d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 97 mins.
In many respects, The Lady Vanishes is like a mix-tape compilation of Alfred Hitchcock's British period. There's mystery, suspense, romance, questions of sanity, action, Anglo humor that is occasionally dry and occasionally bawdy, and finally, a train (so often important to the foundation of the director's works, both in Britain and America). In certain moments his stylistic devices had never been more inspired, and it was this film that brought Hitchcock his first American accolade: the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.
The plot has all the psychological complexity that today we know interested Hitchcock unendingly. Based off the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins and set on the middle of the European continent in the early days before World War II, a young socialite named Iris (Margaret Lockwood) becomes acquainted with two people on an international train ride: Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a strapping and handsome man who is studying folk music, and Miss Froy (May Whitty), an elderly governess with whom she enjoys some tea. But as is wont to happen in the unexpected world of Hitchcock films, Miss Froy suddenly seems to vanish into thin air and everyone on board the train, including some sketchy individuals, denies that she was ever aboard. Bewildered at the turn of events and frightened at the possibility that her sanity could be slipping away, Iris teams up – professionally and romantically – with Gilbert to solve the mystery.
Short of only The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes might be his best film from the British era – but it still isn't quite a masterpiece. Part of the problem is the shaky pacing of the narrative. On Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne likes to forewarn audiences that The Lady Vanishes begins rather slowly, but if you make it through the first 20 minutes or so, it builds steam and never lets up. That's true, but it doesn't change the fact that the first 20 minutes are still slow. It's set in the train station, and the camera goes from character to character, giving us a moderately humorous introduction to Iris, Gilbert, Miss Froy, and the film's comic relief, cricket-loving snoots Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). In comparison to the rest of the film, the beginning is a tad weak, and the ending – which begins with an action-packed shoot-out between the good guys on the train and the bad guys in a wooded area and culminates with a merry song and lots of laughter – is an eerily chipper bow-tie.
The middle third of the film, the portion most devoted to the mystery, is Hitchcock at his very best. Most famous is the device Hitchcock employs to tell the characters – and the audience – that Iris and we are not insane and something mysterious is afoot with Miss Froy: a single tea wrapper. The moment is absolutely fleeting, but its impact is world-shattering. Without divulging too much information of the utterly illuminating moment, I'll turn it over to documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who noted it was such "an astonishing film idea that I will ever look to duplicate that feeling of chill in any film I make."
Hitchcock worked on The Lady Vanishes during a tumultuous time for him professionally, as heated and complicated negotiations for his transplant to America were underway. By late 1936 and early 1937, Hitchcock had become fed up with cinema production in England and had resolved himself to leave the country for America, blossoming in film. MGM had begun its bid to recruit Hitchcock, proposing a scenario where he would work for them in England with possible opportunities to film in America. Myron Selznick (David O.'s older brother) had also been working to bring the director across the ocean. But negotiations were always conducted in the shadow of two great Hitchcock concerns: his salary (which would have to be high enough to allow him to continuing living at a similar salary while taking account the difference in American taxes) and his desire to secure a multi-picture deal, which would preserves his ability as an artist to pursue projects he wanted. He traveled to New York City after production ended on Young and Innocent, and palled around with the U.S. press corps and representations from D.O. Selznick. But the backroom politicking and trans-national telephone calls began to slide in a direction away from Hitchcock, and he left America without the deal he desired. He returned to England, began production on The Lady Vanishes, and it wasn't until D.O. Selznick saw Young and Innocent in 1938 that negotiations took a leap forward. Within a year, Hitchcock would be on the ground in the United States filming Rebecca.
Unlike in America (where he would soon find himself and where his great films seemed to be produced steadily and sequentially), Hitchcock's work in Britain is more scattershot. For all intents and purposes The Lady Vanishes is a fitting cap to his British period, although it is officially his penultimate British-era film. (He ended on the abysmal Jamaica Inn as a project to hold him over until arriving in Hollywood.) It might be fitting here to see how far the director had come: by 1938, he'd directed The Lodger, Blackmail, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and now The Lady Vanishes. Many directors would consider themselves lucky to have a filmography filled with such gems, but Hitchcock had only been directing movies for eleven years (!) and hadn't even transplanted his roots to the soil he'd called home for nearly 40 years. In America, he had an entirely new and wild career waiting for him.
12 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 97 mins.