The only journey I’ve ever taken with Margaret Lockwood is on a Hitchcock train. As Iris Henderson, a young woman on her way to get married, Lockwood is hit on the head by a flower-pot meant for an older woman she’s trying to help. Dizzy and with blurred vision Iris embarks on a journey that has her second-guessing herself as the older woman she has now befriended becomes the lady in the memorable mystery ride that is Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
The Lady Vanishes marks an important period in Alfred Hitchcock’s career. His twenty-second movie, Vanishes is the last in what has come to be known as Hitchcock’s classic, thriller sextet. This is also the last movie he made at England’s Gaumont-British Picture Corporation before moving to Los Angeles to start work in the Hollywood Studio system. Hitch left England with an exclamation point in his filmography. The hugely popular The Lady Vanishes received great reviews on both sides of the pond. Upon its release, The Times of London hailed Hitchcock, “The Prince of English Thrill-makers” and The New York Times hailed him “The greatest director of screen melodramas in the world” and named The Lady Vanishes Best Picture of 1938. In 1939, Hitchcock received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director, which is (astonishingly) the only time the master received an award for directing.
Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes is an enjoyable, often outright funny, thriller that defies some genre conventions. I like this movie more every time I see it and go back-and-forth between this and The 39 Steps, another of the thriller sextet productions, as to which is my favorite Hitchcock movie from that era.
From the onset of The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock has our undivided attention and the tension begins to build as a singer (who sounds like he’s moaning) is strangled. This scene is fairly creepy and sets a dire tone right off the bat. Hitchcock also uses a train whistle throughout the journey depicted here that sounds eerily like a woman’s shriek. It never fails to startle and is just one of the reasons The Lady Vanishes has an unbeatable formula for success. What we get here is a mystery and a mystery about whether there is a mystery, some of Hitch’s signature humor, suspicious sights and sounds, a great cast of characters who are all made to look guilty – and Alfred Hitchcock.
The plot of The Lady Vanishes is quite simple: The old lady (Miss Froy played by Dame May Witty) – who Iris Henderson befriends – disappears from the moving train. Although several of the other passengers on the train had witnessed the lady’s presence it is questionable whether she was a figment of the Iris’ imagination because no clues can be found as to her existence. Or, more accurately, no clues anyone else will admit to.
The story unfolds as Iris tries to get to the bottom of what happened to Miss Froy with the help of Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a young man she meets on the train who is the only person who believes her about the old woman’s presence on the train. We learn little about Miss Froy aside from the fact that she is partial to a special tea – she and a million Mexicans actually – a fact that proves central to resolving the mystery, which is a difficult task when every other passenger is seemingly bent on obstructing the truth. You’ll have to discover for yourself who is on what side in this journey. And that is what makes The Lady Vanishes worth repeated views, the journey, as is the case for so many Alfred Hitchcock movies. The why of Miss Froy’s disappearance is explained as are many other Hitchcock McGuffins, it has to do with government secrets hidden in a song, but the details are not of consequence to the enjoyment of the film other than its presence as the plot device that gets the action going.
As the female lead in the story Margaret Lockwood, who would have celebrated her 100th birthday this week, is tops. It is to her that I dedicate this post as part of the commemorative Margaret Lockwood Centennial Blogathon hosted by Terry at A Shroud of Thoughts. Since The Lady Vanishes is (to my recollection) the only Lockwood movie I’ve ever seen I am reminded of how much I’ve missed whenever I watch this movie. She is charming, beautiful, smart, doggedly determined and as Iris Henderson also innocent enough to doubt herself believably so that we too have moments of doubt ourselves. It is that ingénue quality that Hitchcock spends much of the movie’s opening moments showing us that makes her such a believable victim in this spy thriller.
Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, who made his film debut in The Lady Vanishes, also make as great a pair of investigators in a familiar Hitchcock setting as you’ll find in any of his films. In addition, Paul Lukas is terrific Dr. Hartz, a memorable villain indeed with Dame May Witty, who gets limited on-screen time as the vanished Miss Froy, another great casting choice. Then we have Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott who supply hearty laughs amidst the mystery. Whether by way of a look or an indignant aside when cricket is dismissed, every moment that Charters and Caldicott are on screen is a treat. Actually, the entire cast of The Lady Vanishes is wonderful with even the smallest roles important in such close quarters. Hitchcock uses plenty of his signature close-ups to make everyone look guilty so mid-way through the movie there are familiar, potentially dangerous faces everywhere.
Since I love trains in Hitchcock films I’d be remiss to ignore the setting in The Lady Vanishes, a train that doubles as another character in the movie. Trains make natural settings for thrillers and Mr. Hitchcock used the steel contraption in numerous movies. You also get lots of other reliable Hitchcock elements in The Lady Vanishes. François Truffaut claimed this movie was his favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s films because it is the best representation of Hitchcock’s work.
I hope you’ve seen The Lady Vanishes, but if not plan on it soon. Note that it is best if enjoyed with a spiked Brandy!
I re-watched The Lady Vanishes on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray version and just have to recommend it to anyone thinking of adding this film to his/her collection. The transfer is wonderful and while viewing it one easily forgets the film is nearly 80 years old. The Criterion release also includes several wonderful special features – excerpts of interviews of Alfred Hitchcock discussing The Lady Vanishes and British cinema in general with Francois Truffaut, a documentary about the film, which features many Hollywood film experts and moguls and behind-the-scenes stills of the film.