Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The 39 Steps (1935), Part 3

Remakes and home video releases

  • Running down and reviewing every official release of the Master’s most popular British film
  • Too often known by many muddy fakes, when there are beautiful restored versions to be enjoyed
  • Even amongst Hitchcock’s heavily bootlegged British films, this one is easily ripped off most of all
  • The first Steps to be a hit on the radio: detailing the many contemporary transatlantic adaptations
  • The remakes just keep on coming: rounding up every screen version and their licensed releases

Note: this is one of 50-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Part 1: Steps to inspiration | Part 2: Margaret’s Story

The 39 Steps (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US lobby card

US lobby card


Home video releases

The 39 Steps built squarely on the domestic success of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the first of Hitch’s golden run of six British thrillers. Steps was also the first Hitch film to make a significant impact stateside, thus commercially paving the way for his later career. It’s the early apotheosis of all Hitch’s wrong-man-on-the-run-films, especially the likes of North by Northwest (1959). This is also where more of his fave filmic preoccupations come together than ever before. You can tick them all off: spies, murder, marriage and relationships, incidental but funny screwball-type characters, a MacGuffin (clue: it’s in the title), an icy blonde, sexual tension, religion (the Lord saves!), light and dark humour, mixed-up identities – both mistaken and deliberately concealed, an evil villain, bumbling law enforcement and many more. Like most of his British outings, it’s no mere dry run for Hitch’s Hollywood streak: its über-tight running time, typical for this stage of his career, means not a single second is wasted and excitement is effectively sustained for the entire ride. In all, this is a truly great film with an outstanding cast and Robert Donat in particular, pitch perfect in the lead role.

Unfortunately, The 39 Steps is never going to wow anyone with the outstanding clarity of its visuals, as all pre-print materials are long gone. That said, though several steps down from the original negative, what we’re left with has been restored to the greatest degree humanly (and digitally) possible. Nowadays, the film has a somewhat dupey, grainy appearance, but I prefer to think of it as being warm and organic. Whatever your viewpoint, its driving urgency and Hitch’s artistry come shining through via all these official releases:

The original analogue transfer is very good overall, with a huge head start on the copious number of rough bootlegs. The film was remastered in 2009 to prepare it for HD distribution via DCP, HDTV, Blu-ray and streaming. This involved scanning the best surviving materials, digitally stabilizing the image and giving it a meticulous clean-up, alongside the audio. Now it’s almost spotless, with only a few fleeting instances of overt damage remaining. Other than straight reissues of older discs, all releases after this date feature the new improved transfer.

The US, UK and French BDs are the only official ones so far and despite some woefully muddled reviewers claiming otherwise (confirmation bias, anyone?), they’re all from the same restored master. Note though, the UK and French discs are differentiated by their slight but appealing sepia tint; the US is pure B&W. Incidentally, the UK also has the distinction of being the first Hitchcock BD anywhere, with its 19 Oct. 2009 release date edging out that of North by Northwest by a few weeks. The US BD wins overall with its copious extras and 20-page booklet, but the UK is hard on its heels on the extras front, while the French is completely vanilla.

Among the DVDs, Criterion’s two regular discs fare best with plentiful but mostly differing extras, but their nicely designed and remastered reissue nudges ahead. The UK DVDs aren’t far behind, also getting a few decent extras, then after that it’s a wash, with all other countries being vanilla bar the odd photo gallery or some text bios. The exception is the Oz DVD whose decent, unique extras are matched only by the Criterions, but it’s deleted and quite rare.

One extra exclusive to the first Criterion DVD is The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock (29min), an episode of a six-part documentary series produced by Janus Films in 1976. Here’s a three-minute clip and a fascinating recording of Rod Serling’s voiceover sessions – hear him swear! Incidentally, Criterion’s first releases of The 39 Steps were their 1985 VHS and LaserDisc (Amazon), the latter of which was reissued in 1989. Though famed for their LaserDiscs, the label only released three titles on VHS; the other two were The Third Man and The Lady Vanishes. All three are now extremely rare and collectible.

Among Hitch’s relentlessly bootlegged British films, The 39 Steps, being the most popular, naturally turns up more often than any other. In addition to countless extremely muddy DVDs are some pirated BD-Rs from Italy, Germany and Spain, courtesy of Enjoy, Great Movies and Layons respectively.

Strangely, the original trailer doesn’t appear on any licensed home video releases, though it is on some German pirate discs. They copied it directly from this, the best quality copy in circulation:

An interesting curio is a US LP of the “Complete Original Sound Track!“, the sole release from shady Spybusters Records. An unusual entry to the Hitch bootleg canon, presumably it judiciously edits out non-dialogue sequences to bring the 86-minute film down to less than an LP’s maximum one-hour playing time. Such LPs were very popular in those far-off pre-home video days, as the best way to ‘enjoy’ your fave films over and over again. They were certainly preferable to the alternative: catching a rare TV screening and recording the audio direct from its speaker to cassette tape or reel-to-reel.

I’ve seen this brilliant film numerous times; there could never be a day when I’m not in the mood for it. But I can’t stop wishing one of these days Hannay will take Margaret away with him. Mind you, I’m also still hoping for King Kong to get down safely from atop his climactic lofty perch, be returned to Skull Island and live out the rest of his long days in peace…

Steps on the radio

Mercury Theatre on the Air: Radio's Golden Years (1998) by Bobb Bresee and Frank Lynes

Radio’s Golden Years: a Visual Guide to the Shows & the Stars (1998) – Bobb Bresee and Frank Lynes

There are many radio adaptations of The 39 Steps continuing up to the present day, including at least seven contemporaneous American productions. Most of those were based on the drastically rewritten film rather than its source, the 1915 novel by John Buchan. Between them, several feature numerous cast and crew members of films Hitch made on both sides of the Pond. The first British radio adaptation, by the BBC, wasn’t until 1939, though they’ve redone it regularly ever since. However, that and all subsequent radio readings have reverted to the plot and non-numerically-spelled title of Buchan’s source text. Listen out for occasional rebroadcasts on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Also legion are the many entertaining live staged, old-time radio-style performances, but these are invariably based on Hitch’s film.

Radio Times cover, article and p.24-25 listing  (Vol. 64, No. 825, 21.7.1939)

7-7:30 p. m. WSOY Suspense—Herbert Marshall in “Thirty-Nine Steps,” a swiftly-paced study in terror, showing how an ordinary citizen can—through a sudden quirk of fate—become the No. 1 target of a murderous gang of international spies.Decatur Sunday Herald and Review, Sunday March 2, 1952

The 39 Steps (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) poster by Adam Simpson, 2013

Poster by Adam Simpson, 2013

The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps (1959) US poster

US poster; image gallery

Various screen remakes have inevitably followed, with the first two by rights holders the Rank Organisation, who in 1941 bought Gaumont-British, makers of the original, and its sister company Gainsborough Pictures. The first, starring acting stalwart Kenneth More with Finnish-born actress Taina Elg substituting for Madeleine Carroll, was based directly on Hitch’s film rather than Buchan’s novel. It’s doomed to be forever adversely compared to its predecessor, but is actually a cracking little film in its own right. Aside from a few early VHSs, there have only been four legit releases to date:

Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing between the DVDs it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. The US VCI disc is pretty much in the correct widescreen aspect ratio (AR), being 1.78:1, negligibly different to the theatrical 1.75:1. But it’s a straight PAL-NTSC transfer, so is slightly compromised with the video artifacting and audio anomalies common to that cost-cutting practise. The region 2 PAL editions, meanwhile, are in the correct format but have 1.33:1 open matte transfers, spoiling the film’s visual compositions. As the PAL discs have superior A/V, I come down on the side of getting one of those and zooming in to crop to approximately the right AR. But whichever you go for, do keep your fingers crossed for an eventual widescreen HD release. Oddly, as you can see above, VCI’s widescreen trailer has been horizontally squashed back up into a 1.33:1 AR, giving it the worst of both worlds. Most incompetent.

This version is copyrighted until 2072, the 2001 death of director Ralph Thomas plus 70 years, but once again beware the bootlegs. For both this and the 1978 version, there are numerous DVD-Rs floating around eBay, iOffer, etc, falsely claiming the films have pubic domain status. Among professional-looking but still-crappy quality pressed discs are those from Spanish and Italian pirates Llamentol and Sinister Film respectively. There are also various boot DVDs from Germany on different labels, though I strongly suspect most of them share the same origin.

The Thirty Nine Steps (1978)

The 39 Steps (1978) UK poster

UK poster; Iimage gallery

Version three stars Jesus Christ himself, Robert Powell, who also presents the “Hitchcock: The Early Years” (1999) featurette appearing on every other release of the Master’s British films. There was actually another 1978 remake, Chakravyuha (The Labyrinth), from India. Naturally, it came complete with a couple of obligatory song and dance numbers, but it’s all but unavailable non-domestically. This version hews closer to the novel, reinstating its exact title and 1914 setting rather than the contemporary staging of the previous two. But it does add a new ending (spoiler alert) with our intrepid hero hanging off the face of Big Ben, à la Harold Llloyd in Safety Last! (1921), though in this case it’s more directly inspired by the climax of Will Hay’s last film, the 1943 comedy My Learned Friend.

The UK ITV DVD has some extras by way of its original trailer and “On Location” featurette hosted by Powell, though the latter is dropped for the Carlton reissue. It’s a pity, as the featurette is quite cool in revisiting key locations for all three versions made by that point, and serves as a nice primer for a triple marathon. The Oz R0 PAL DVD, which is very scarce non-domestically, even improves on the ITV, as it includes both extras plus several image galleries and two PDFs of première programmes. Conversely though, the less said about the French-dubbed only DVD, the better. For bootlegs to be wary of, see the 1959 version entry.

The soundtrack was composed by Ed Welch, who has an impressive résumé of scores for British films and TV programmes. It was released on LP in the UK and Spain, and a three-minute extract of the eponymous opening concerto, retitled “Hannay’s Theme”, fronted a couple of UK promo 7″ singles.

Hannay (1988-1989)

A decade later, Powell reprised his derring-do role in Hannay, an ITV series running to two seasons totalling 13 episodes. It departs even further from Buchan’s novels by not being based on them at all, though it is peppered liberally with character and place names from them. It stays somewhat within the spirit of Buchan’s writing, though is definitely more tongue-in-cheek. Needless to say, if you’ve enjoyed any of the films mentioned so far, you owe it to yourself to check it out. If not, don’t. But then, why are you reading this?

The 39 Steps (2008)

Rupert Penry-Jones in The 39 Steps (2008) UK poster

UK poster, with Rupert Penry-Jones really hammering home that North by Northwest (1959) connection.

The BBC have long had a thing for adapting Buchan’s works in various media, doing so literally dozens of times, and in 2008 finally got around to tackling his most famous work of all onscreen. Though it débuted on terrestrial TV, their version of The 39 Steps was actually shot on 35mm film with a relatively high budget. Though it uses the novel as a jumping-off point, it introduces many new touches, including a completely rewritten ending. These are to help update it with a strong nod to the likes of Bond and Bourne who are, of course, Hannay’s spiritual child and grandchild anyway. It’s a perfectly fun and thrilling romp, though it attracted no small amount of criticism for the prevalence of anachronistic props and settings. What the hell’s wrong with these people? Did they mistake it for a documentary? Forget the naysayers; it comes highly recommended from this quarter.

As for the future, the remake train rolls on with no sign of slowing down. There’s yet another BBC adaptation in the works, this time as a six-hour miniseries…

Part 1: Steps to inspiration | Part 2: Margaret’s Story

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This guide is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.


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