by Mel Valentin
Alfred Hitchcock's last British film before leaving for the more financially secure (and lucrative) environs of Hollywood, "The Lady Vanishes", a suspense thriller set primarily aboard a moving train, retains a reputation as one Hitchcock's finest films, at least from his British period. Thanks to a tight screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (based on a novel, "The Wheel Spins," by Ethel Lina White), sharp, funny dialogue, and pitch-perfect performances from a game cast, "The Lady Vanishes" may be one of Hitchcock's most entertaining films, one that easily repays multiple viewings. When compared to Hitchcock's later more polished, visually dynamic, and thematically denser American films (i.e., "Vertigo," "Rear Window," "Notorious," "Shadow of a Doubt," and "Strangers on a Train"), "The Lady Vanishes" falls barely shy of inclusion of Hitchcock's best films.The Lady Vanishes opens in a European Alpine village as a group of English tourists, eager to return home, rest at a local inn for the day before boarding a train the following morning. Among the guests at the inn are Iris (Margaret Lockwood), an heiress traveling back to England to be married, and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musicologist studying the folk songs of a fictional European country. Gilbert, ever interested in increasing his knowledge of the music and dance of the region, has two locals perform rather noisy steps in his room. His downstairs neighbor, Iris, complains to the management, which results in Gilbert unceremoniously losing his room for the night, which in turn sets up an antagonistic relatioship between the two characters that unsurprisingly hides romantic attraction. Iris' pending marriage (to someone she apparently doesn't love) is one among several obstacles to the burgeoning relationship.
"Hitchcock's last great film from his British period."
The lady in the title is one Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an eccentric but likeable elderly governess, whom Iris first meets at the village inn. The first sign that things might not be what they seem occurs when Iris is conked on the head by a falling vase from a window. Later, a man meets a gruesome end in mid-song, again outside a window. Onboard the train, the two women share a compartment, along with an unfriendly Germanic baroness and an Italian magician. Miss Froy mysteriously disappears soon thereafter. Iris is alone in claiming Miss Froy exists and boarded the train. When questioned, the other passengers claim never to have seen Miss Froy. Only Gilbert makes any effort to help Iris, but he's primarily motivated by his romantic feelings for Iris. Slowly emerging clues and eccentric behavior from some of the other passengers lead Gilbert to suspect Iris was right all along. Coincidentally, there's a doctor onboard the train. Dr. Hartz (Paul Lucas), a brain trauma specialist from Prague, offers questionable advice: Iris has hallucinated Miss Froy, thanks to the concussion she suffered a day earlier.
The Lady Vanishes is strengthened by the other characters onboard the train, including two Englishmen, Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) eager to return to England to see a cricket match (and who seem oblivious to world events), the anxiety-ridden half of an apparently adulterous couple, Eric Todhunter (Cecil Parker). The cast of secondary characters is filled out with a decidedly unfriendly Germanic baroness and an Italian magician. The guessing game of who is and who isn't involved in the disappearance of Miss Froy provides a significant part of the enjoyment in watching the plot unfold. Almost as importantly, the secondary characters are given their own carefully calibrated motivations for acting the way they do. These conflicting motivations, in turn, serve to either assist or impede Iris and Gilbert as they search for Miss Froy. Later, Hitchcock reveals the identity of the villain, but out of sight or hearing of the central characters, leaving the audience one step ahead of the central characters. The audience is left asking, when will the main characters obtain that information, and will it be too late? And once the central mystery is solved, the next question becomes, will Iris, Gilbert, and Miss Froy survive?
Hitchcock's films have been often been criticized for their apparent shallowness, their absence of any political content. For the most part, critics are correct. That claim, however, can't be extended to The Lady Vanishes. The setting for the film, the fictional country of Bandrika is clearly coded as Nazi-era Germany, and the various English characters are obvious stand ins for different political positions and assumptions: from self-interested pacifism (which, unfortunately, is equated with moral and physical cowardice) to isolationism (the Englishmen interested only in cricket reports), to willful, stubborn blindness ("They can't do anything to us; we're British."). Hitchcock and his screenwriters thought the answer was clear: isolationism and pacifism were insufficient, inappropriate responses to the impending threat posed by Nazi Germany.Still, Hitchcock and his screenwriters keep the politics in "The Lady Vanishes" to subtext, never sacrificing narrative momentum for political commentary. Several characters, however, are driven to act by their political beliefs, and these in turn, drive "The Lady Vanishes" forward. Even during the darkest moments (e.g., late in the film when the characters find themselves battling seemingly insurmountable odds), Hitchcock ensures the tone never goes too dark. As for flaws, they're not related to script, direction, or performance, but instead to the production values, including the rather egregious model work that opens the film. Still, most viewers will (and should) give the production values a pass. After all, Hitchcock worked with limited budgets for most of British films (just one reason why he left England for America soon thereafter). Production values aside, abundant visual and narrative pleasures make "The Lady Vanishes" well worth recommending, even for viewers generally uninterested in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.
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originally posted: 05/28/05 16:53:41