Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan


I’ve been waiting for a while to post this, and now seems like an appropriate occasion. As The New York Times reports, a 90-minute BBC-TV adaptation of Scottish author John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps--first broadcast in Britain back in 2008--will debut on American television tomorrow night, Sunday, February 28, carried by PBS-TV stations. It’s the fourth film based on Buchan’s thriller, the most famous of the previous productions being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version, which starred Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, an “accidental hero who foils a German plot on the eve of World War I,” to quote from the Times.

The original novel finds Hannay returning to London from Africa on the stressful eve of the First World War. He soon encounters an American freelance spy, Franklin P. Scudder, who claims to be in hot pursuit of a cabal of German undercover agents. Scudder tells Hannay that there’s a German plot in the works to assassinate the prime minister of Greece and filch Britain’s plans for the outbreak of fighting in Europe. When, a few days later, Scudder is found murdered, Hannay--fearful that he will be accused of that other man’s death, should he go to the police, and convinced that Scudder’s killers will come after him next--flees to Scotland, hoping to carry on Scudder’s mission and reveal the German conspiracy. As Wikipedia notes, “The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of the ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller archetype subsequently adopted by Hollywood as an often-used plot device. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan holds up Richard Hannay as an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety.”

Eschewing many of the alterations filmmaker Hitchcock made to Buchan’s tale, the Times observes that the BBC production
goes back to John Buchan’s 1915 novel for some of its details. Richard Hannay, the accidental hero who foils a German plot on the eve of World War I, is once again a former British spy rather than the somewhat clueless Canadian that Robert Donat played for Hitchcock.

That change, and the casting of the buff, blond and bland Rupert Penry-Jones as Hannay, signal the intentions of this 90-minute television movie. It’s going for the style of the British boy’s-adventure spy novel, pioneered by Buchan and perfected between the wars by Eric Ambler. But it wants to venture into Bond-Bourne territory too, which means antique-car chases, frequent gunplay, a surprise appearance by a German U-boat and Mr. Penry-Jones’s taking off his shirt.
If you’ve never sat down to read The Thirty-Nine Steps, it’s well worth your time--a very short yarn, with plenty of turns and the overriding mystery of what the “39 steps” really are. A historian, war correspondent, and politician, Buchan went on to feature the resourceful Mr. Hannay in four subsequent novels, the last of those being The Island of Sheep (1936). The Thirty-Nine Steps, though, is certainly the book most easily obtained.

The colorful, quite ominous cover showcased atop this post comes from a 1963 Popular Library paperback edition. Credit for its illustration goes to William Teason, who, according to Michael E. Grost at the Mystery Fiction History site, was “the most conspicuous artist for paperback mystery covers in the 1960s.” Grost goes on to explain:
His covers were still-lifes, showing objects used as clues in the books he illustrated. This emphasized the puzzle plot nature of the books. Appropriately, they were most common on covers of Agatha Christie novels; he also illustrated the Sherlock Holmes books. When reading the book, the clues pictured on the cover would emerge in the story. One would be fascinated by the clues, and stare at the cover as a meditation device, trying to figure out how the clues pointed to the hidden solution of the tale. The beauty of Teason’s illustrations also often made the clues in the story seem more intriguing. So Christie’s novel would stimulate interest in the painting, and the painting in Christie's novel. It was a circular effect. The use of a still-life of clues was consistent with Christie’s strictures against illustrating her detectives--she was adamant, for example, that Hercule Poirot never be pictured. They also lent a timeless element to Christie’s tales. One did not visualize the books as being part of any strict time period--the covers illustrated clues in the story, not daily life of some era. Teason’s paintings were in full color, and often were very striking. They broke with the age-old still-life tradition of objects arranged on a table. Instead, the objects were sometimes floating in pictorial space, often against a patterned background. Other works showed a top down angle, viewing the objects directly from above, a point of view rarely found in still life. Teason had a fondness for both jewels and statuettes in his still-lifes.
On the left, you can see the Teason-painted covers for Christie’s Appointment with Death (Dell, 1963) as well as Margaret Millar’s The Iron Gates (Dell, 1960). To my mind, though, neither of those surpasses the arresting, off-kilter art he created for Buchan’s novel.

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