The Lady Vanishes (1938)

An avalanche has caused a train to be delayed, stranding a number of strangers in a remote alpine town in the fictional European country of Bandrika. They include seven people from England: Iris, who is travelling back to England after a holiday to marry; Gilbert, an ethnomusicologist who’d been studying the country’s folk music; Charters and Caldicott, two bachelor gentlemen and (probably) heterosexual life partners who want to see a cricket match in Manchester; a wife and husband who are married, but not to each other; and Miss Froy, a governess returning from several years of educating children in Bandrika.

The next morning, when the train is finally set to leave, Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is hit on the head by a falling brick, causing her several spells of dizziness and fainting during the course of the film. Once in the train, she shares a compartment (and also some tea) with Miss Froy. When she wakes up after a few hours of resting, the governess is nowhere to be seen. In fact, according to the passengers and train personnel she asks, no Miss Froy boarded the train in the first place; it is suggested that she was merely a figment of Iris’s imagination, a lingering consequence of the knock on her head. With the help of Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, father of Vanessa Redgrave), Iris sets out to find her companion and prove that she’s not crazy.

The first part of the above synopsis, the stay in the town, takes up a significant chunk of the movie, about 25 minutes (of 96). It introduces the characters and the setting, but ties in only tangentially with the main mystery. It is also tonally very different from the rest of the film, coming across as a straight-up comedy, part slapstick (in the form of Caldicott and Charters), part romantic (in the form of Gilbert and Iris, who at first can’t stand each other). The tone shifts right around the time the train takes off, becoming much more serious and more befitting of a thriller. There’s still humour to be found, but it’s more subtle, typically in the form of quips of a disguised sexual or political nature (or both). The train setting ratchets up the tension, making it more and more claustrophobic as more and more people turn out to be involved in the vanishing act. Some scenes even border on horror. To Hitchcock’s credit, the shift is gradual, not jarring, but it’s still noticeable how different the movie’s beginning is from its main section; maybe it wouldn’t be if some of the early scenes necessary to the plot had been relocated from the town to the train somehow, adding more cohesion.

Released in 1938, this is not the kind of film that leaves its central mystery (is the old lady real?) ambiguous. Director Alfred Hitchcock would experiment with an unreliable camera a couple years later, and playing with the audience’s suspicions and characters’ psychoses are of course frequent topics throughout his career, but this film is still fairly straightforward. The audience sees Miss Froy interact with Iris, and the other passengers are given various clear reasons not to tell the truth. The viewer is therefore firmly on Iris’s side the entire time, without being distracted by the question of whether she imagined Miss Froy or not.

This straightforwardness could be seen as a weakness, much like the overly long introduction, and it is, a little bit, but Hitchock makes it work. It helps that Lockwood can play both vulnerable and strong-willed and independent-minded, and that Redgrave is convincingly suave and charming, somewhat reminiscent of Errol Flynn; the two definitely have chemistry. And the audience is still kept busy looking for clues – including a few red herrings –, but they concern less Iris’s sanity and more why the governess might have been taken, why other passengers might be lying, what might compel them to finally tell the truth, and which of them are integral parts of the conspiracy. As is typical for the espionage genre (which this film belongs to, in form if not necessarily completely in plot), there are also a number of twists and turns and betrayals, keeping the audience on its toes.

The Lady Vanishes may not represent Hitchcock at his peak, but it’s a very enjoyable thriller. The film is also something of a technical marvel; apparently, Hitchcock only had a rather low budget to work with. This is evident at the very beginning, but not so much once the train (and the plot) gets rolling. It never occured to me that the film was made on a shoestring budget and practically without access to actual trains, both because the story is so engaging and the effects and stage work is mostly seamless.

I should give special mention to Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), two of many Hitchcock characters with an ambiguous sexual orientation. They serve primarily as comic relief in this film, what with their cartoonish obsession with cricket. But their cold indifference to looming tragedies both political (the soon-to-come Second World War) and personal (Miss Froy’s probable abduction) can also be read as an indictment of the British non-interference attitude during the run-up to the war. One of the other characters represents the folly of appeasement politics even more pointedly. The alliterative duo isn’t portrayed in an entirely negative light, however; once the gravity of the situation they soon find themselves in dawns on them, they do take action, and are surprisingly competent at it.

The characters proved so popular they made a couple more supporting appearances in other films (most notably Night Train to Munich, 1940) and eventually got their own movie: Crook’s Tour (1941) is packaged together with Criterion’s release of The Lady Vanishes, and it’s… alright. It’s a harmlessly amusing spy comedy featuring the couple traveling through the Middle East and Europe, unwittingly becoming involved in a German plot to destroy British pipelines. Only they’re not much of a couple this time; Caldicott is engaged to Charters’ sister at the outset of the film and shows an interest in other women on their journey. The rest of their characterisation is also much more conventional, flattened and broadened in service of light entertainment. Their emblematic obsession with cricket turns into a mere eccentricity, only gets mentioned in passing, and is not relevant to the plot or its themes. Unlike in The Lady Vanishes, the two gentlemen are a litte dense and not overly capable, but they still manage to save the day in the end without breaking much of a sweat. And of course they never lose their composure or their dry English wit. It helps that the German agents are pretty incompetent and their schemes so laughably convoluted that the film is forced to comment on them: They can’t tell the authorities what happened to them, the protagonists argue, because there wouldn’t be much story left if they left out all the ridiculous bits. So at least the film is aware of how silly it is.

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