Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

Go To

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a 1978 thriller film directed by Don Sharp and starring Robert Powell. It is adapted from the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.

Of the several movies adapted from the novel, this is the one with the climax where Hannay hangs off the minute hand of the clock on St. Stephen's Tower (aka Big Ben).

Inspired a TV series, Hannay, also starring Robert Powell in adventures not based on any of Buchan's other novels.

Not to be confused with the Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, or several other films named The 39 Steps (The 39 Steps (1959), The 39 Steps (2008)).

This film provides examples of:

  • Bait-and-Switch: The film's middle act rounds out with Hannay's ally David being killed by the assassins and Hannay himself being shot. It then cuts to a scene where it's reported in the newspapers that Hannay is dead. Sir Walter Bullivant and the superintendent spread the story themselves to keep secret the fact that Hannay survived and they were secretly smuggling him back to England to learn what he uncovered in Scotland.
  • Big Bad: Edmund Appleton
  • Clock Tower: St. Stephen's Tower is featured in the climax.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The film opens with Scudder carrying out his investigations and evading the assassins as they hunt him. He realises with horror when his contacts are killed that time is running out for him and he seeks help from Hannay.
  • "Eureka!" Moment:
    • After Hamilton and Mackenzie liberate Hannay from Appleton and the two assassins, the three work together to determine the meaning of Scudder's last words (ost of us) but are unable to come up with anything because of how garbled they were. Mackenzie then brings up the question of where Scudder was likely to hide the notebook as he tried to escape his pursuers. Hannay is unable to answer but Hamilton makes a suggestion as to what he himself would have done.
      Hamilton: That would be easy. I'd put it in a pillar box. The first one I could find.
      Hannay: [realising] Post office.
      All: POST OFFICE!
      [Hannay and Hamilton cry out jubilantly, having cracked the answer]
    • In the leadup to the climax, Superintendent Lomas and Hannay work together to solve Scudder's clues but are stumped with "the thirty-nine steps", which they believe is where the detonator to the bomb is hidden, and little time is left to them. At a loss, Hannay asks a government official if he knows the answer.
      Official: Anyone with any knowledge of Westminster would know that.
      Hannay: What?!
      Official: Well, it's common knowledge. The run of steps to the various levels of Big Ben were all built in multiples of thirteen. There was quite an outcry at the time.
      Hannay: But what of the thirty-nine?
      Official: Oh, the thirty-nine steps lead from Lauderdale door to the belfry of Big Ben itself.
      [Hannay turns to Lomas]
      Hannay: Big Ben.
      [Lomas recalls a previous piece of evidence they discovered]
      Lomas: Appleton signed a permit for routine work TO BE CARRIED OUT ON THE CLOCK!
  • Evil Wears Black: Edmund Appleton. Averted with the assassins; one wears grey, the other a mustard brown.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The unnamed organisation that Appleton answers to.
  • Hope Spot: Realising that the assassins have tracked him to Hannay's apartment, Scudder disguises himself and makes efforts to send his important notebook to a hiding place as he makes a break for it. Due to an unfortunate circumstance where a milkman recognises him and calls him out, the assassins discover this ruse and are able to pursue him. One gets to him just as he is about to reach Hannay and knifes him fatally in the back.
  • Macguffin: Scudder's notebook
  • Monumental Battle: The climax features a battle in and around St. Stephen's Tower, which was added because it was felt the novel's denouement lacked action. The famous clock tower was chosen for thematic resonance with the idea of time running out before Europe was plunged into World War I.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Had Hannay not secretly unloaded Scudder's gun as the spy slept, the man would have been able to defend himself and likely not needed to run. Chances are he probably wouldn't have ended up dead either.
    • As he tries to escape the apartment building unseen by the assassins while in disguise, a friendly milkman passes by Scudder, recognises him, and greets him loudly, which alerts the assassins.
  • Non-Action Big Bad: Subverted with Appleton. At the beginning of the film, he kills Lord Harkness personally and gets his own hands dirty again by keeping Sir Yules in place as one of the assassins shoots him. However, his only action in the climax is to hold Bullivant and Alex prisoner while he waits for the assassins to set the bomb and make it back to him.
  • Not His Sled: Unlike in the novel, the mysterious phrase "the 39 steps" refers to a staircase in St Stephen's Tower, leading to where the assassins have placed their bomb.
  • Passing the Torch: As he is dying from a stab wound at St. Pancreas Station, Scudder gives Hannay a vital clue as to where he has hidden the notebook that carries all the information he found on the assassins.
  • Post-Climax Confrontation: After the assassins are killed and the bomb is defused, there is still the matter of finding Appleton and capturing him.
  • Stock Clock Hand Hang: Richard Hannay attempts to halt the clock's progress (to prevent a linked bomb detonating) by hanging from the minute hand of its western dial.
  • Sword Cane: The main bad guy carries one.
  • Token Romance: Adds a romance with a young woman Hannay meets while he's on the run.
  • Truer to the Text: Explicitly intended to be a more faithful adaptation than Hitchcock's version, which the producer described as "about 20 percent Buchan and 80 percent Hitchcock".