Retrace ‘The 39 Steps’ on Masterpiece Classic – A Recap & Review

Image from The 39 Steps: Rupert Penry-Jones © 2010 MASTERPIECEThe Masterpiece Classic 2010 season continued tonight with The 39 Steps staring British actor Rupert Penry-Jones (Persuasion 2007) in the classic role of Richard Hannay, a former British intelligence officer who is unjustly suspected of murder and must unravel a German espionage plot to save himself. Here is a brief introduction from PBS.

Newly returned to England on the eve of World War I, Richard Hannay’s (Rupert Penry-Jones) listless London life is about to spiral out of control. When a neighbor bursts in with a top-secret notebook full of cryptic codes and a frantic story of an impending assassination, unlikely patriot Hannay is soon on the run to save himself and his country. He bumps into feisty suffragette Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard), and while their fates may be intertwined, their personalities aren’t. But like it or not, they’ll together navigate murder, betrayal and near death in order to untangle a plot of national importance, and understand the charms and challenges of human nature. A bracing and romantic thriller, The 39 Steps is based on the novel by John Buchan. (One episode; 90 minutes)

Over the years movie makers have been been intrigued by The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel set in England on the eve of World War I.  A precursor of the British spy thriller that has since become a pop culture genre, the novel has been adapted into four major movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film The 39 Steps. Interestingly, none of the movie versions nor this new adaptation that aired tonight follow the narrative of the original novel very faithfully. In this rare instance I agree with the screenwriters choice to change the story. Since it’s publication in 1915 the reading and viewing public’s expectations of high adventure and espionage have evolved. What was once an exciting and fresh story at the book’s publication now seems rather simple and transparent. In the spy genre new, innovative and grippingly suspenseful are de rigueur.

This new screenplay by Lizzie Mickery has attempted to improve the deficiencies that time and Buchan have produced. Airing in the UK in 2008 this movie version returns to the novel for many details by embellishing its finer points and also creating many of its own twists. One such attempt at improvement is the addition of a strong female character in Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard), a spunky suffragette who joins Hannay in his flight across Scotland while attempting to decode a notebook that German spy’s will kill to obtain. Like Hitchcock’s version the introduction of a love interest makes this story more interesting, but sadly none it’s dynamic chemistry that we experience between actors Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in the 1935 version develops between the new couple beyond some brisk banter and a bedroom scene that succumbs to revealing buff Penry-Jones’s bare chest to pique our interest. We also see an attempt to rev up the energy with a car chase scene, gun fire and a shootout a la James Bond. This is not especially thrilling since horseless carriages only traveled about 40 miles per hour in 1914 and we have seen gunfights since the O.K. Corral. We do however witness Hannay being chased across the Scottish moors as he is strafed by a vintage bi-plane. That scene was in the book and for some reason Hitchcock omitted it from his 1935 movie but included it in North by Northwest his 1959 film staring Cary Grant as another innocent man pursued by spies.

Image from The 39 Steps: Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Penry-Jones is as always “easy on the eyes” but sadly was not given much to work with and comes off rather dull and dim witted. The potential for him to be an urbane and innovative spy never materialized like had I anticipated. Unfortunately, much of what transpires to advance the plot occurs by chance and not deduction or intelligence. Even though the story was beefed-up with more action, because it is set in 1914 I think that it would have been an advantage to include more character development and suspense in its stead. There is nothing more satisfying, or sexier, than an intelligent spy. Mr. Bond has been proving that for decades.

Images courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

10 thoughts on “Retrace ‘The 39 Steps’ on Masterpiece Classic – A Recap & Review

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  1. I completely fell asleep for this so I’m going to have to watch it online this week. UGH! Thanks for the review though!


    1. LOL Janeen. At first I thought you fell asleep during the movie, which is no surprise. Please do not loose any sleep over this one. It is slightly amusing but not very satisfying. Not Masterpiece’s ususal engaging fare.


    2. …..Just the opposite of previous posts…..found this totally engaging, with perfect acting chemistry between the leads. The pace was also very good, couldn’t take my off the screen (unusual for someone that doesn’t ordinarily watch TV very much). But since I’m not a Brit, or a connoisseur of television dramas, I will defer to previous posters. And I LOVED Lydia Leonard in this! An American Idiot


  2. I agree with your take, what an underwhelming outing that was.

    I’m trying to put a number of how many times better Alfred Hitchcock’s verion was, but I can’t count that high.

    Apart from the incredibly silly disrobing scene, I was reminded of the old Wishbone classics that introduced vastly simplified stories to children, where the dog would play one of the characters.

    I had to double check to make sure, yes, this was Masterpiece Theatre. Even the Billie Piper Mansfield Park had more redeeming qualities.

    Alistair Cooke was surely rolling over in his grave last night.


    1. Oh dear me Agnes you made me laugh. Wishbone Masterpiece! LOL I agree that dear Alistair Cooke would have been perplexed by this new version of 39 Steps. I really wanted to like it. I neglected to mention that the 90 min format again may have ruined the story. This time frame seems to compress the action too much. Imagine what that extra 30 mins could have enhanced? 15 more mins dialogue and 15 more of character development would suit me fine. It seemed to work in many stories. At least the memorable ones!


  3. Even though it was mostly about a man and woman running to and fro, I did like the leads. However, I don’t understand the ending. How can you get shot in the back by a real German spy, fall into the water, disappear, and not die! She must have been wearing a rabbit’s foot around her neck. I’m going to have to rent Hitchcock’s adaptation.


    1. Hi Mary, the twist ending was the best part about this movie, even though as you say, did not make sense. Indeed! How could one be shot, fall in the Loch, be given up for dead, and then be alive? At least it was a positive twist. ;-) Can’t remember if it was in the book. Read it far too many years ago. Maybe someone will pipe in and answer. The Hitchcock version has a totally different ending than this movie or the book, so it will not help you!


  4. Hello Mary,
    Quite a spot-on review and I agree with some of the responders about the length (30 min.too short) and the lead’s fine acting.
    Few will be interested in this observation,but here it is:the vintage aircraft looked like a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 which wasn’t built until 1916 and firing through the propeller wasn’t perfected and used until May 1915.


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