The Lady Vanishes - 1938
The Lady Vanishes - Released November 1, 1938. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
If the oeuvre of Hitchcock is a spectrum, The Lady Vanishes might be on one end, and on the other the much darker Psycho and Rope. Which is an interesting divide since The Lady Vanishes moves through it's 96 minutes with the threat of war pervading the story, and Psycho and Rope are about the petty obsessions of individuals tucked away into smaller, more private lives.
In The Lady Vanishes, Dame May Whitty plays the loveable, sweet old lady Miss Froy who is traveling by train from her job as a governess in an unnamed country which has tall mountains, bridges which span over deep chasms, and is vaguely tied up in the general tensions of 1930's pre-war Europe. Miss Froy is befriended by the helpful young Iris (Margaret Lockwood) who, like Miss Froy, is also traveling on a return to England. They chat and ride along in their crowded train compartment, have a meal together in the dining car, and take a rest. When Iris awakens, Miss Froy is gone.
She asks her fellow passengers for Miss Froy's whereabouts, and they don't recall the person at all, no one she asks remembers Miss Froy, and the train employees don't remember the woman either. Searching the train she comes across Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a somewhat eccentric folk-song collector who she met earlier at her hotel: he was quite irritating and she loathes him, but he is the only ally who will even marginally entertain Iris' claim that Miss Froy was ever on the train (or that Miss Froy even exists).
Though the mystery of what has happened to Miss Froy dominates the movie plot, Hitchcock lets the tale fill up with other characters until the story is a bit of an unintended omnibus. In particular, Hitchcock and screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat created the cricket-obsessed Charters and Caldicott, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, two English passengers who are unfazed by anything that happens during the train journey, whether it's the mystery of Miss Froy, the behavior of "foreigners" or being shot at. However, their detachment falls away to frustration and emotional crisis whenever it comes to learning the latest cricket scores.
Michael Redgrave (as Gilbert) is endlessly patient and equipped with witty repartee (not too different from the hero of Hitchcock's earlier 1930s movie of intrigueThe 39 Steps), but as annoying as he is to Iris, we know there's really only one direction for their relationship to go. True, she has a fiancee waiting for her back in London, a fellow she describes without enthusiasm, and after we hear about him, we have no enthusiasm for him either, but nonetheless, she is dedicated to settling down and getting serious with her life. (Life shortly becomes very serious, as Hitchcock adds in even more characters, and they are all carrying guns....).
Margaret Lockwood's Iris is basically indomitable, persisting when all the evidence is stacked against her and she is listening to the persuasions of Dr. Hartz (who is by happy coincidence also aboard the train, played by Paul Lukas) that there never was a Miss Froy. He tells her (and Gilbert) that a knock on the head Iris suffered back at her hotel (a flower pot fell on her) has produced a possible concussion and this imaginative figment of her mind that she calls Miss Froy in an invention combined from her memories of other people. Incidentally, Dr. Hartz is aboard with a seriously ill patient wrapped in gauze bandages, being ministered to by a hard-bitten Nun (Catherine Lacey). Then Iris notices that the Nun is wearing black high heal shoes under her habit....
Though we suspect a murder may have taken place, unlike some Hitchcock movies, in the end the twist isn't about a corpse, rather the twist is based upon humming a little tune (a similar issue, but with a different purpose, shows up in Hitchcock's twice-made The Man Who Knew Too Much). The tune in The Lady Vanishes is also tied up with the goal of getting back to England in one piece, still humming it so as not to lose the melody, a task which becomes Gilbert's job.
The anxiety of this little group of pre-war Englishmen and women are examined by Hitchcock, though he could not have known that Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler was doomed to complete failure and that around the globe other powers were moving toward what was shortly to be titled World War II by the historians. But, Hitchcock fashioned a story that says, whatever what may come, England can get through it if we think fast, stay calm, and have good dialogue.
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Original Page October, 2014
Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Movemaking
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