Prior to his employment as a director in the US, there were still a few concerns in Hollywood as to the commercial suitability of Alfred Hitchcock, despite the fact that Picturegoer magazine lauded him as ‘Alfred The Great’ and his pre-war British work received high praise in Variety and The New York Times. Hitchock was in negotiation with American Producer David O. Selznick when he made 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, the excellent and final film made under contract with Gaumont British, and the success of the picture vanquished any lingering doubts in California. Hitchcock signed a seven year contract within a year, and the director and his family moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter.
The Lady Vanishes was nearly filmed a year earlier by Roy William Neill. Hitchcock was without a project after finishing Young And Innocent in 1937 and was drawn to the excellent script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, adapted from the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. This was polished a little by Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, who altered scenes set in a hotel at the beginning and added a more exciting ending, but it’s very much Gilliat and Launder’s work.
It’s easy to see why The Lady Vanishes became a hit on both sides of the pond, and indeed why it has stood the test of time since the late ‘30s. It contains a winning and well-judged blend of humour, mystery and action, and aside from the occasional scene or sequence nothing in Hitchcock’s filmography is quite as light or as funny. It is also fast-paced, inventive and – despite a few flaws – it compares favourably today with some of his most celebrated American films from 1940 onwards.
Set in the fictional mountainous Balkan country of Bandika, the story begins (via a miniature set including a toy train) inside a packed hotel, with guests trapped in town following an avalanche. The main characters are introduced here, including young and soon-to-be-wed Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), fresh from finishing school and unhappy at her impending marriage into nobility; she states the main reason for the wedding is because ‘Father’s simply aching to have a coat of arms on the jam label’. Joining her are cricket enthusiasts Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), an elderly former governess and music teacher named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a couple having an affair who are playfully named in the credits as Mr and ‘Mrs’ Todhunter (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers) and caddish musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave). (Charters and Caldicott don’t quite steal the film – it’s too well-made for that – but Wayne and Bradford are a joy to watch in every scene they appear in. The characters proved to be so popular they ended up appearing in several non-Hitchcock films afterwards.)
Aside from the fact they are all after scarce beds in the same hotel, these characters have little in common at first, aside from their nationality: they’re all English. It’s interesting to see how they deal with the other foreign nationals in the hotel, and the hotel staff, and each one expects a certain level of service and treatment as a result of their country of birth, with various complaints being spouted at the hotel manager (Emile Boreo) in particular. In an amusing, farce-like opening 15 minutes the characters introduce themselves to each other before the tone suddenly shifts with the seemingly random strangling of a crooner.
The action shifts to a train. All of the characters are aboard, although Iris is concussed after a planter intended for Miss Froy is pushed from a station window ledge above the platform and knocks her out. Iris begins to enjoy the company of the sympathetic Miss Froy, but after falling asleep (brilliantly merged by Hitchcock with the train’s wheels spinning round at speed) she wakes up to find no trace of the old lady, and a train full of people who deny that she ever existed. Though perplexed, Iris is adamant that Miss Froy has been kidnapped, and despite the insistence of brain surgeon Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas) that she is hallucinating she enlists the help of Gilbert in her search up and down the train. Has Iris gone crazy? Or is something sinister going on? Answers on a postcard to a Mr. A. Hitchcock, Hollywood…
Fans will spot several of the old master’s recurring themes in that brief summation, principally the idea of a conspiracy in which everyone is seemingly involved except for the confused main protagonist. Lockwood is excellent as the distressed damsel unable to convince anyone except Gilbert of Miss Froy’s existence, doubting her own sanity as more and more voices on the train disagree. While many on the train are in collusion, the neat trick in The Lady Vanishes is that the other English characters are set up against Iris as a result of their own selfishness; Caldicott and Charters do not want to hold the train up because they wish to get back to England for the final day of a cricket test match in Manchester, for example, while the cowardly Mr Todhunter does not want any attention drawn to his affair.
Using only a 90 foot-long set for the train scenes, Hitchcock managed to create a cloying sense of claustrophobia simply by concentrating on three or four carriages, which are even busier than the earlier communal spaces of the packed hotel. The carriages are packed and there is often hardly any space to move freely, illustrated brilliantly in a fight scene with sinister magician Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver) which – unusually for Hitchcock – recalls the slapstick scraps of both Three Stooges and Laurel And Hardy.
The concentration on dining car, corridor and two seating compartments ramps up the tension considerably, but Hitchcock is never one to let things boil and boil until the very end, and the reason for Miss Froy’s disappearance is revealed with a quarter of the film still to go. Unfortunately this means that the final act relies far too much on a completely unconvincing gunfight, in which the plucky passengers on board the train join forces against the fascist citizens of Bandika on the outside. With Hitler on the move in Europe Hitchcock couldn’t have timed it better; indeed some have argued that Mr Todhunter’s surrender in the film is a metaphor for the pre-war pandering to the Nazi Party by sections of the English upper class.
It’s the humour that makes The Lady Vanishes so memorable, though. In the hotel it is bawdy, and quite daring for the time. Lingering shots of ladies’ legs and the apparent suggestion of sexual services available from a hotel maid come across as a little unnecessary, but the rudeness of the English abroad is mined expertly and thanks to Emile Boreo it resembles an episode of Fawlty Towers more than anything else Hitchcock made. Thankfully the humour doesn’t stop when the action moves to the train, although the nudge-nudge-wink-wink elements are wisely left behind to allow for concentration on the mystery at hand. Lockwood and Redgrave both display great comic timing (all the more impressive given that Lockwood was a big star but Redgrave was appearing in his first film), and Radford and Wayne are also great value as the cricket-obsessed pair of gentlemen unable to keep their xenophobia in check.
François Truffaut told Hitchcock that he used to try and see The Lady Vanishes at two showings per week and his intention, after becoming familiar with the story, was always to examine the film’s technical points – mainly the trick shots and camera movement. He said he never actually managed to do this, however, as he became so engrossed in the story and the characters with each showing he would forget all about studying the technical aspects of the film. It’s certainly not as weighty or as ground-breaking as some of Hitchcock’s earlier and later efforts, but the story is gripping, the characters memorable, the script witty and the performances largely excellent. Despite a disappointingly flat set-piece near the end, The Lady Vanishes is one of the master’s better films, expertly-paced, superbly-titled, and its influence on the director’s later work can be both seen and heard in more celebrated works such as Notorious, North By Northwest, Strangers On A Train and the American remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder, Alma Reville, Ethel Lina Wright
Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty
Running Time: 97 minutes