After a couple months spent writing for a television show with nary a moment to watch amazing old movies, I am returned to the trail – and ready to carry on with the twenty-first week of Weekly Hitch, a project type thing in which I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in order and try to think about them – and what might be my favourite of all Hitch’s movies.
This week brings us to Hitchcock’s penultimate British film – and one of his most enjoyable, clever, funny, exciting, and satisfying films – 1938’s The Lady Vanishes. It’s a great film made even more poignant by the times in which it was made. So all aboard for adventure!
Our last journey with Hitchcock, the fun and romantic Young and Innocent, was a movie all about what we see – but this time out Hitch is far more interested in misdirecting and tricking our eyes than keeping them honest. It’s a film about Britain and about war, and about the ability in us all to only see what we want – especially when faced with the prospect of danger.
Beginning in the small (and fictional) European country of Bandrika, The Lady Vanishes first introduces us (through a quaint and pretty neat model-shot) to a train, stopped by an avalanche, and then to the travellers stranded in a hotel by the snow. Inside the hotel we me several characters in turn – a sweet old lady (Dame May Whitty), two bumbling and stuffy Englishmen (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), a shady pair of lovers (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers), and a young lady about to get married (the film’s star Margaret Lockwood).
The young lady, Iris Henderson, is an adventurous heiress about to trade in her fun-filled days for a man with a title and an eye for her money – but her sleep is interrupted first by a folk singer performing outside her window – and then by dancers overheard… dancers which turn out to be part of a young man named Gilbert’s study program. Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is a cheeky and frivolous man studying folk-dancing – who runs afoul of Iris when she tries to get him kicked out for making too much noise.
All this serves to introduce us to our cast of curious characters – and Hitchcock does it all with such fun and humour that you won’t even notice that the elements of a cracking good thriller are being unveiled to you like bits of a magic trick. Which is really what this film is.
After some rom-com meet-cutery involving Iris and Gilbert, we end the night with them hating each other, and the sweet old lady listening to the folk singer outside her window and hearing his mournful tune… right before the folk singer is murdered by a pair of strangling hands! (Hitch loves hands, remember) The next day everyone boards the train and heads off for adventure, but not before Iris is hit on the head by a flower-pot intended to strike the sweet old lady, Miss Froy. Now woozy and injured, Iris boards the train with Miss Froy taking care of her. Something is afoot.
After a brief conversation with Miss Froy – during which the older woman orders some special tea from the waiter and writes her name on the window in fog – Iris and Froy return to the compartment where Iris falls asleep, and wakes shortly after to discover that Miss Froy has vanished – and that no one will admit to having seen her at all!
Caught between either a conspiracy or her own false memories – Iris recruits Gilbert to help her find out what happened to Miss Froy, but each person they talk to… the odd foreign people in her train car, the adulterous couple, Charters and Caldicot – the bumbling Englishmen – the waiter… they all pretend to have never seen the old woman for their own reasons. But Iris, determined that she is not crazy – in spite of the advice of a renowned brain surgeon (a suave villain) who happens to be on board – decides to search the train for the woman.
What follows is a comedic and enjoyable journey as Gilbert and Iris share the adventure – a sickly patient is brought aboard along with a suspicious nun, Gilbert and Iris get in a fight with one of the foreigners (who turns out to be a magician), and soon their suspicions fall on the brain surgeon’s sickly patient. But when a new old lady appears pretending to be the missing woman, and Iris starts to doubt her sanity – proof arrives in the form of the special tea-packet and Miss Froy’s name on the window!
Iris and Gilbert rush to the wrapped patient – discover the poor Miss Froy -alive and real – and accidentally stumble upon a conspiracy to kidnap the old woman, all perpetrated by the foreigners and the brain surgeon and the mysterious nun! Now with it all in the open, Iris and Gilbert are taken hostage and the train is diverted off into the woods where a stand-off takes place between the English citizens on the train and the European aggressors closing in… and now you see the wartime allegory.
As the Brits fight off the kidnappers, Miss Froy confesses that she’s actually a spy and that the dead folk-singer’s song is an encoded message which might stop a war, but unless they fight off the gunmen, she’ll never get away. Gilbert and the others decide to stand up and fight – even as the adulterous Lawyer tries to surrender (and is shot for his trouble – don’t give in to aggressors I guess). In the end the heroes barely escape and Gilbert and Iris take their new-found love to London where they are reunited with the warm and wonderful Miss Froy. The lady unvanished!
Both a call to arms and a charming caper, The Lady Vanishes is possibly the best of Hitch’s British films and stands among the brightest of all his work. Then again, like anything related to Hitchcock, that’s a pretty person viewpoint. But one I’m willing to defend.
Featuring some of the most endearing and joyful performances of any Hitchcock film, especially from Margaret Lockwood and May Whitty, The Lady Vanishes is bursting with the fun and cheeky humour – from the stuffy Charters and Caldicot being scandalized by a hotel maid who wants to change clothes in their presence to Michael Redgraves amusing Sherlock Holmes impression, all the way to pretty much every line from Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s near perfect screenplay.
But what makes this film so perfect is that, like so much that goes on in the story, the work is a magic-trick. It is a film about the English, about their relation to the word and how the empirical view that other people and nations and ideas should try to conform to the British way of things was coming to an end. It’s a film about the coming world war and how as much as the English may try to stay out of things – you can’t avoid doing to the right thing for ever. It’s a film about youth, and how even when you think you’ve seen it all – there are still adventures to have. The Lady Vanishes is a film that seems to talk about everything Hitchcock loved to say, and it does it without fear or terror or darkness, just with simple pure filmmaking fun.
A few other points to raise on the picture – it looks great, which isn’t a huge thing to say, except when you realize that fully 60% of the movie takes place on a train, yet never feels limited. It’s an adventure with new sights and sounds around every corner – and it speaks to Hitch’s cinematic mastery that he pulled it off so easily. Also, the film benefits from the singular and brief pairing of Redgrave and Lockwood – who, rarely for the age, seem to enjoy actual chemistry and genuinely sell both the rom-com love/hate and adventurous pleasure in capering about together.
The Lady Vanishes never rises to the fear and suspense of Hitchcock’s other great works – you never worry for the safety of the main characters the way you do in Shadow of a Doubt or Psycho – but what this might lack in harsh danger and drama, it more than makes up for with pure charm and whimsy and a fun-filled (if slightly holed) plot.
Based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes is unlike many of Hitchcock’s films in that it was not a project Hitch ever intended to direct, and he wouldn’t have had it not been for the Yugoslavian police.
Originally written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder for Gaumont British and producer Edward Black, The Lady Vanishes was a script that had been written with the direct influence of Hitchcock’s earlier works. I fact, if the master hadn’t gone on to direct the picture – everyone would have called it a rip-off of his signature styled-thrillers. Luckily for the project director Roy William Neill had been hired to direct the picture (Neill would later go on to direct the excellent Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies), but while filming some scenery shots in Yugoslavia the production had their film seized by local police who didn’t like the way the country was being portrayed. The production was kicked out of the country and the film was set on the back-burner and Neill went back to America for good – leaving the film with no director at all.
A year later, with Hitchcock still owing Black one more film on a contract and not being able to find a satisfactory script, Hitch agreed to take over The Lady Vanishes and with just a few small changes to the story, production quickly geared up nearly right away. The only brief speed-bump on the way seems to be the casting of young up ad coming stage-actor Michael Redgrave. At first reluctant to take on the role in spite of Hitchcock’s determination to have the actor, Redgrave was eventually convinced by John Gielgud (who had been similarly persuaded by Hitchcock to try film for the movie The Secret Agent) to accept the role.
Another key addition to the film not found in the original novel are the comic duo of “Charters and Caldicot” – the stuffy Englishmen who are so obsessed with making it home to watch the cricket match that they nearly don’t even notice they’re embroiled in an international incident. Undoubtedly the break-out stars of the film, the duo (played by Radford and Wayne) became instant stars and went on to feature in three other feature films and several radio plays – all as the same characters.
In the end, Hitchcock seems to have viewed the project as something of a lesser affair. After all, the script was already complete before he took over, the production was simple and the casting straight forward, and he spent the bulk of the film’s shooting time preoccupied with securing his transition to America and also with locking down his next film… The Lady Vanishes appears to have been an afterthought for Hitch – like the lesser Waltzes From Vienna – and yet it would still produce some remarkable work.
A comedic adventure that contains many of Hitchcock’s trade-marks, and yet is also one of the first films to be written as a near tribute to Hitchcock himself, The Lady Vanishes marks the last of the purely comic melodramas in Hitchcock’s career – and the last time Hitch would look at modern Britain while living in Britain.
The movie pays a great deal of attention to illusion and misdirection, and Hitch uses that trope to great effect by including several clever set-ups and pay-offs, in the form of the tea packet and Miss Froy’s name on the glass – but he also misdirects the audience with other classic – more Hitchcockian ways. A nun wears high-heels, a fancy doctor uses brandy to try and poison our heroes, music serves as the MacGuffin, hands do some strangling, a magician uses his illusions to escape, and even the police can’t be trusted!
They’re all hallmarks of Hitchcock’s style, and even in a script he inherited, he found ways to make it all his. And in the end, this film is perhaps the most Hitchcockian of his late British work – because it really is, just so very British.
After this picture Hitchcock would become almost exclusively a director of suspense films. He would make Rebecca and then leave comedy behind (at least intentional comedy), but for this last wholly British production he was awash in the Ealing Studio joy of being an English filmmaker, and much as Hitch might claim to have never felt an affinity with the British film industry (he certainly tried his best to escape or change it), this one picture is a love-letter to both the island, its people, and the kind of small clever and thrilling films that it produced.
Prior to making The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock and family had been to New York City for the first time and Hitch found himself stunned by the vibrancy and celebrity afforded a British filmmaker – and on that fateful trip he also received the first contact from David O Selznick, a producer who would go on to finally bring Hitch to America in 1939. But before that trip to Hollywood, Hitch would have one more film to make in England, with an actor whose own ego would rival Hitchcock’s own – leading to a troubled but fascinating final British production… Jamaica Inn.