12 October 2008

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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.

9 comments:

the editor., 12 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,(Oops! I am so sorry! for capitalizing your initials.)
Wow!... What a very interesting and detailed review of Hitch's 1938 film "The Lady Vanishes."
Maybe I am the "Odd girl/person out" or something...because I really enjoy watching the first 20 minutes of Hitch's "The Lady Vanishes"
Reasons:The opening shot of the miniature village looks "quaint" and original. And the fact, that we are slowly introduce to the main characters in the first 20 minutes.Who(m) will in the end have to "unite" to fight for a common cause in the end.Speaking of the end, T.S. said,
"... 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..." I must admit the ending scene that you just described is kind of "scary," but that aside, I would have to say, that Hitch's "The Lady Vanishes" is one of his films of all the films in his "oeuvres" that always end up on my "top 5 faves" of Hitch's films picks list!
Thank-you!
dcd ;)

FilmDr 14 October, 2008  

You make a good point about how "The Lady Vanishes" takes awhile to warm up, but perhaps as a result, the film is one of Hitchcock's best ensemble dramas because it takes time to develop a nice range of characters who react to the mystery and the bad guys in interesting ways. I like the husband who seeks a peaceful resolution to the gunfight and gets killed as a result. Also Hitchcock's emphasis on Margaret Lockwood's relatively innocent point of view makes the villains all of the more sinister and mysterious in contrast. Thanks to all of these well-rounded characters, I tend to prefer "The Lady Vanishes" to many of other earlier Hitchcock films. To see a modern-day film take the same plot device and not succeed nearly as well, check out "Flight Plan."

Sam Juliano,  14 October, 2008  

OK T.S., I buy it. The "pacing" (some translate this as 'dated') may be the reason why the splendid THE LADY VANISHES might miss out the top-masterpiece category of Hitch's films. Yet as you point out there are so many indellible elements that still make this an entertainment tour de force, and a film that's impossible to forget with unforgettable characters and great story twists. For me it's a toss-up between THE LASY VANISHES and THE 39 STEPS.

MovieMan0283 16 October, 2008  

This is actually my favorite of Hitch's British films (I've seen The Man Who Knew Too Much, Secret Agent, Saboteur, and The 39 Steps in addition). Only 39 Steps really compares, but this one gets the edge because I find it more entertaining. I liked the first 20 minutes too because it sinks you into the characters' world and makes it all the more effective when things get strange.

Also, this movie strikes me as an argument against appeasement. I wrote an entry on this years ago on my old haunting ground, the imdb. You can read it here if you'd like:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030341/board/thread/8585438

darkcitydame4e 16 October, 2008  

...I most definitely think that Hitchcock's 1938 film "The Lady Vanishes" is an argument against appeasement. Look at the appeasers in the film "The Husband"
(Hitch, again with a "sly" twinkle in his eyes" that character was obviously "cheating" on his wife.) was the "main" appeaser in the film
and look what happen to him in the end, with the white hankerchief in his hand as he is shot to death. and the film's comic relief, cricket-loving snoots Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) that T.S. mentioned are unconvinced about a missing lady, Spies, and more interested in getting to a "Cricket match" and preventing an "International incident" (along with the character that portayed "The husband") until actor Basil Radford is shot in the hand. Then he quickly, become a believer and his "skepticism" is replaced with defending his country and fellow countryman.

Therefore, I do believe that Hitch's 1938 film The Lady Vanishes is a "searing" indictment against appeasement.

dcd ;)

MovieMan0283 16 October, 2008  

Yes, I remember watching the movie thinking, "I wonder if this is what Hitchcock had in mind?" By the ending, it seemed pretty obvious that it definitely was!

FilmDr 16 October, 2008  

By the way, the husband's name was Mr. Todhunter, played by Cecil Parker. I found him memorably pretentious and annoying.

darkcitydame4e 17 October, 2008  

Oh! boy!...do I second that motion
one of the most...Pardon me!... "smug" "stuck~up," "conceited," "arrogant," "snobbish"... Some one stop me!... because I am not running out of adjectives... vain men among the entire cast that was introduced to the viewer in the very important, first "20 minutes" of the film "The Lady Vanishes."

I could tell almost "immediately" how his character would develop as the film progressed, from the way he "treated" actress Linden Trevor's character ("Mrs. Todhunter" aka his mistress The
quotation marks are Hitchcock as the credit rolls at the end of the film... not mine!)...in the lobby of the Inn. (Her character was "honest" and "open" his character on the other hand, acted
"suspicious" and "frazzled!")It seems the more "open" and "honest" she was about their relationship the more "appalled" (ha!) he was by her almost "brutal" honesty.
dcd ;)

darkcitydame4e 17 October, 2008  

Oops!...another comment... I love this film sorry!...and remember in the scene
near the end when the train is "disable"...how actor Cecil Parker("Mr Todhunter") conceal the fact, that he has a gun and refuse to use it ("appeasement factor" again!... "This could start an International incident!") and she (actress Linden Trevors aka "Mrs. Todhunter") "wrestle" with him in order to get the gun,(In which the other Cricket "fan" turn believer" actor Naunton Wayne, eventually, takes from him and uses against the "evil doers."

Hitchcock Trivia: When did Hitch make his "famous cameo" in the 1938 film "The Lady Vanishes?"

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