THE LADY VANISHES (1938) – Gaumont British – ★★★★★
B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert Redman), Paul Lukas (Dr. Egon Hartz), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy), Basil Radford (Charters), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Cecil Parker (Mr. Todhunter), Linden Travers (“Mrs.” Todhunter).
Screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox
Edited by R.E. Dearing
Music by Louis Levy and Charles Williams
Farewell, London: The Lady Vanishes is often thought to be the movie that made Hollywood take notice of Hitchcock, and precipitated his departure for the States. Actually, the deal was already done when Hitchcock was still working on this film. A handful of Hollywood studios had already been courting him for over a year. When Hitchcock finally signed with David O. Selznick in July of 1938, The Lady Vanishes was still in post production, its release date four months away. This film does work as a farewell for the British period of Alfred Hitchcock. He would make one more movie (Jamaica Inn) before his departure for Hollywood, but that was just done to occupy his time for a few months, and as a favor to producer/star Charles Laughton. The Lady Vanishes is a culmination of everything that Hitchcock had learned and accomplished in his 15-plus years in the British film industry. And while The 39 Steps is often cited as Hitch’s best British film, I have to give the nod to The Lady Vanishes. Both films are superbly directed and perfectly cast. What gives the later film the edge, to me, is the masterful screenplay by the duo of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.
Act One, a Hitchcock comedy? The film opens in a hotel in the fictional European country of Bandrika. The opening scene, in the hotel lobby, introduces almost all of the central characters. Most of them are departing on the train, which has been snowed in for the evening. They will have to stay in the hotel overnight, and catch the train in the morning. The tone of this opening segment is lighthearted and comical; there is not a hint of menace for a quarter of the film’s running time. We meet Charters and Caldicott, two cricket-obsessed Englishmen (more on them later); Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter, a couple that is married, just not to one another; and Iris Henderson, a young, well-off British woman and her two travelling companions. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, in the roles of Charters and Caldicott, get most of the good lines, and also some visual gags that are worthy of Laurel and Hardy. When they go down to dinner they meet an older, slightly dotty English governess named Miss Froy. We don’t know it yet, but this is the lady who will vanish. Later, Miss Froy and Iris, who are in adjoining rooms, are disturbed by a cacophony of noise coming from the room above. The noise is caused by the (comically bad) performance of a Bandrikan folk dance being documented by Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). Iris bribes the hotel manager to toss him from his room, which sets up one of the best “meet cutes” in cinematic history.
Gilbert enters Iris’s room and begins laying his things out, preparing to sleep in her bed, since she was the cause of his eviction. This sequence is full of delightful dialogue, such as when Gilbert says “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a toothbrush” as he is placing his toothbrush in a glass in the bathroom, while discarding her own. He begins to hum Colonel Bogey’s march at the top of his voice, finally convincing Iris to have him restored to his room. It is apparent from the first moment these two share on screen that even as they are trading barbs, they really like one another. Redgrave and Lockwood have that indelible something, a chemistry that is hard to pin down, but undeniable when it’s there.
Now we cut to Miss Froy, listening to a man on the street below her window sing a tune. If you’ve been paying attention, this is not the first time this tune has been played. It is actually the opening title music for the movie, and can be heard in the background a couple of times before this final scene. Now the tone of the movie changes dramatcially, as a shadow of hands closes in on the singer’s neck.
The singer is strangled to death, his body falling to the ground. Miss Froy tosses down a coin, unaware that it will never be claimed by its intended recipient. Prior to this, the viewer is already engrossed in the movie, thanks to the wonderful dialogue and acting. We have almost forgotten that this is supposed to be a “Hitchcock” movie. Now he reminds the viewer that things are not what they seem, and we had better be on our toes.
All aboard: Act Two begins the following morning at the train station. Iris, while helping Miss Froy look for her glasses, is hit on the head by a flower box that seems to be pushed from an upper window. She boards the train just as it is leaving, and Miss Froy accompanies her to a carriage that is occupied by some eccentric looking people: the Baroness, and Signor Doppo with his wife and child. Shortly after this, Miss Froy and Iris head to the dining car. This scene is important for a number of reasons. In this section of the movie, Miss Froy is seen by several people, all of whom will later deny that she exists. And it gives Miss Froy the opportunity to plant a clue:
When Iris can’t hear Miss Froy pronounce her name over the train noise, she writes it on the window. It is wise to remember that nothing ever happens by accident in a Hitchcock movie. Later, back in their carriage, Iris falls asleep. When she awakes, Miss Froy is gone, and everybody claims not have seen her. We come to understand why Charters and Caldicott and the Todhunters deny her existence; they have their own personal reasons. But what of the four other people in the carriage? What of the steward that served her tea in the dining car? Iris, searching for Miss Froy, discovers Gilbert on the train, and he assists her in her quest. Their dialogue together is delightful, with so many delicious lines that they some are almost throwaways. Gilbert tells Iris “My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.” When Iris tells Gilbert that something fell on her head, he replies “When, infancy?” There are dozens of such lines, which makes it almost a necessity to see this movie more than once to pick up on it all. It takes more than one time to catch all the dialogue, and all the little details that fill almost every frame of this movie.
They soon meet brain surgeon named Dr. Hartz, who is riding with a patient to a nearby hospital to perform surgery. Harts is interested in Iris’s story, and offers his assistance. He hints that the knock on the head Iris sustained at the train station caused her to imagine Miss Froy’s appearance on the train. She almost begins to believe him, until a new woman appears in the carriage, another woman with a strange and memorable countenance called Madame Kummer, who claims that she helped Iris on the train after her accident.
This shot has wonderful framing; shooting 3/4 of his movie on a set only 90 feet long, Hitchcock had to get creative with his camera work. The constant rattling of the carriage and solid back projection footage sell the viewer on the idea that the train is constantly moving.
After Gilbert realizes that Iris is telling the truth about Miss Froy, the final act of the film deals with attempting to find her, and discover why she was taken. Hitchcock and his screenwriters create another humorous section in the baggage car, which ends with our leading couple scuffling with a magician named Signor Doppo,
Miss Froy is eventually discovered, wrapped in the bandages of Dr. Hartz’s supposed patient. We discover that Miss Froy is not the innocent governess that she appears to be, but is a British spy, trying to get a secret, in the form of a tune, back to the Foreign Office in London. There is a dramatic shootout, and an even more dramatic escape, with Miss Froy running into the woods, entrusting Gilbert with the tune.
Charters and Caldicott: Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat created the characters Charters and Caldicott to represent typical Englishmen abroad. They are obsessed with cricket, seemingly knowing every detail of every significant match ever played, which makes them seem boyish. And yet, they dress in formal dinner wear in a provincial hotel! They are meant to be laughed at, a little bit, but they are also very likable. When Miss Froy appears after being gone for most of the movie, Charters says “The old girl has turned up,” with Caldicott replying “Bolt must have jammed,” implying that she has been locked in the lavatory all this time! Yet when the going gets tough, they risk their lives for Miss Froy and the other passengers.
These two characters became so popular that Launder and Gilliat would writer parts for them in several other movies. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne would spend the rest of their professional lives paired together, leaving a memorable mark on British popular culture.
Hitchcock and propaganda: This film was released in 1938, so England was not at war with Germany yet, but certainly there were hints of things to come. The antagonists in this film are Bandrikan, but are clearly meant to be German sympathizers. The character of Mr. Todhunter is meant to play the role of the appeaser, who refuses to believe that any harm can befell them because “After all, we’re British!” He has a gun but refuses to fire it. Caldicott tries to tell him that the time for talking is over, now is the time for shooting. When Todhunter steps off the train, literally waving a white handkerchief, Hitchcock shows us what happens to appeasers in wartime. This rather obvious symbolism might seem heavy handed, but perhaps wartime is not the time for subtlety. Hitchcock would employ elements of propaganda in a handful of other films during the war years.
Happily ever after? Hitchcock had ended his earlier British classic The 39 Steps with a hint of ambiguity, something he would employ a few times in his career. This film, however, ends with Iris and Gilbert discussing their wedding, shortly before being reunited with Miss Froy in the final scene. Why the happy ending? If any Hitchcock film deserves it, it is this one. Iris and Gilbert seem absolutely made for each other, and any other ending would seem a false note. It is the perfect ending. This movie does not have as many signature visual shots as The 39 Steps, or even Young and Innocent for that matter, but I consider it the most perfectly made film of Hitchcock’s British period.
Themes: Almost every Hitchcock film deals with the concept of guilt, often assumed or transferred. This film is different. Iris feels no guilt. Rather, she questions her own sanity. But the way the film moves the audience emotionally is similar to Hitchcock movies that deal with guilt. Precisely because Hitchcock gives us as much information as the protagonist has, (and oftentimes more), we are aligned with their feelings. When we see an innocent man being chased for a crime we know he didn’t commit, we are outraged. We cheer him on all the more. The same is true here. When a woman is called a liar and we know her to be telling the truth, we feel the same emotions.
So long, Jack Cox: Cinematographer Jack Cox had worked on eleven of Hitchcock’s previous pictures, including The Ring, Blackmail, and Murder! This would mark their twelfth and final collaboration. Cox is arguably the most important collaborator of Hitchcock’s British period. He was a technical wizard, a master at early effects shots, who was always able to give Hitchcock exactly what he wanted. He was a true original who inspired Hitchcock to be more visually innovative in his films.
Performance: Along with The 39 Steps, this film has solid performances from top to bottom. Not only are Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood perfect as the leading couple, but they have a real, undeniable chemistry. May Whitty is the perfect Miss Froy, who looks very much the part of the English governess, but shows her pluck when the time comes. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford are so extraordinary in the roles of Caldicott and Charters that they reprised the roles in several other films and radio shows. Paul Lukas is one of the early models for Hitchcock’s charming villain. Even the smaller roles are cast perfectly. Who can forget the faces of the Baroness, Madame Kummer, Signor Doppo and the nun?
Source material: The movie is based upon the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. The best thing about the novel is the premise. The book is simply not very engaging, nor are the characters that interesting. The main plot of the film is lifted from the novel: Iris is travelling home to London on the train, befriends Miss Froy, then Miss Froy vanishes, and everybody says she was never there, leaving Iris to doubt her own sanity. In the novel Miss Froy really is an English governess, not a spy. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Namely, she saw a high government official at a time and place when he claimed to be elsewhere, blowing his cover story for a murder. This is the reason for her abduction. In the novel Iris is not hit on the head, but suffers sunstroke. The other passengers on the train are not nearly as interesting. There are no Todhunters, no Charters and Caldicott. Instead we have an English vicar and his wife, and an older pair of sisters. The doctor is the mastermind, as in the movie, and a young man does come to Iris’s aid. The screenplay of Launder and Gilliat is a vast improvement over the novel, demonstrating how adept they were at taking a solid premise and fleshing it out with original characters and memorable dialogue.
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s cameo comes very late in the proceedings. Just after the 1 hour 29 minute mark, in the train station, Hitchcock passes right to left, smoking a cigarette, shrugging his shoulders, and carrying a small odd-shaped case.
Recurring players: Leading man Michael Redgrave had appeared in a small uncredited role in Secret Agent. Dame May Whitty would later appear as Joan Fontaine’s mother in Suspicion. Cecil Parker would appear in Under Capricorn a decade later. Basil Radford had already appeared in Young and Innocent, and would later appear in Jamaica Inn. And Mary Clare, who plays the Baroness, had appeared in Young and Innocent.
What Hitch said: When talking to Truffaut, Hitchcock was particularly proud of a sequence where we are led to believe that Dr. Hartz is going to put drugs in the drinks of Gilbert and Iris: “…there was the traditional scene of a drink being doped up. As a rule, that sort of a thing is covered by the dialogue…I said, ‘Let’s not do it that way. We’ll try something else.’ I had two king-sized glasses made, and we photographed part of that scene through the glasses, so that the audience might see the couple all the time, although they didn’t touch their drinks until the very end of the scene…It’s a good gimmick, isn’t it?”
Definitive edition: Criterion released a blu-ray edition in 2011. The picture and sound are not perfect, but as good as they’ve ever been on a home video format. Included with the movie are a wonderful commentary track by film historian Bruce Eder, the 1941 feature-length film Crook’s Tour (which stars Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, characters that originated in The Lady Vanishes), excerpts from Truffaut’s audio interview with Hitchcock, a video essay about Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes by Leonard Leff, and a stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and promotional art.