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The Lady Vanishes (1938)

October 3rd, 2007 · 5 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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An inn in the Tyrolean Alps quickly fills when an avalanche blocks the railway for the evening. Among the guests are American Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), on holiday before heading to London to get married. In the room above her is musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), a clarinet playing gent whose dance studies become a nuisance to Iris. Two Englishmen (Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford) are eager to get out of the “third rate country” to catch a cricket match back home.

Iris meets an elderly governess named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). At the train depot, Iris is knocked on the head with a flowerpot someone intended for the cheery governess. Miss Froy gets Iris on the train, but when Iris wakes from a nap, she finds the old woman has vanished. Stranger still, no one in the passenger cabin or dining car will admit to Iris they ever saw her with such a woman. The only sympathetic face Iris finds is Gilbert’s.

A doctor (Paul Lukas) suspects Iris could be suffering hallucinations, but Iris knows Miss Froy is real and believes a conspiracy is afoot. In private, several of the passengers admit their own reasons for wanting to feign ignorance. Iris and Gilbert discover Miss Froy’s spectacles in the possession of a magician. When the train stops to pick up a bandaged patient the doctor is treating, the couple begin to piece together the mystery.

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Production history 
The Wheel Spins was a 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White, a Welsh writer who specialized in mainstream “women in jeopardy” stories. Producer Ted Black purchased the screen rights and commissioned a screenplay from Frank Launder & Sidney Gilliat. Retitled The Lady Vanishes, budgetary woes scrapped the film before a director was ever hired.

Director Alfred Hitchcock returned to England from the U.S., where his comic thriller Young and Innocent had been poorly received in studio previews. Hitchcock was under contract to Gaumont, a European studio run by Maurice and Isidore Ostrer. The Ostrers were ready to let him go, but Ted Black reminded the moneymen that Hitchcock owed them one more picture. Asked if Hitchcock had any ideas, the producer told the Ostrers that he had one.

The Lady Vanishes had enough wit and intrigue to strike a chord with Hitchcock, but his wife Alma Reville helped him revise the script. A new opening sequence established the characters and locations much more coherently, supporting characters were bolstered, and a new finale ended the film in a rousing shoot-out. For the leads, Ted Black suggested a rising starlet named Margaret Lockwood, and a stage actor named Michael Redgrave, who had virtually no experience in moving pictures.

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Watching The Lady Vanishes is like going into an attic and finding a jewel from another place, another time. The film was shot in Islington Studios, London in the spring of 1938, so it is of another place and time. Even with limited resources, Hitchcock knew how to design a movie with more style, sophistication and joy than most filmmakers can accomplish today with millions of dollars for special effects.

The special effect here is a superlative script that actually takes the time to develop its characters and locations. Hitchcock spends 24 minutes introducing us to the leads and to the finely sketched supporting players spending a holiday abroad. It’s never specified where we’re at – Italy or Austria seems likely – and Hitchcock avoids politicking by refusing to give the bad guys a banner or flag. That’s left up to the imagination of the audience.

The heroine is not as aggressive as an audience today might demand, but Margaret Lockwood is radiant as the damsel in distress. Michael Redgrave has great chemistry with her as the band geek who wins her love. The MacGuffin – Hitchcock’s jargon for the item his movies end up hinging on – in this one is a classic. Even the miniatures in the film add to its viewing pleasure and to the remarkable craftsmanship on display in this mystery/romantic comedy/thriller.

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Thomas Scalzo at Not Coming To A Theater Near You says, “What most surprised me about this early British offering from Hitchcock was not that it is a superbly crafted suspense-thriller, which indeed it is, but that it also offers a hefty dose of humor, much of which had me laughing out loud.”

“In The Lady Vanishes, Hitch brings together three genres to create one classic that displays some of the best filmmaking that the post-silent era Hitchcock has to offer,” writes Eric San Juan at DVD In My Pants.

Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “The Lady Vanishes may take place on a train, but it manages to be thoroughly exciting and dangerous. It’s a great, suspenseful diversion for those of you who don’t mind your films in black and white. It’s not the best Hitchcock film, but it’s definitely in the Top 10.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Black comedy · Paranoia · Road trip · Shootout · Train · Woman in jeopardy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Megan // Oct 4, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    This is one of my favorites. As you point out, all the characters are so well done. The ‘two Englishmen’ are perfect at their Polite Dim Pip Pip comic relief. But of course, they come through with the obligatory British Courage and Resourcefulness When Under Fire.

    I bet the public had absolutely no problem putting a face on the bad guys, though. I wonder when exactly during 1938 it was released? The Munich Pact was signed in September…

    Now I have to drive over to my brother’s house and borrow his copy so I can watch it again over the weekend. But that is a good thing.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 5, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Hitchcock took the political commentary out of the script to the point where the villains have no flag or insignia telling us who they are. I thought that was pretty clever, and lends the film a touch of sophistication missing from most of the Nazi bastard movies of the time. Thanks for your comment, Megan.

  • 3 Damian // Oct 7, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    I only saw this for the first time myself recently and was amazed how much so many other film (particularly the Jodie Foster Flightplan) took from it. This is indeed a great flick.

  • 4 Justine // Oct 8, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Another great one (which is to be expected when dealing with Hitchcock :D)! I remember a few years ago showing this at a Halloween party (I was the only person who brought movies, and my collection of horror is hardly extensive), and everyone ate it up. It’s a damn good time, and one of my favourite of his Brit years.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 8, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Damian: I had the same reaction you did when watching this. Flight Plan obviously “liberated” the concept of this movie, to put it nicely. The major difference is that The Lady Vanishes is laced with wit and sophistication, whereas most thrillers today fail to stimulate the imagination the way films from the Golden Age of Hollywood could.

    Justine: That is a cool anecdote! Thanks for sharing it. The fact that The Lady Vanishes could mesmerize a Halloween crowd expecting Freddy Krueger says a lot about its appeal. I approve of your movie library too.

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