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3 reviews, 8 user ratings

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Lady Vanishes, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A slow start, but a strong finish to Hitch's British period."
4 stars

1941's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is generally considered Alfred Hitchcock's only pure comedy. I'd include "The Trouble with Harry", myself, but "The Lady Vanishes" is pretty close to the romantic comedy category itself, especially during its best parts.

An avalanche has a number of vacationers taking the same train from the tiny country of Bandrika to London: Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), an heiress about to marry; Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess about to retire; would-be musical historian Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), whose late-night research on Bandrikan folk dance had Iris calling the hotel management the night before; a couple who are married, but, inconveniently, not to each other (Cecil Parker & Linden Travers); and a pair of Englishmen trying to make it home before the test match finishes (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford). Something odd happens, though - Iris awakens from a nap to find Miss Froy gone, and nobody on the train willing to say they saw her. A traveling neurologist, Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), points out that a planter fell on Iris's head earlier, and vivid hallucinations are frequently associated with the resultant concussion. Iris is certain, though, and Gilbert decides to tag along.

The Lady Vanishes takes a relatively long time to get started; the filmmakers aim to introduce the bulk of the characters before loading them on the train. So there's a protracted meet-cute with Iris and Gilbert, and a great deal of comic relief with Wayne & Radford's hapless tourists well before the movie has any actual tension to relieve. The cast gets even bigger once they've boarded the train, large enough that even if Hitchcock and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (adapting a story by Ethel Lina White) wanted to play things as ambiguous for a while, it would be very difficult practically; the story seems to rely on things being set up just so as it is.

And yet, by the time the movie reaches its conclusion, the viewer will almost certainly find himself quite impressed by how Hitchcock and company pull things together. It's tempting to use the various props belonging to magician Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver) as a metaphor for what's going on, but the filmmakers are even slier than that - the keys to the puzzle are hidden pretty much in plain sight. Certainly, there is plenty of misdirection going on, but when everything is concisely explained toward the end, the answers are not based on blink-and-miss-it details, but something that the viewer had every opportunity to recognize at the time. It's the sort of elegant mystery that may not seem obvious in retrospect, but certainly seems reasonable.

Part of the reason the audience might not solve things is because the pair looking for answers are as much fun on their own as they are as sleuths. Margaret Lockwood, especially, is a great leading lady as Iris; she's smart and strong-willed as she tries to figure out what's going on, but what makes her performance work is how she makes a blase girl who figures she may as well get married and settle down because she's done it all by her mid-twenties likable as opposed to insufferable. Lockwood hitting that balance means that Iris having an adventure doesn't change her, but puts her best qualities front and center. The same goes for Michael Redgrave as Gilbert; his brashness doesn't change much as the film goes on, but he becomes an enjoyable complement to Iris, rather than a foil, without changing the core of the character.

That's true of many of the characters in the film; it doesn't waste its red herrings, and when finale time comes, it's not just a well-done bit of action, but when the characters show what they're made of. Their true selves aren't far from what we've seen, but it gives the movie a strong finish without betraying the humor that had come before. The slow start keeps it from being among Hitchcock's very best, but his second tier is more clever and funny than a lot of other movies.

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originally posted: 03/28/12 11:30:17
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User Comments

4/23/10 R.W. Welch Entertaining, deviously plotted lark mystery. 4 stars
1/18/08 Olivia comical and intriguing 4 stars
5/14/07 fools♫gold "symbolically humorous dialogue" - check, "not too dark but, hypocritically, suspenseful" _ 5 stars
9/02/05 Zack one of his best british films 5 stars
4/20/05 Krisan Graves very good! 4 stars
4/15/05 Marilyn loved this, hitchock is always good 4 stars
5/20/04 Sean Scanlan Early suspence is a Hitchcock suscess 5 stars
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  25-Dec-1938 (NR)



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