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CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: #1 The Lady Vanishes

Ring a Ding Ding

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

      Many people have an aversion to Alfred Hitchcock‘s British films, which I think have generally been classified as inferior to his American work and are typically relegated to cheap DVD compilations. I, on the other hand, truly enjoy a number of Hitchcock’s early works before moving to Hollywood in the late 1930s. I am not willing to say that any of the Master of Suspense’s films are bad (except maybe Under Capricorn) even if some do not suit my fancy.

     The Lady Vanishes is likely my favorite of the man’s English work. It offers an inventive plot that keeps the viewer guessing and one that would be used in other films as recently as Flightplan a few years ago. The film is based around precisely what it the title suggests, the disappearance of a woman, seemingly into thin air. The film takes its time in reaching that point, however.

     To start, Hitchcock introduces us to the cast of characters that will be loosely involved in the mystery. At a hotel/train station in some fictitious European town we meet several groups of passengers planning to take the next day’s train, which has been delayed by an avalanche forcing everyone to stay the night at the now-overbooked hotel. We are even duped into thinking a pair of English men concerned about getting home for a cricket match are our main characters as we follow their plight acquiring a room, which ends up being the maid’s accommodations. Also at the hotel are a couple who are both married to other people. The young woman continually prods the lawyer she is with about why he seems to suddenly be concerned about discretion, when that was not an issue earlier in their travels. A group of three young, English women are given preferential rooming at the hotel. One of those is set to take the train home to meet up with a fiancée she is marrying for his money. A musician is also booked at the hotel where he disturbs some guests with his playing of the clarinet and note taking on some traditional folk dance. Finally, we have the old woman around which the plot moves. She is a governess returning to her home in England.

     When before boarding the train the young engaged woman –Iris, played by Margaret Lockwood— picks up the old woman’s glasses and takes them to the lady, she receives a flower box dropped on the head intended for the elder female. The two board the train and Iris instantly passes out. She wakes in a compartment siting across from the old lady –Mrs. Froy, played by Dame May Whitty— and the two head to the dining car for tea. When trying to introduce herself, the train whistle makes Mrs. Froy’s name inaudible, so she spells it on the window. Upon returning to their compartment, Iris falls asleep and when she wakes the old woman is gone, and the other passengers in the compartment say she was never there.

     Iris starts her hunt around the train for the woman, finding that the stewards and waiter insist she had tea alone. She wanders into a third-class car where she finds the musician –Gilbert, played by Michael Redgrave— who steadies the girl when she swoons, still recovering from the blow to the head. He opts to help her in the investigation. They ask the two cricket fans who had been discussing the game at a table across from Iris and Mrs. Froy when they had tea. The two deny seeing the woman, however, because they fear the gal will stop the train and possibly prevent them from making it to the cricket match. The couple who are having the extra-marital affair also deny seeing the old woman who nearly fell into their compartment earlier because the man is worried about being involved in an inquiry that could get their names into the paper and hurt his career. A doctor, whose loyalties are questionable from the outset, joins the investigation but suggests that Iris’ head injury could have caused a delusion. Next, a woman in Mrs. Froy’s clothing appears in the original compartment and everyone insists this foreign lady is the one who had been there all along. The doctor says perhaps Iris substituted Mrs. Froy’s face for this woman, since she had met her the night before. Iris is convinced she might be nuts until she notices FROY written on the dining car window again.

     I could go on describing the plot because each step is integral to the story progression. The Lady Vanishes offers a great mystery that seems to engage the viewer as a member of Iris and Gilbert’s team. We, too, wonder if Iris just imagined her because the idea that some sort of conspiracy against a kind, old woman is too far-fetched for the seemingly normal environment Hitchcock establishes for us. With the opening scenes in the hotel, it feels as though this will be a simple dramatic/comedic story with no mystery whatsoever. Just a story about people. So when Mrs. Froy disappears so simply and calmly, one cannot help but think Iris did imagine her, especially because none of the dissenting characters comes off as overtly sinister.

     To give Hitchcock credit for all aspects of a film that seems to stink of his style is somewhat false. Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the film had been adapted into a very Hitchcockian story by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat before the director came on board. When Hitchcock took it on as the last film to fulfill his contract with Gaumont Pictures, he changed the beginning to include the character introductions and the end to allow for a more action-packed conclusion. He also made minor changes through the middle, including allowing the cricket-mad men greater parts and putting high heels on a “nun”. Redgrave was grabbed from the stage for this first of his films and was thrown into the awkward “meet-cute” scene with Lockwood on the first day of shooting after having met her only once before. Hitchcock liked to use this sort of off-screen meddling to affect performances. Once during his English days, Hitch handcuffed the lead male and female actors of a picture together for a day. He also added to Joan Fontaine’s timid, alienated persona in Rebecca with his back-stage behavior, but I will come to that in another post. Hitchcock was notoriously known for saying “actors are cattle.” I have always taken that line with a mind toward’s the man’s humor and as a device to further the Hitchcock mystique. The comment was thought to have originated in the 1920s, but Redgrave said he heard the line used in his presence. It is also possible that the director made the statement in response to snobbish theater actors who considered themselves too good for film.

The MacGuffin: One of the most abstract versions of the MacGuffin lies within this flick. It is the coded message contained in a musical tune, which incidentally does not come up in conversation until the end.

Where’s Hitch? In Victoria Station he is wearing a black coat and smoking a cigarette, walking in the crowd from screen right to left.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

10 Responses

  1. Rachel, I’m a big fan of Hitch’s British films, with my favorite probably being the neglected YOUNG AND INNOCENT. As you point out, THE LADY VANISHES is probably the best-known example of the “does he or she really exist” premise and no doubt inspired films like FLIGHTPLAN (though my favorite of that mini-genre is Otto Preminger’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING). So glad you mentioned Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat! They were a great filmmaking team and later did the marvelous GREEN FOR A DANGER, a wry, clever mystery with many Hitchcockian overtones.

    • I too loved “Bunny Lake is Missing” which certainly does use that same technique. In that one we don’t even see Bunny at the start so we really are unsure if she exists. Brilliant! Love Preminger.

  2. The Lady Vanishes is one of the few Hitchcock Brit films I have seen, and of those, it’s definitely my favorite. I’m glad someone decided to focus on it for the blogathon. This just reminds me that I really need to catch up on my British Hitch films!

  3. Like Rick, I also enjoy watching Hitch’s early British works and The Lady Vanishes is always the first film I recommend to those people not familiar with the Master’s pre-U.S. films because it’s such a first-rate entertainment. Your review is a reminder that I really should get my Criterion DVD of Lady out and watch it again for a guaranteed thrill.

  4. Sounds neat! Congrats on the marathon, you’re doing great!

  5. Well-done and interesting review of the only one of Hitchcock’s early films that I have seen or know anything about! I need to remedy that situation, and your interesting facts and information have spurred me on. This one certainly has a marvelous cast, and I liked it. Thanks for a good read!

  6. Rachel, I think you’re right in saying that those familiar with Hitchcock’s American films often have difficulties with his British films, which can appear technically primitive in comparison, although of course Hitch knew how to make the most of what he had to work with. I think this one and “The 39 Steps” are my favorite of the early British movies with “Young and Innocent” not far behind, although all the ones I’ve seen have something to recommend them. But I do think this may be my favorite of them all. Interesting background on the source material and production. When “Flightplan” was released, I read an article somewhere about how often this device has been used in movies, and the number of examples named was surprisingly large.

  7. Along with THE 39 STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES is arguably the easiest films for viewers not familar with his English period to process. It has many of the elements AH film would be known for and a great cast. Great choice.

  8. Hitchcock’s British v. U.S. films are not only a study in contrast because he was working with two different nations, but also he was working with a smaller budget and wartime restrictions with some of his earlier work.

    The restrictions seem to showcase his wonderful creative ability in a unique way. Brit Hitchcock films are so low key, they feel as if the situation could actually happen to you or someone you know.

    As the budget increased, more color used, larger orchestras at hand, bigger stars and more stylish wardrobe, Hitchcock films – the ones in the U.S. – took on an otherworldy quality. No less exciting, but less like an everyman story, despite his constant use of average Joe caught in wild circumstances.

    I like both sets of films. Thanks for bringing this up.

    — Java

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