Magazine article The Spectator

Opposite Attractions

Magazine article The Spectator

Opposite Attractions

Article excerpt

Do yourself a favour and get over to the Barbican this weekend: even if you're in Scotland, on the lam from the cops, handcuffed to a woman who doesn't trust you, hop on an express train to St Pancras and come on down. Alfred Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) isn't much to do with John Buchan, but it's closer in spirit than either the 1960 Kenneth More remake - a masterclass in how to make a thrill-free thriller - or the 1978 Robert Powell version, which restores Richard Hannay to his original first world war setting but junks absolutely everything else.

Buchan is the only Spectator man to become governor-general of Canada (I have a casual ambition to be the second) and Hitchcock's film appeared more or less when he was setting sail for Ottawa. By 1935, Buchan's metamorphosis into the viceregal Lord Tweedsmuir was almost complete: the 'shockers' - the ripping yarns - were behind him; after 21 years, Richard Hannay, the archetypal clubland hero, formally handed over to the younger generation in The Island of Sheep; in the last years of his life Buchan would write essays, memoirs, a history of the reign of George V, and bequeath Canada the Governor-General's Literary Awards, for which Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies et al should be properly grateful. At any rate, Hitchcock's film marks the moment that comes to every great fictional character, when he slips free of his creator and has to survive on his own.

Buchan and Hitchcock are, of course, as opposite as opposites can be. Buchan finished the first world war as director of the new Department of Information and, as a bona fide spymaster, he took the plot elements more seriously. He was writing, after all, in the run-up to August 1914, when Britain was rife with rumours of secret German invasion plans.

For Hitchcock, by contrast, adapting the book 20 years later, the `Top Secret' stuff was a mere pretext -- 'a lot of gibberish, which was supposed to be some kind of formula about something'. In other words, The Thirty-Nine Steps is Hitch's first use of the MacGuffin -- something for the character to worry about so that the audience can worry about him. In North by Northwest, Hitchcock's American autohommage to The Thirty-Nine Steps, the MacGuffin is distilled to its essence: Cary Grant asks, `What's this man up to?'; Leo Carroll replies, `Well, let's say he's an importer and exporter.' `What of?' `Government secrets.' And that's all we ever know. So here, while Buchan goes to great lengths to concoct plausible reasons to get Hannay out of Portland Place and up to Scotland, Hitch can barely be bothered: a `Miss Smith' expires in the hero's apartments, her hand obligingly clasped round a map of the Scottish countryside. …

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