Friday, February 19, 2010

Hannay Returns: The 39 Steps

Richard Hannay is one resilient chap. He has foiled German spies in three film adaptations of John Buchan’s classic novel, The 39 Steps, including Alfred Hitchcock’s first acknowledged classic. Recently, he also appeared in an affectionate stage spoof of the beloved 1935 Hitchcock film that delighted both West End and Broadway audiences. He returns again in a new BBC production of The 39 Steps (trailer here) faithful to the source novel’s original pre-WWI setting, which airs this next coming Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic.

Hannay is a man of the world. A mining engineer recently returned from South Africa, he finds 1914 London deadly dull. However, when his neighbor Scudder barges into his apartment claiming German agents are trying to kill him, at least Hannay has an excuse to draw his revolver. Of course, Scudder turns out to be correct, unfortunately convincing Hannay the hard way, but not before slipping him a coded notebook. On the run for a murder he did not commit, Hannay heads north, hoping to prove his innocence by exposing the Scotland-based spy ring.

In many ways, Hannay is considered the prototypical Hitchcock protagonist—the innocent man pursued by both the villains and the legitimately law, trying to figure out the Macguffin along the way. However, this Hannay is a man who can take care of himself, boasting rather handy knowledge of explosives and a talent for cracking ciphers. While in the Hitchcock film Hannay finds himself handcuffed to his innocent traveling companion, his romantic interest in the new BBC version is far more substantial: Victoria Sinclair, a suffragette with a photographic memory.

39 Steps is a classy period production in PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! tradition. Although it is prohibitively unfair to compare it to the Hitchcock classic, director James Hawes keeps the chase moving along briskly, navigating the twists and turns rather deftly. The pre-WWI period details all look right and are quite enjoyable as the trappings for an action-adventure story (vintage car chases, burning fuses, and the like).

While there are departures from the familiar Hitchcock, there are still several common scenes. Like the 1935 version, Hannay again finds himself addressing a political gathering through a case of mistaken identity. Sharply written, Hannay’s remarks to the local Liberal Party mocking their naive appeasement give the new production a sly jolt of humor (and may even outdo the original).

Again, it is hardly fair to compare Rupert Penry-Jones to the great Robert Donat, but he is a more than credible gentleman-protagonist. Lydia Leonard, familiar to some viewers from HBO’s Rome, also makes a pleasing romantic foil, not overdoing the bickering banter while never appearing as a clichéd damsel in distress. The great British character actor Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes) is also perfectly cast as the squirrely, ill-fated Scudder.

39 Steps offers good, clean skullduggery, presented with the patina of British respectability. On par with the quality of many theatrical releases (and superior in so many cases), Steps is easy to recommend on free TV. It airs on PBS through the auspices of WGBH and Masterpiece Classic Sunday (2/28) at 9:00pm E.S.T.