The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
The Lady Vanishes is prime Hitchcock, one of his early masterworks, and one that, traditionally, has gotten very little press. Could that be because it was one of the last films he made in Britain before becoming a part of the Hollywood machine? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know I intend to do anything I can, as one small voice in the wilderness, to try and elevate The Lady Vanishes in the American consciousness to its rightful place at the top of the Hitchcock heap with other timeless works like Rope, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window (and, while I know I am in the minority on this one, his silent film The Manxman, which I adored). It’s a textbook in the construction of a humorous mystery with dark undertones, and in that regard, I’m not sure it has ever been equalled.
Plot: Iris Henderson (Night Train to Munich‘s Margaret Lockwood), dissolute debutante by trade, is on her way home to England to be married when an avalanche delays her train. She, and the rest of the passengers, are put up in a hotel for the night while the tracks are cleared, and she makes the acquaintance of a number of charming oddballs, including Gilbert (The Importance of Being Earnest‘s Michael Redgrave), a dashing musicologist who finds himself entirely too interested in the bride-to-be. The next morning, Iris finds herself sharing a carriage with one Miss Froy (Gaslight‘s May Whitty). The two become fast friends, share tea, and make plans to go to lunch. Iris goes off to take a nap; when she awakens, Miss Froy is nowhere to be found, and no one else on the train professes to remember her at all. Gilbert, of course, is all to willing to help Iris, and the two of them set about trying to prove that Miss Froy did indeed exist, despite everyone else on the train insisting the contrary.
It’s all quite fun stuff, if a little terrifying in hindsight given the year it was made and the exploits of the following six in those same frosty mountain countries. The characters are pitch-perfect, even the minor ones; the cricket-mad travellers Caldicott and Charters, played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, proved so popular that they spawned their own series of films. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is. (Unlike Ma and Pa kettle, however, Caldicott and Charters never overshadowed the film from which they sprung.) Hitchcock does a fantastic job of slipping in the dark undertones—everyone knew which way the wind was blowing in 1938, one figures—without ever forgetting that he’s making a comedy as much as he’s making a mystery, and casting the darkness as shading the light, rather than overpowering it. It’s a marvelous balancing act, and like most of Hitch’s comedies, it tends to be overlooked when people start talking about great Hitchflicks. When’s the last time you saw Family Plot or The Trouble with Harry on a list of the ten best Hitchcock movies? (I’d argue both belong, as well as this one.) If there are minor quibbles to be had with the movie, they come with the tight budget with which Hitchcock was obviously working, but if you peruse the IMDB message board for the film, you will see quite a few people arguing that the movie’s low-budget touches are part of its charm. Your mileage may vary. Still, this is an excellent film, all too underseen, that richly deserves rediscovery by new generations of film fans. ****
The full film is available on Youtube (also, if this link gets pulled, on archive.org).