Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Though he would make Jamaica Inn the following year, it’s undoubtedly The Lady Vanishes that situated Hitchcock for the move to Hollywood as his last great British film showcasing once more his immense aptitude as a storyteller no matter the resources on hand.

At the beginning of the proceedings, an avalanche makes accommodations at an inn, hidden away in Europe somewhere, rather sparse and it makes for strange bedfellows and noisy neighbors. Among them are the prized comedy duo Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford), a pair of quibbling cricket enthusiasts. Meanwhile, radiant Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is just coming off a glorious vacation with a couple girlfriends as she returns to get married to her fiancee.

Dame May Whitty makes a fine showing as a rather whimsical eccentric, playing the role of a kind-spirited governess enjoying some time in the land she deems a little slice of paradise. In one off-handed comment, she notes with bright eyes, “I don’t think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?”

It’s a passing line that suggests Hitchcock’s own indifference to politics. He briefly touches on the political climate at the time but never looks to go in depth and make some grandiose statement about the state of affairs in Europe. That is not his sentiment. Instead, he takes the natural climate of the times utilizing them for the sake of his narrative.

Things couldn’t be more delightful for them both in their encounter and yet the overcrowding is far from agreeable as an obnoxious neighbor in the attic (Michael Redgrave) unwittingly serenades the entire floor below him with an atrocious melody. It pales in comparison to the beautiful vibrato Ms. Froy was met with on her balcony nor is it quite as significant.

Of course, it’s Iris that Gilbert Redman really perturbs especially when she gets him ejected by the manager only to have him turn right back around and make himself at home in her suite. Thus, we have a bit of initial friction at home in a rom-com soon to be turned into a delightful mystery escapade with splashes of intrigue and absurdity.

The largest and most enjoyable leg of the adventure takes place onboard the train but it only works because of a seemingly inconsequential development. Iris is positively swimming after an ill-fated brick conks her on the temple and she is helped onto the train by Ms. Froy who tells her to rest up.

Iris obliges. Except when she awakens her lady companion is not in their compartment. She’s nowhere to be found. In fact, everyone that she interrogates corroborates that they never saw this kindly old lady. She must not exist. Just like that the game is afoot as our heroine endeavors to track down her friend and stave off the impending doubts that this woman was only a figment of her imagination.

It’s these perplexing developments that feel rather like a conspiracy. Still, it’s hardly that type of thing at all. It’s the very fact that all these people are humans — they’re selfish –with different self-serving motives for keeping up the charade. The clandestine couple with the man looking to stay conspicuous and a woman not minding a little bit of scandal.

The Cricket aficionados bent on getting to their match in time along with a whole host of others. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist (Paul Lukas) points out that Ms. Froy sounds vaguely like Freud and must simply be the inner workings of Irises subconscious. Of course, that’s only an easy way to explain away what is actually happening.

She likens Gilbert (Redgrave) to the dog that follows her around and it’s true he quite faithfully stays by her side even taking up the mantle of her investigation. Soon they’re traipsing around like a maladjusted Holmes and Watson, Redgrave going so far as to don a deerstalker as Lockwood coughs and passes him a pipe in utter parody.

They end up making quite a ruckus in the magician car full of hats, rabbits, and boxes with false bottoms and for the added fact that they get into a bit of a scuffle. But that’s only the beginning. Because, of course, what is a Hitchcock film without a little bit of international espionage? But once again he brings it into the world of tourists and well-to-do British subjects who have no right to be in such a scenario.

Factions form and the remaining passengers look to make a break for it amid a gunfight with foreign adversaries. Never before has there been such a droll reaction to a gunshot wound. A very Hitchcock moment without question.

The Lady Vanishes fits into the long lineage of Hitchcock with similarly high profile sequences from The 39 Steps (1935) to Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959) but for the amount of time spent aboard, this picture is his most formidable train film.  It uses the very motion and sound of the steam engine to add crucial momentum to the plot.

Hitchcock speeds events to their conclusion and once more we find that in many cases our objective was utterly pointless, even throwaway, but it did give rise to one of the great thrillers of the 1930s. Part of the film’s unequivocal success comes from drawing equally from the wells of comedy and suspense. The laughs are ever present but far from being to the detriment of the drama they only augment the action, adding to the contours of our characters and pointing out the sheer ridiculousness found in this plotline. It’s wonderful.

4.5/5 Stars

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