do end up comparing it to previous versions and you could say this version lacks the atmosphere and mystery of Hitchcock's original, although I do wonder whether that is more to do with familiarity rather than anything else and I am sure that mystery is present if this is the first version you watch. Having said that this version has better pacing than the other versions and the action is a lot better with stunning scenes from Hannay's daring escape from a train on a bridge to the big climax on the face of Big Ben. Trust me when I say if you prefer action over suspense then this version is the one to watch because whilst now 25 years old it is still an exciting action movie.

And to add to the positive I love the way that Robert Powell plays this version of Hannay, not entirely believable as a 1914 gent but full of charisma. It actually fits better with the more action focused scenes and there is almost a touch of the James Bond about him from dealing with bad guys to moments of humour. And talking of being Bond like we also have Hannay meeting the beautiful Alex played by Karen Dotrice which if that name rings a bell it's because she was one of the children in "Mary Poppins". To be honest the character of Alex whilst an ally for Hannay doesn't have a great deal to do but the beautiful Dotrice is eye catching and certainly makes Alex a lady.

What this all boils down to is that "The Thirty Nine Steps" is a surprisingly good adaptation of Buchan's novel which instead of trying to compete with previous versions puts more emphasis on the action of Hannay on the run before then giving us the solving of the mystery right at the end for a brilliant finale at the top of Big Ben.