Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Arguably, The Lady Vanishes is the apex of Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work now known as “The British Period.” This film has all of British Hitchmarks – suspense, romance, psychological tension, Brit humor of the dry and ribald variety, and Hitch’s favorite film set, a train. The Lady Vanishes is so British, it seems somewhat ironic that it’s the film that launched the director over the pond when it earned him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.
Set in Europe just before the breakout of World War II, socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train and makes the acquaintance of handsome Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) and Miss Froy (May Whitty), a thoroughly British elderly governess. When Miss Foy seems to vanish into thin air – no small feat on a train! – a cast of shady characters works double time to convince Iris that there was no Miss Froy. How do you prove you’re not crazy? Iris teams up with Gilbert to solve the mystery of Miss Froy.
While The Lady Vanishes seems infinitely complex, it is pretty simple: Miss Foy was there, then she wasn’t. Hitchcock is kind of at his best when there is an economy of plot, and I would nominate The Lady Vanishes (along with The 39 Steps) as the the finest effort of British era Hitch. That said, the film is not flawed, but not fatally so.The chief snag that the movie starts slowly, chugging to cruising speed about as quickly as the train it’s set on. When the movie airs on TCM, the ever wise Robert Osborne warns viewers that the first 20 minutes are tough, but perseverance is rewarded. True statement. The ending also strikes me as a bit weird – what starts as an action packed shoot out from our comic relief, Greek chorus like comic relief Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) and ends with an sing-a-long old chap seems bizarrely chipper.
But the middle of The Lady Vanishes is as perfect as any film you’ll ever see. Hitchcock has a way – seen over and over through his entire body of work – of honing in a single detail. With a wink that can only come from a director in full command of syntax of film, Hitchcock communicates to both Iris and the viewer that there was indeed a Miss Froy and something mysterious is afoot with a single, small tea wrapper. I can say no more without spoiling too much.
Hitchcock was already flirting with American before production began on The Lady Vanishes. He visited New York post-production on Young and Innocent, but snagged on negotiations over salary and multi-picture deals with David O. Selznick. Ultimately, things worked out as we all know, but in the interim Hitchcock returned to England and made The Lady Vanishes. Technically speaking, Jamaica Inn was the final British film for Hitch, but it was something of a throwaway, so let’s forget it and say his best British effort was also his goodbye to Dear Ol’ England.
Gallery of Images from The Lady Vanishes