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Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps

Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller The 39 Steps features the Forth Bridge in a pivotal scene, which was added to John Buchan’s original story by Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett.

The 39 Steps was premiered on June 6th at the New Gallery Theatre in London following a formal evening dinner event held at the Piccadilly Hotel. Among the attendees were John Buchan — now officially Lord Tweedsmuir and also the newly appointed Governor-General of Canada — Sir John Simon (Home Secretary), Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister (Minister for Air) and Lord Londonderry (former Minister for Air).

It ran in cinemas for 16 weeks due to popular demand – the longest run for any British film in 1935. Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock's film has been the most acclaimed. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century; in 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British movie ever made and in 2011 ranked it the second-best book-to-film adaptation of all time.

Loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, the film is about Londoner Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) who tries to help a counter-espionage agent prevent an organisation of spies called The 39 Steps from stealing top secret information. When the agent is killed and Hannay stands accused of the murder, he goes on the run to save himself and stop the spy ring.

Hannay found a map of the Scottish Highlands clutched in the spy’s hand, showing the area around Killin with a house or farm in Glen Lochay named "Alt-na-Shellach" circled. He sneaks out of the watched flat disguised as a milkman and boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. At Edinburgh Waverley railway station, he learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt for Smith's murderer, and as the train continues over the Forth Bridge he sees the police searching the train. Quickly, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, the attractive Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in a desperate attempt to escape detection. She frees herself from his unwanted embrace and alerts the policemen, who pull the communication cord stopping the train on the bridge. Hannay jumps from the train onto the girders of the bridge and escapes.

39-steps

Although second unit footage was shot on and around the bridge, the majority of the filming was done at both Lime Grove and Welwyn Studios in London. A portion of the Forth Bridge was recreated on a section of railway at Stapleford, Hertfordshire for the shot where Hannay is hiding behind a pillar.

The famous screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown, The Godfather, The Last Detail) once said of Hitchcock’s film “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps”. Certainly the basic story of an innocent man forced on the run has been re-used by Hollywood many times over, notably by Hitchcock himself in Sabateur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).

Hitchcock’s use of the spectacular Forth Bridge became so inextricably linked with Buchan’s tale, it features even more prominently in the 1959 version starring Kenneth More, who is shown climbing – and nearly falling off - the steel struts to evade capture.

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