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