Film Review: The Lady Vanishes
Hitchcock delivers puzzlement, intrigue, and a sizable dose of comedy.
Published: January 1, 2014
The Lady Vanishes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Plays at the Charles Theatre Jan. 4 at 11:30 a.m., Jan. 6 at 7 p.m., and Jan. 9 at 9 p.m.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes can feel dated, but that is perhaps mostly due to the fact that it conjures an old-fashioned, mildly corny murder-mystery dinner—the lion’s share of the film taking place as it does on a London-bound train. But like those dinners, The Lady Vanishes aspires to provoke puzzlement, intrigue, and a sizable dose of comedy, and Hitchcock more than delivers on every score.
The movie opens with a long shot of a snowy village of Swiss chalets; it’s obviously a toy set. The camera slowly pans and zooms to arrive on the face of a lodge. Inside, we meet an array of characters mobbing an inn’s front desk, trying to get a room for the night after a train is delayed by an avalanche. There’s Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), a pair of British cricket fanatics desperate to make an upcoming match in London. There’s an unhappy couple (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers) having a resentment-fueled spat. And there’s a trio of boisterous young women well known to the inn’s concierge; one of them, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), a blue-blooded Englishwoman headed home for her wedding, will emerge as the film’s main detective later on the train, where the titular lady vanishes and Iris becomes the sole person who seems to know or care.
More future protagonists and eventual suspects are introduced as the film chugs along at a rollicking pace, taking us from the guests’ last night at the hotel to the train’s departure. A kindly brain surgeon, a dashing musicologist, a taciturn baroness, a lovable little old lady, a nun in high heels—Hitchcock’s colorful, varied cast fills in. Unlike some of Hitchcock’s more cryptic films, The Lady Vanishes unfolds rather simply, peppered with comic sequences: Charters and Caldicott must share a maid’s room (and bed, and pajamas) in the hotel; Iris and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a man who agrees to help her, tussle with an Italian magician in the baggage car of the train; Iris and Gilbert’s banter persistently about the vanished woman.
The film was a rare instance of Hitchcock taking a script—adapted by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins—pretty much as is. The movie had originally been an undertaking of American director Roy William Neill, who had begun filming the previous year in Yugoslavia (the country deported Neill and his crew after discovering a copy of the script that cast the Yugoslavian army in a negative light). When Hitchcock took on the film, he was eager to advance his career, and, indeed, when The Lady Vanishes debuted in the U.K. in 1938, it was instantly popular. It made its way overseas, and The New York Times designated it the best picture of that year. French nouvelle vague director François Truffaut said of the movie, “Since I know it by heart, I tell myself each time that I’m going to ignore the plot. [But] I become so absorbed by the characters and the story that I’ve yet to figure out the mechanics of the film.”
Certainly, in terms of its lack of gripping suspense and complex devices, The Lady Vanishes is somewhat irregular in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, but it’s widely thought of as his funniest film and an essential one for fans.
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