From the Music Hall stage to the Highlands peaks – The 39 Steps (1959)

Spanning almost three-quarters of a century there have been a number of movie versions of the 1915 John Buchan novel.


As has proved often to be true it is the first version that we watched; released in 1959 and starring Kenneth More, that has remained our firm favourite.

It is probably not advisable to outline the plot of a film new to the cinemas but, almost sixty years after its release, we are likely to be safe in publicly analysing why we love this tale and, in particular, the 1959 version.

The film sets the 1915 novel in, a contemporary to its release, 1959 setting that, together with Kenneth More playing the lead role of Richard Hannay, are essentially the reasons that sets this version head and shoulders above other versions.

Whilst we accept that not everyone will agree we find the 1935 version, starring Robert Donat, to be too dated; the 1978 version, starring Robert Powell, to lack true movie quality and the 2008 version, starring Rupert Perry-Jones, we are unable to recall at all. 
That leaves the 1959 version; the first colour version of Buchan’s novel, on which we shall concentrate.

Diplomat Richard Hannay arrives in London and inadvertently becomes entangled in the death of a female British spy; chased by assassins, and following an organisation known as “The Thirty Nine Steps”. The group hold the plans for a secret British missile project that would tip the balance of power in Europe.

Hannay continues the mission of the assassinated spy; a trail that leads him by train to Scotland.

He encounters Miss Fisher (portrayed by Finnish actress Taina Elg); a netball coach at a Boarding School for girls, but she reveals him to chasing police detectives.  Their paths meet again when Hannay further attempts to avoid capture, by assassins posing as detectives, when he masquerades as a lecturer at the boarding school.

Hannay is taken into custody, as is Miss Fisher, when the assassins fear that she may reveal all to the authorities.
A punctured tyre gives the, now handcuffed couple, an opportunity to escape and they find themselves in Bed and Breakfast accommodation posing as a runaway couple.

Miss Fisher overhears the sympathetic landlady in discussion with their pursuers and finally realises her error in not believing Hannay.

She informs him of the conspirators’ rendezvous in London and the film’s finale returns to the Music Hall where; it goes without saying, that our hero triumphs.

The film is the perfect stage for Kenneth More. It allows him to bring a subtle humour to his character. In fact the film has a number of humorous moments.

From London and the disguise of a milkman with unique characteristics to the Highlands and the disguise of a cyclist with inappropriate attire. From embracing a complete, and unwilling, stranger on a train to the pair handcuffed together in a bedroom. Miss Fisher removing her wet stockings whilst still under restraint and attempting to protect her modesty.

This may not be a film to showcase the fashion of the time but it’s presentation is uniquely British. The characters are uniquely British and their characteristics charmingly represent a reservedness and demeanour that is no longer evident in today’s society.
We enjoy this film every time that we watch it and hope that you have enjoyed reading our blog post.

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