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Lady Vanishes, The
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by MP Bartley

"...but Hitchcock's talent never diminishes."
4 stars

I'm of the firm opinion that as a genre, the thriller is the one least likely to age well. I believe that anything that was ever truly scary will remain always scary, and the same rule applies to comedy. But what used to be considered thrilling and exciting, unfortunately seems to suffer to our cynical and contemporary eyes used to big stunts and jazzy editing. It's testament to Hitchcock's skill then, that a film nearly seventy years old can still grip, tease and entertain.

But at first, you've got to get past the first half-hour which raises fears that this is one Hitchcock film that has dated badly. It starts off with a horrible model shot of a snowbound European hotel and railway, complete with little model cars being pulled along with string, before settling into a slow and shapeless half-hour. We're introduced to the characters, including heiress Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), the musician above her room annoying her with his noise, Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), cricket fans Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) who want nothing more than to desperately find out the Test Match scores, and nervous Eric Todhunter (Cecil Parker) who wants to keep a low profile as he's travelling with his mistress. But there's little clue as to where the film is going and more than once I cast an eye towards my watch.

However, once the train sets off after the first half-hour, the film itself really starts to move. Iris befriends an old lady on the train Miss Froy (May Whitty) but after waking from a sleep discovers that she's disappeared. No-one knows where she is and even worse, no-one is even admitting to having seen her in the first place, not even the people they were sharing a cabin with. The only person who will believe here is the only person she doesn't want to, Gilbert.

The strange thing about 'The Lady Vanishes' is that this is a film made by Hitchcock when he was a young man. The popular image of Hitchcock is as a rotund old man, yet this was made when he was a rotund young director, and it shows in the agile direction. After the sluggish first half, it really picks up pace and hurtles along, dragging you into the mystery with it. And you also get more than a few glimpses of Hitchcock's talent along the way. From little visual flourishes like a vital clue written on a train window, to a punch-up that veers between brute force and high comedy, to the ever-increasing tension of the situation resulting in an edge of the seat shootout, 'The Lady Vanishes' never feels cramped or confined. Instead, Hitchcock finds increasingly inventive ways to make the most of his location. There may have been plenty of films set on a train since - 'Narrow Margin, 'Ripley's Game', 'Murder on the Orient Express' - but none get as suspenseful as this.

Hitchcock also surrounds himself with a great cast. Lockwood is a bright and resourceful presence, a rare heroine for the time who doesn't scream and faint at the first sign of danger, while Redgrave comes across as a less smug and more likeable Errol Flynn. They make for an engaging and warm centre of interest, ably backed up by some fine supporting performances, particularly the comic relief of Wayne and Radford.

It also has to be remembered that 'The Lady Vanishes' fits into the peculiar sub-genre of Hitchcock films - the propaganda films. As the train gets besieged by foreign agents, the bemused British find out that they can't simply sit by and ignore what's happening in Europe, they have to take arms. The only Brit who does try peace and appeasement ends up with a bullet in his chest for his trouble. It was a lesson that Britain would learn well later that year.

As a Hitchcock film in general, it's excellent. As an example of early Hitchcock it's invaluable. As a sign of the times it's invaluable. But as pure entertainment, it's hard to beat, once you get past the dawdling first half-hour.

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originally posted: 04/15/05 02:10:26
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User Comments

8/31/19 Suzanne Clever mix of comedy and intrigue with two very engaging leads 4 stars
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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