In the BBC’s 2008 remake of “The 39 Steps“, Patrick Malahide plays Professor Fisher, your everyday castle-dwelling denizen of the Scottish Highlands who turns out to be a suave, biplane-owning, castle-dwelling superspy in disguise. Unfortunately for us, he’s on the other side. Fortunately for us, he gives Rupert Penry-Jones‘ Richard Hannay as hard a time as possible on his way to solving a mystery and preventing a military disaster.
Based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel, “The 39 Steps” has been filmed four times (so far), although the most famous version is likely Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version, which takes more than a few liberties with the source material. So does this version, although it takes fewer liberties than one might think and remains surprisingly faithful to the original.
Bored and Disillusioned
The story opens in 1914 London with a very bored and disillusioned Richard Hannay, a mining engineer freshly returned from South Africa, lollygagging at his club. He’s discouraged by everything in England seeming “cliquey, claustrophobic, class-bound” and worst of all, “deathly, deathly dull”. But Hannay should be more careful what he wishes for, since his life is about to abruptly become far more exciting than he could possibly imagine.
An Unexpected Visitor
Upon his return to his flat after a late night spent non-carousing, Hannay’s neighbour, Scudder (Eddie Marsan, playing an eerily appropriately named character), barges past him inside, saying that he’s being pursued by two men who want to kill him. Hannay doesn’t believe him and tries to throw him out, but a desperate Scudder produces a revolver. Hannay promptly produces his own, saying he’s not afraid to fire because he used to be a soldier. Scudder reveals that he already knows all about that, identifying Hannay as a former intelligence officer who served during the Boer War. This becomes especially relevant in the action to follow, because it means Hannay has a few resources others wouldn’t have – but it also makes a couple of other details more inexplicable. I’ll explain later.
Scudder tells Hannay that he’s a freelance agent for the British Secret Service (seems like a highly dangerous line of work) who’s managed to track down the headquarters of a major German espionage ring to a village in Scotland. He was supposed to pass on his information, but he’s been betrayed and double-crossed. Scudder wants to leave right away so that he can evade his pursuers and give the information to his superiors, but Hannay offers him breakfast first – a delay with problematic consequences.
A Worldwide Plot and Spies at the Door
Over a couple of toad-in-the-holes, Scudder tells Hannay that he’s discovered a plot to assassinate a high-ranking royal figure and precipitate a massive war. He’s only confiding the information because he suspects he won’t survive for long after leaving Hannay’s apartment. He gives Hannay a small notebook and asks him to pass it on to “Captain Kell at the Secret Service Bureau”, emphasizing that Hannay should “trust no one else”. Hannay shrugs and tucks the notebook away into the inner pocket of his artfully disarranged evening wear. There’s a knock at the door; Scudder’s apprehensive, but Hannay confidently assures him that German spies wouldn’t knock first. However, he turns out to be quite wrong about that (maybe that’s one reason why he’s no longer in intelligence work). While he’s dealing with the man at the front door, another comes in the back and shoots Scudder, who collapses into Hannay’s arms, conveniently smearing blood all over him. A policeman arrives and doesn’t seem to believe Hannay’s story about strange neighbours and German spies for some reason, especially when the murder weapon is Hannay’s own gun. He couldn’t possibly look more guilty if he tried, so he makes a run for it.
On the Run
I won’t go into too much detail, but the chase sequences are really well done and build an effective sense of Hannay’s desperation. He manages to steal some non-bloodstained clothes and hop a train for Scotland (turns out that Scudder’s destination was conveniently marked on a map inside the notebook), but he’s already made the newspapers as a wanted and dangerous murderer. Also making the news is Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination – which suggests that Scudder’s information is correct. Trying to find out more, Hannay discovers that Scudder’s notebook contains an elaborate Roman numeral cipher, giving him something to do on the train as he attempts to decode it.
Unfortunately for Hannay, the police are checking the trains, so after a nice bit of improvised disguise to escape immediate capture, he’s forced to take off on foot cross-country. Revealing the German spy ring is the only way he can clear his name, so Hannay spends an evening cracking the code in an abandoned Scottish stable. He learns that the Germans have plans to destroy the British navy ahead of an invasion, leaving no opposition.
However, the police are still after him as are the two gentlemen who murdered Scudder, so Hannay’s forced to keep running (in dress shoes, over the beautifully filmed Scottish Highlands, no less). He’s even chased and fired upon by a biplane at one point (Wiki tells me it’s an S.E.5a which actually wouldn’t see production until 1916, but I’m sure you take what you can get when you need a flying WWI-era biplane for a film) in a scene that’s straight out of Buchan’s novel, although it’s quite reminiscent of “North by Northwest“. Hannay evades his pursuers by running away at top speed (see above, dress shoes) and rolling down a lot of Scottish hills in a fashion that looks accidental and rather painful, but I’m sure was actually on purpose and very clever. He ends up rolling onto a road where he’s almost run over by Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard) and her brother Harry (Patrick Kennedy). They improbably ask Hannay if he’s Liberal MP Tommy Twisden – who’s in the habit of rolling in front of cars, one assumes – and when he says yes, pack him off to a political rally without further ado.
Impromptu Public Speaking and “Warmongering”
As it turns out, Harry is running for political office and Tommy Twisden is to be the featured speaker at this rally. Unfortunately, poor Harry is a dismal speaker. Ironically (why it’s ironic comes to light later) he advocates the British working side-by-side with the Germans, “in peace” – a completely period attitude that will be proven to be sadly mistaken. In an attempt at damage control, Harry’s uncle Sir George Sinclair (David Haig, who also appeared with Patrick Malahide in “A Man Lay Dead“), who coincidentally happens to be on the National Committee of Defence, hustles him off the stage quickly.
Hannay’s called upon to speak and is forced to improvise again. He actually does a rather good job, completely contradicting Harry and surprising the audience when he chastises them for Great Britain’s “complacency” and suggesting that they shouldn’t be “so sanguine in your friendships with Germany”. When an audience member asks why they should care, Hannay replies that they will care when “foreign boots are marching down your high street”. An unknown but extremely handsome gentleman in a rakishly tilted fedora sitting next to Victoria comments, “Surely sir, that’s warmongering!” in a nice bit of ironic foreshadowing; we haven’t met him yet, but he’s Professor Fisher, a seemingly ordinary (but filthy rich) English gentleman of the Sinclairs’ acquaintance. He seems to enjoy political rallies and both Victoria and Hannay are about to get to know him much, much better.
Also in the audience are the two agents who killed Scudder, signalling that it might be time for Hannay to wrap it up quickly, but he does finish out his speech. When Victoria asks where he stands on women (foreshadowing her feisty Suffragette persona, which I, for one, quickly became very tired of) and whether women should get the vote, Hannay replies that she should be “grateful [she] doesn’t have to get her petticoats dirty” fighting in a war (more ironic foreshadowing). He displays a lot of casual misogyny and the two start bickering almost immediately, which means that he’s likely to get a comeuppance later and that they’re surely destined to be love interests, whether they like it or not.
A Narrow Escape
The hall’s becoming very popular, rapidly filling with German assassins and police alike. After one last exhortation to vote for Harry (I did wonder at this point what could have possibly happened to the real Tommy Twisden – was he rolling down a Scottish hill somewhere?), Hannay beats a hasty retreat. He’s followed by Victoria, who inexplicably still wants to argue politics and women’s suffrage while he’s fleeing. She does, however, prove herself useful when she distracts a policeman with a kick, giving Hannay the opportunity to get out of the building.
It’s not much better outside as there are German assassins and police there as well. Victoria and Hannay bicker and argue their way into stealing a car (Victoria claims she has to stay with Hannay now because she’s a “fugitive from the law” for kicking the cop) and setting off to find Captain Kell – or so Hannay thinks.
However, Victoria still doubts his story, accusing him of being a murderer who’s made up the entire ludicrous tale. She banters and argues Hannay into running off the road and stalling the car, allowing the enemy agents to catch up to them (Victoria Annoyance Factor… Rising…). These gentlemen definitely aren’t nice and are quite willing to resort to violence to get what they want. Henchman Engel (Peter Stark, whose fedora isn’t nearly as nice as Fisher’s) demands Scudder’s notebook, pointing a gun at Victoria’s head to reinforce his threat. Hannay offers to give it up at once to save her (his first mistake); however, much to his surprise, the notebook’s suddenly missing from his jacket pocket and Victoria doesn’t have it, either. This bodes nothing good and the henchmen decide to escalate, hauling them off to meet their leader.
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Supervillain
The master spy lives in a really swank, huge castle named “Longkeep” (actually being played by Scotland’s Dumbarton Castle) and we even see his nifty biplane parked out front (one does wonder how Fisher managed to get his hands on a plane that won’t be ready for two years, but then again, he is a superspy). Hannay and Victoria are shown into his elegant, wood-paneled, book-lined study by a white-gloved butler (nice touch) only to discover that the master spy is… Professor Fisher! They’ve evidently interrupted him at tea (and nefarious doings), as evinced by the rather pretty white and blue china set on his desk. He addresses Victoria as “Fraulein Sinclair” and she’s completely flabbergasted to find that her English gentleman neighbour, with whom she’d discuss the weather at the post office, is actually a Hun spy – more on this later.
Clad in a fashionable Norfolk jacket, Fisher starts off by being hilariously sarcastic in best supervillain style. He comments that he was worried Hannay might be captured by the police before Fisher could get the chance to nab him himself, “but your skilled survival technique has saved you” (making a moue to keep himself from laughing). He’s referring, of course, to Hannay’s propensity for rolling down Scottish hills, and I thought it was just hilarious. No doubt Fisher witnessed the entire thing from his biplane.
Making an Offer Hannay Can’t Refuse
Fisher begins politely, first making the classic Darth Vader offer to Hannay: “You should join us!” When Hannay demurs, Fisher notes that Hannay’s already proven he has “no love for Britain”, describing it as a “smug and complacent” country in his speech. Perhaps recognizing that he’s outmatched in this game of wits, Hannay tries to cut to the chase. Pleading Victoria’s fragile female state and unimportance, he asks Fisher to let her go, but now it’s Fisher’s turn to demur. While he admits there are “aspects of [his] vocation that [he] finds distasteful”, he’s still very willing to play hardball. If Hannay doesn’t reveal the location of Scudder’s notebook, Fisher calmly advises that he’ll “be obliged to extract Miss Sinclair’s fingernails”, adding thoughtfully, “…one by one”. It’s a promise he seems quite sincere about. Attempting a Hail Mary, Hannay lies that he destroyed the notebook because he couldn’t understand Scudder’s cipher. Fisher regretfully replies that in that case, Hannay and Victoria are “of no use” to him and he’ll “be forced to kill [them] both”. Oops! Not the answer Hannay was expecting, going by the stunned look on his face. Did he really used to work in intelligence??
There’s a timely interruption from a caller at the front door. It’s Sir George, who evidently knows that Fisher lives in the massive castle down the road with a biplane parked out front, but never bothered to tell his niece. He’s searching for Victoria and terribly worried that she’s been abducted by the dangerous murderer Hannay; he pleads for Fisher’s help. A good (supervillain) neighbour, Fisher says he’ll have his staff keep an eye out for her, reassuring Sir George in the most comforting tones imaginable that he’s sure Victoria will be “returned safely”. Meanwhile, as Fisher’s henchmen keep Victoria and Hannay quiet, Hannay notices An Important Clue – a particular brand of cigarette package – on Fisher’s desk. Having successfully headed off Sir George, Fisher returns to the business at hand. He instructs his henchmen to “[b]ind and cuff them and take them to the oubliette to contemplate their fate” in best supervillain style. Every villain should have his own oubliette!
Off to the Oubliette
While Fisher returns to his tea, Hannay and Victoria are bound, gagged, and left tied back-to-back in the suitably stony, dark, and dank oubliette, which I assume came standard with the castle and wasn’t a custom add-on. Victoria manages to slip her bonds with… a hairpin…?? (to Hannay’s querying look, she explains that Harry’s a Houdini fan; Hannay looks skeptical but buys it) before freeing Hannay. Predictably, as soon as they’re both ungagged they’re off and arguing again because that’s what you do when you’re trapped in a life or death situation with your potential love interest. Victoria’s suspicious of Hannay because he speaks German, but he’s got a logical explanation; he spent time working as a mining engineer in German Southwest Africa. Furthermore, he’s just as locked up as she is at the moment and she can’t dispute that.
They investigate the cell and get into an adjoining room with the help of Victoria’s magic lockpick; there they find a huge cache of German-labelled explosives, just the thing every supervillain needs! Very careless of Professor Fisher to leave them lying around so close to his prisoners, but perhaps he’s been distracted lately. I did wonder why he’d bother to import explosives instead of just acquiring them in Britain, but I suppose it might have attracted attention if he did. Besides that, the nice, big German labels make it very obvious he’s the Bad Guy, as if the castle, biplane, henchmen, threats of fingernail-pulling, and dank oubliette weren’t enough.
The explosives finally convince Victoria that Hannay wasn’t lying about Fisher’s sabotage plans where being threatened at gunpoint with torture wasn’t quite enough to do the job before. But they’re still stuck in an oubliette. Luckily there’s a lot of explosive lying around and Hannay has mining engineering experience; he’s not sure exactly how much explosive to use, but he sets a charge to blow a hole in Professor Fisher’s castle wall nonetheless.
Another Daring Escape
Meanwhile, Henchman Ackerman (Werner Daehn) reports to Fisher that they’ve been unable to find
the maguffin Scudder’s notebook. Fisher realizes he has to step up his tactics; he instructs Ackerman to “Torture the girl… in front of Hannay”, knowing that Hannay will cave at the sight of Victoria’s suffering and give up the notebook right away. Henchmen arrive at the oubliette just as the charge goes off; Victoria jumps out to prevent them from disarming the charge and a split second later, Hannay pushes her off to one side, taking the brunt of the explosion himself. Fortunately, Hero Logic means that only the bad guys are severely knocked out, so a somewhat burnt Hannay and Victoria make their escape through the now-sizable hole in Fisher’s wall. Isn’t that a heritage property they just wrecked?
Bickering on the Run
They take off on foot again with very little hill-rolling this time, although there’s still lots bickering. Despite everything she’s seen so far, Victoria still questions Hannay’s patriotism (hey, he just blew a hole in a heritage site!). He admits that while he’s disillusioned with Britain, he now recognizes its value in the face of its potential loss and he’s going to do everything in his power to defeat Fisher. Unfortunately, Scudder’s notebook holds the key to proving Fisher’s guilt and clearing Hannay’s name, and he has no idea where it is. Victoria suggests looking for it where they were caught by the Germans, revealing that she can easily find the spot because she has a photographic memory. How convenient for this ability to surface now! (Victoria Annoyance Factor… Rising…)
They reach the spot and Victoria readily finds the notebook stashed down a rabbit hole – exactly where she hid it after lifting it out of Hannay’s pocket, to prevent the agents from discovering it. Hannay’s infuriated to realize that this means she believed his story all along and didn’t really think he was a “deranged lunatic”, and it also means she was willing to risk their lives by allowing the German agents to catch up to them in the first place. Seems to be rather short-sighted planning – what if Fisher had gotten the chance to make good on his fingernail-pulling threat? (I admit that by that time I’d probably be rooting for Fisher.) Victoria reluctantly admits it wasn’t “terribly clever” of her, but they’re stuck now. Hmm… Anyone else beginning to suspect that there might be more to the feisty Suffragette with an eidetic memory and a taste for lockpicking and pocket-picking?
A Brief Respite
Wearing their bomb-damaged clothes, they set off cross-country for an inn that Victoria knows (her photographic memory again) that just happens to look remarkably like the inn where Magnus jousted with
Stannis Nick Thorne in “The One Game“. They check in as a married couple and amidst some awkward shyness, take off their clothes to dry them (a transparent excuse for gratuitous Rupert Penry-Jones shirtlessness). Then most improbably in the whole series of improbable events, they sensuously smear mustard(!) on each other’s fresh burns and abrasions as ad hoc first aid. Not only would they smell like hotdogs (not very romantic), they’d also get to experience the lovely, nasty stinging sensation of vinegar and mustard on their raw flesh – does this make sense to anyone?? More logically, they take advantage of the downtime to re-examine Scudder’s code. Hannay points out a double cipher at the end that even he hasn’t been able to decode yet that might be key, and Victoria grudgingly admits that his knowledge of German and ability with ciphers might make him “useful” to have around. They’re finally not bickering, so cue the sexual tension as they negotiate sharing the bed (smelling of hot dogs, remember).
By morning, Fisher’s henchmen have tracked Hannay and Victoria to the inn and are closing in, so they’re forced to start running again. Victoria brilliantly suggests that they hide at Harry’s house, since it’ll be the last place Fisher would expect to find them (there’s a hole in that somewhere…). Barely one jump ahead, they escape on bicycles while Fisher’s henchmen pursue on foot (where’s that biplane when you really need it, and why on earth didn’t they at least bring a car? Poor quality hench help.). But Hannay and Victoria arrive safely at Harry’s, which luckily is within bicycling distance. Victoria puts in a call to Captain Kell even though Hannay’s wary about giving away too much information on the phone. However, he decides he can trust Sir George (he’s on the Defense Committee, after all), so he asks Harry to arrange a secret meeting for later that evening.
Enlisting Sir George’s Help (What Could Possibly Go Wrong?)
Anxious to be done with the whole business, Hannay tells Sir George the entire story, ciphered message and all – apparently “don’t tell anyone” was more of a guideline than a rule when he was in intelligence – and Sir George promises to see the information reaches Captain Kell. Sir George also tells Hannay that the National Committee of Defense is meeting the next day to discuss Britain’s new, top secret naval defense plans. Meanwhile, back at Longkeep, Fisher is determinedly burning his own secret papers; clearly he’s getting ready for something big.
Crashing the Defense Committee Meeting
That night, Victoria appears in Hannay’s bedroom for another sexual tension interlude (gratuitous Rupert Penry-Jones in a silk dressing gown) but Hannay manfully resists temptation. However, he might wish he’d taken her up on the offer when he finds that she’s absconded with the notebook in the morning. Has he made a terrible mistake? He at once suspects that she must be the mole Scudder warned him about and now she’s got all of the Scudder’s information as well as his own decoding. Desperate to stop her and avert military disaster, Hannay sets off for the Defense Committee gathering at Stirling Castle. He fights his way past the guards and crashes the meeting (I liked his “Open in the name of King George the Fifth!!”), only to discover that Victoria’s already there… because, as it turns out, she’s been a Mary Sue Superspy herself the entire time. Well, that explains her feistiness, proficiency with hairpins, eidetic memory, and basically all the numerous other ways she’s been written as an essential element of this story!
Hannay’s rather understandably shocked by this development and can’t believe it. He at first accuses Victoria of being the traitor, thinking that the only reason she got close to him (and smeared mustard on him) was to obtain Scudder’s notebook. However, Captain Kell (Alex Jennings, who also appeared with Patrick Malahide in “The Franchise Affair” and “Death at the Bar“) appears and vouches for her, explaining that the whole thing was actually planned. Victoria was sent to watch Hannay’s back while the Secret Service Bureau used him as bait to smoke out the Germans. Hannay’s none too grateful for this, but that might be because he was accused of murder, chased, beaten up, taken prisoner, and had to roll down innumerable hills in the course of the thing (but at least he’s not bored any more).
They’re still missing a piece: the traitor’s identity. Everyone seems trustworthy until Hannay spots An Important Clue – the same type of cigarette package he saw at Professor Fisher’s. It’s at Sir George’s seat and Hannay realizes he must be the mole, working in collusion with Fisher. His seeming concern at Victoria’s disappearance when he appeared at Longkeep was all an act. Victoria refuses to believe it at first (uhm… what kind of spy is she, again?), but Kell confirms Sir George’s duplicity, revealing that he never passed along any of Hannay’s information to him. Just to pound the nail in, there’s an additional ridiculous and completely unnecessary detail about Victoria inheriting her eidetic memory from her father’s side; Sir George has the same gift and is invaluable to Fisher because the naval plans are locked in his brain. And he couldn’t have done it without Hannay telling him everything. Oops.
Finding the 39 Steps and a Daring Getaway (Almost)
However, they still have a chance to avert disaster. Hannay discovers Scudder’s final clue: the words “39 steps” written in invisible ink (actually milk) in his notebook. Combined with the rest of the double cipher, they determine that the clue refers to something in Longkeep’s oubliette as a vital part of Fisher’s escape plan. They rush back to Longkeep and find the eponymous steps concealed behind a hidden door in the oubliette; the steps lead down to a jetty where Fisher, his two faithful henchmen, and Sir George seem to be waiting for something. Fisher is dressed particularly fetchingly for the occasion in a three-piece suit, long, black leather trenchcoat, and yet another gorgeous fedora (or possibly the same one, but it goes perfectly with his coat and he’s wearing it at that rakish angle again). It’s what the well-dressed spy wears to flee the country with top secret information, and everyone else looks rather frumpy by comparison.
Now it’s Fisher and Sir George’s turn to bicker. Sir George is peeved because Fisher was prepared to kill his niece (at times I was disappointed he didn’t) and is attempting to bargain, threatening to stay behind if Fisher won’t ensure Victoria’s safety. But the Professor sees the bigger picture; with the air of a parent arguing with a recalcitrant child, Fisher calmly notes that “sacrifices have to be made” if “Germany is to become great” and Sir George’s sacrifice is a small one. He also has two armed henchmen to back him up, which rather weighs things in his favour. Fisher insists that Sir George get into the rather unglamourous rowboat they have waiting, but their argument’s interrupted when he spots Victoria and Hannay hiding on the shore (and I noticed Mr. Malahide speaking some German as he barked out commands to the henchmen). A gunfight ensues! Luckily Victoria conveniently brought along a weapon but she apparently forgot to bring one for Hannay as well.
Just as the gunfight gets underway, a U-boat surfaces on the loch – I won’t quibble about clearance issues for the moment. It’s just the sort of ride one would expect a biplane-owning, castle-dwelling superspy to have. Amidst the gunfire, Fisher again attempts to cajole Sir George into the rowboat; they’re in a hurry because the U-boat will only be on the surface for three minutes before it has to submerge (why Fisher didn’t take Sir George to Germany in his biplane or at the very least, invest in a motor boat to get them out onto the loch quickly, will have to remain unanswered yet fascinating questions). Victoria manages to take out two henchmen while Hannay tackles Sir George into the loch. Realizing that the odds have changed and his prize is lost, Fisher does what any self-respecting villain would do in the same situation and saves himself. Unfortunately for him, his escape is an extremely slow one. Should’ve bought that outboard motor or maybe an extra set of oars – tsk, such bad planning! Why did he rely on one measly henchman’s muscle power for his getaway?? Time runs out, the U-boat submerges, and Fisher is forced to raise his hands in surrender.
The Agony of Defeat
Kell and his men arrive in time to take the prisoners away – Fisher looks chagrined and embarrassed at being caught this way, (hopefully none of the other supervillains hear about this) but he’s still stylish as all get-out. Sir George merely looks soggy, miserable, and defeated.
Foes vanquished, Hannay and Victoria celebrate with a little romantic interlude on the jetty and all appears to be headed for a happily ever after… when they’re rudely interrupted by a not-quite-dead henchman who rouses himself long enough to shoot Victoria in the chest (tsk, no one disarmed the dead bodies!). She plunges backwards into the loch and a horrified Hannay dives in after but can’t find her. It’s meant to be very tragic but it’s about as Mary Sue a death scene as one can imagine; I didn’t buy it for a second. And the denouement four months later makes it even worse. Victoria inexplicably and improbably turns up alive at St. Pancras Station, having faked her own demise to throw enemy agents off her trail. She’s still a romantic at heart, so she returns from the dead just long enough to bid Hannay a wordless goodbye as he’s shipping off to war, and promise him (via Harry) that they’ll see each other again after it’s all over. That is, if either of them survives. Personally, I was more worried about Fisher; I like to think that he managed to arrange a daring escape from the hangman’s noose as well, and he probably didn’t even need to roll down any hills to do it.
Concluding Thoughts on “The 39 Steps”
Okay, I was a bit hard on some of the plot holes, but nonetheless this was a fun adventure story with a great musical score, lovely cinematography, and a good combination of intrigue, improbable escapes, and espionage machinations. I enjoyed it far more than the 1935 version, which I’m beginning to think is highly overrated. The whole thing was staged and filmed quite well, with the Scottish scenery looking particularly fetching as Rupert Penry-Jones rolled down it (Fisher’s line about Hannay’s “survival technique” remains my favourite in the entire thing). Stirling and Dumbarton Castles also looked very impressive. The cars and biplane may have been anachronisms, but they looked lovely, too.
I found that I picked up more details with re-viewing. At first, I didn’t realize the irony of Harry (nephew of a spy) advocating Britain working with Germany (under prompting from his uncle, one suspects), even though it was a common attitude at the time. And Fisher describing Hannay’s speech as “warmongering” was a nice little touch as well. If there was anything that detracted from the story, it was the Mary Sue nature of Victoria’s skills, which were just a little too good to be true and slightly nauseating besides, coupled with the unbelievable convenience of some of the events. I would have enjoyed it more had the emphasis been on Hannay using his wits and skills to survive without a Victoria Superspy around – he was certainly a strong enough character for that – but I suppose the writers felt that a love interest was needed. As a former intelligence officer, he made a few mistakes that I thought he probably really shouldn’t have, except that they were required by the plot (and necessitated Victoria helping him out). Despite all that, I was impressed by how faithful this version remained to Buchan’s original novel. I was surprised to learn that some of the more outlandish aspects are straight from the book.
Patrick Malahide as Professor Fisher
And Mr. Malahide stole the show as a perfectly wonderful villain. Professor Fisher had so much style and panache that I really wished we could’ve seen a lot more of him. Malahide made Fisher schemingly complex and genuinely menacing in his soft-spoken sincerity, far more so than the 1935 version’s “Professor Jordan”, and with a sly and sarcastic sense of humour, too. Malahide’s Fisher was methodical and calculating, staying (mostly) calm even under pressure and gunfire. I think he only made mistakes because they were written for him – but for the lack of an outboard motor or extra pair of oars, he would’ve gotten away with it. Perhaps he let one of the henchmen plan the rowboat part by mistake. Obviously he was a quite successful spy since his Mary Sue neighbour, whom he’d lived next to for years, never realized what he was up to. Mind you, she never figured out her uncle was a mole and traitor to the Crown either, which rather calls her abilities into question. Fisher was so competent that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he managed to arrange another daring escape as he was being shipped off to face British justice. I was really hoping he would make it to the U-boat.
As usual, Mr. Malahide looked quite dashing in his superspy wardrobe; he should really wear more fedoras. Fisher may have intended to blend in as an ordinary gentleman, but he looked just smashing in his pre-WWI fashions (which looked rather a lot like post-war fashions, but I won’t quibble), yet another selfish reason why I wish we’d seen a lot more of Fisher and a lot less of Victoria. Now, if Hannay had spotted Fisher at St. Pancras Station, things could’ve gotten really interesting.
You can view “The 39 Steps” online via Amazon.com streaming video, or scroll down for a gallery.