Fiona and I have been sluggish podcasters this year (my fault), but I couldn’t resist an invitation from Michal Oleszczyk and Sebastian Smoliński to chat about THE 39 STEPS for their Hitchcock podcast, Foreign Correspondents.

A fun evening was had!

The rest of the episodes are here.

18 Responses to “Hitchpod”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    That was quite a lot of fun. Never read the novel so I was quite surprised to learn that it was an anti-Semitic screed. Yikes! Naturally Hitch removed that. His regard for all sorts of people th e world over was perpetually warm and generous.

  2. Despite the prevalence of anti-semitism in British literature, the movies never really got on board with that, thankfully.

    In a sense the novel is really just a chase thriller, with anti-semitism as the McGuffin, so it was remarkably easy for Hitchcock and Bennett to remove all trace of it.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I’s quite interesting to think about what “the Trouble with Harry” might have been like had it been shot in England rather than new England. Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick would have been cast but I can’t imagine who would play Shirley Maclaine’s role. This was her very first film and she has just the tone of bohemian sophistication and dry wit that Hitchcock adored.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    David E, maybe Joan Greenwood?

  5. Could work! I can see David Farrar as John Forsythe easily enough.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I adore Joan Greenwood but her vocal eccentricity and physical presentation suggests a Beardsley illustration come to life, not the Seashore of Bohemia (as the original Chicago Second City would say) Shirley Maclaine, like Barbara Harris (who won Hitch’s last close-up)is thoroughly American.

  7. The Jerome K. Jerome source for The Passing of the Third Floor Back has a dollop of that jolly old English antisemitism. Apparently downplayed in the silent film version, and of course gone entirely in the Viertel/Veidt film.

    The Dead Authors Podcast was a podcasted live show in which Paul F. Tompkins, in the guise of H.G. Wells, interviewed other comedians portraying writers of the past — brought to our time via Wells’ trusty Time Machine. in general the guests picked writers that they particularly loved or had some connection to. In one episode a comedian named Ben Schwartz was Roald Dahl. Well. Imagine his genuine horror when he discovered, via a question from an audience member, that he was a vicious antisemite. “Am I VERY antisemitic?” he asked Wells. “You’re antisemitic enough.”

  8. The past is strewn with booby-traps, isn’t it? It no longer seems “more restful than the present,” as Anton Walbrook claims in La Ronde.

    Shirley MacLaine is, let’s face it, unique. Peggy Cummins should have worked for Hitchcock, though.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Peggy Cummns would have worked for Hitchcock — in a thriller, not a comedy.

    I met Shirley last year and she told me she adored Hitch. Her dry quirkiness continues to shine, especially in Richard Linklater’s “Berne” in which she’s perfectly paired with the great Jack Black. As I murder comedy I know Hitch would have loved it.

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    I’m currently listening and would like to add a corrective. The novel is NOT an “anti-Semtric screed”! This conspiracy theory is mentioned by the paranoid character Deep South character Scudder whose extremist feelings are later dismissed by the British establishment. Also, I think Hannay is Rhodesian, not Canadian in the novel.

    With all due respect, David, I think your presentation would have benefited by greater familiarity with Buchan’s novels, something Buchan scholar Kate McDonald has always emphasized. Despite this, Toby Miller constantly describes Buchan as a “snob and an anti-Semite” although Buchan scholarship has long demolished this. He clearly has never bothered to read the novels but The Richard Hannay and Edward Leithen series (the first acclaimed by Graham Greene) are indispensable if you want to understand Buchan properly as well as the changes Hitchcock made to someone he regarded as a favorite author and whose entire works he had in his own library.

    BTW, I’ve read virtually all of Buchan’s novels and not all of his historical novels are bad, especially his first SIR QUIXOTE OF THE MOORS (1895) now available with excellent introduction by Kate McDonald.

  11. My recollection is that the theories put forward by Scudder aren’t received by Hannay with the contempt they deserve. There’s a balanced account here: http://www.editoreric.com/greatlit/books/Thirty-Nine-Steps.html “For some critics this comes too late in the novel and is too slender to offset the effect of the earlier, more elaborated alleged anti-Semitic speech.”

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    No, because Hannay lets him drone on. He does find out later that (a) there is no anti-Semitic conspiracy and (b) the authorities recognized Scudder’s Southern gentleman type of exaggeration. Thus, this is another revelation tending to undermine Scudder’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

    Also, as a gentleman of his time Hannay would let his guest drone on and would not instantly correct him like a (21st century priggish “woke”. Scudder’s biases are part of a cultural prejudice that will soon be undermined. He may not correct them but can you find anything in the novel that explicitly states Hannay agrees with them?

    In his 1940 essay “The Last Buchan” Graham Greene referred to Buchan as a unique writer who undermines the taken-for-granted assumptions by which we live. By the end of the novel Scudder’s prejudices are demolished but not his (slanted) references to a conspiracy that does exist but has nothing to do with his Kentucky assumptions that more, than coincidentally coincide with the release of BIRTH OF A NATION and his possible familiarity with the novels of Thomas Dixon..

    As I’ve stated, there have been some real advances in the state of Buchan criticism and, hopefully, the end of the pandemic should allow you to access some interesting recent works.

  13. My nagging doubt is that politeness might cause Hannay to refrain from arguing, but as narrator of the book he’s at liberty to tell us whether he found the theories convincing, whether some of his best friends are Jews, etc. Does he admit any scepticism? And not just about there being a conspiracy, but about it being racial? I can’t recall it. It almost feels like he was rewriting as he went along, though I have no idea if Buchan ever did that.

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    The worrying thing about this is you expect Buchan (or any author) to fit into your preconceptions without considering the particular type of authorship within its cultural and historical context. Thus you seem unable to take author (or text) on his/her merits unless they fit in with your presuppositions.

    I’m finding this going down the slippery path of “cancel culture”, possibly as a result of the “woke” attitudes contaminating the UK and other places these days?.

    A world of difference exists between Buchan and Sapper, the latter’s Bulldog Drummond explicitly championing negative elements you mention with constant slurs against Jews and middle-class clerks who have benefited from a “thin veneer of education.” “By God, the Swine have got Phyllis again!”

    A world of difference exits between Buchan and Sapper whose hero engaged n pathological WW! exploits crawling into the German trenches at night and “snapping the necks of the Boche”. Jeffrey Richards’ VISIONS OF YESTERDAY (1970) is a good early study of Sapper while once the pandemic is over CLUBLAND HEROES would be worth reading.

    You can never ask from any text what it is not prepared to give, especially from the comforting perspectives 100 years later but a world of difference does exist between Buchan and Sapper. THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (1915) is a “shocker” not a treatise on contemporary cultural issues and should be regarded as something that does not espouse the worst elements you mention

  15. I’ve now been able to access Shibboleth and read some articles defending Buchan. It does seem like the Jewish conspiracy posited in the book is intended as a red herring, though I still think it was right of Hitchcock to remove it, since it opens up a can of worms the book is not in a position to close, which is why I and others were left wondering about it and getting a nasty feeling.

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    Hitchcock did not use most of The Thirty- Nine Steps, only the title and emphasized the music hall which, like the brief mention of the fair in Patricia Highsmith’s cerebral, (but un-filmable as a straightforward adaption) STRANGERS ON A TRAIN , he expanded for the film version.

    You were on much stronger ground when mentioning the inclusion of screwball comedy elements but I’m amazed you did not mention the significance of casting Lucie Mannheim as Annabella Smith. She was a German-Jewish actress forced to leave her profession in 1933 whom Marius Goring married in 1941. Whether this was due to the usual reason or to a “marriage of convenience” protecting her from internment camps that often housed Nazis and Jews together in a ruthless manner (see the book COLLAR THE LOT! – Churchill’s humanitarian phrase!) we do not know But as an “alien”, however progressive she was, this would not register with MI5, many of whom sympathized with the Nazi regime like the State Department in America during the 40s as well as the Dulles Bros. Gay Jewish refugee Anton Diffring was deported to Canada in 1941.

    Like Fritz Kortner, who appeared in ABDUL THE DAMNED (1935) at the same time as THE 39 STEPS, she would have been well known in England from her previous European achievements. Nazis could not be named in 30s British films because of the sympathies of Lord Halifax and the future Edward VIII towards Hitler. Hitchcock later exposed this tendency in the American upper-class in SABOTEUR.

    Hitchcock removed the Scudder rant because, as we well know, he was not into the “discourse of fidelity” theory that always insists a film should follow the novel 100%. This has also gone out the window in modern literary adaptation studies so the issue is much more complex than it initially appears.

  17. Oddly, just watched another Scudder, played by Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones.

    Nobody would dream of including the Scudder ramp in an adaptation, because the false trail doesn’t really achieve anything useful to the story. Having a character debunk it later is a further waste of words: everything gets better if it’s not there.

    I presume Buchan wanted to make Scudder seem initially unreliable, though this wouldn’t have worked for the numerous readers at the time who would have found Scudder’s prejudices wholly reasonable. And I still say it’s a can of worms: though Scudder’s anti-semitism is the view of one character, the later dismissal of it is merely the view of another. Once admitted into a story of conspiracy, the Elders of Zion hogwash is hard to expunge, and the later rebuttal may not have worked as intended for any real anti-Semitic readers.

    I accept that Buchan was personally more enlightened than his character, but I think this was a narrative blunder.

  18. Tony Williams Says:

    Totally disagree. Buchan sets up a “straw man ” or (conspiracy theory) that the narrative demolishes. Scudder is the ancestor of those future McCarthyites like Congressman Rankin. The real threat lies elsewhere. Thus Buchan focusses on one type of prejudice as a decoy only to demolish it later. He is working in a much more sophisticated manner than either Sapper or a basic rule-laden composition manual on “how to write a story “or your boring Syd Field screenplay guide.

    The dismissal of Scudeder’s theory comes from a member of the British establishment who belongs to a group Scudder is working for. Thus it is a “red herring.”

    That is what makes him interesting as an author despite his dismissal of these tales as “shockers” anticipating Graham Greene’s preference for his “serious” work as opposed to those “entertainments ” that have stood the test of time. That is why H.G. Wells is acclaimed for his early scientific romances rather than his later didactic treatises. It is also why Buchan found a discerning reader in Hitchcock. Breaking the rules is always important in any creative endevor.

    Buchan may be playing on his readers’ prejudices but he pulls the rug from under their feet parallel to what Robert Aldrich would later do in his films. A world of difference exists between Sapper’s THE BLACK GANG and Buchan’s MR. STANDFAST, a later addition to the Hannay series.

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