The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
It’s probably too obvious to mention that by 1938, Alfred Hitchcock could’ve directed a serviceable thriller in his sleep, right? The first twenty-odd minutes of The Lady Vanishes amount to some sort of a hangout movie, the awkward comings and goings of stranded snowbound travelers in a noisy and sprawling hotel out in some fictitious European country. It seems like just a bit of humorous carousing before the action starts. Of course, if you know this director, you know that no bit of business or cheeky throwaway that seems like nothing is actually unimportant. He’s quietly introducing you to a cast of characters, all of whom will prove crucial, even those casually dismissed at this point as comic relief. The dotty old governess? Turns out she’s the vanishing lady of the title and more besides. The obnoxious folklorist upstairs? He’ll be our romantic lead when it’s over with. The two cricket-obsessed Englishmen? Vital. Even the bit of atmosphere wafting up through open windows from downstairs — a silken-voiced singer wailing out into the night — will matter, at least to the other characters, really more than anything. This is all designed to deceive you, relax you, ensnare you.
The Lady Vanishes is the sixth and last of Hitchcock’s earth-shaking, quick, devilishly entertaining, ominous thrillers for Gaumont, the movies that would effectively launch his international career. None of the director’s twenty-two other British films would have the impact of this one, credited with clinching David O. Selznick’s interest in him, bringing him to Hollywood and thus changing the motion picture business, and it’s easy to see why. Turn off your higher faculties and just surrender to the thing and it’s about as much of a head-spinning delight as you can imagine any movie to be. It certainly comes across as the lightest and most carefree of the Gaumont Six; even Young and Innocent, for all its Capraisms, carried an air of foreboding and tension absent from this film’s first half. But this isn’t light entertainment; it just pretends to be. That’s what makes it so exciting for repeated viewings, especially with other people: you know what lurks within it, and they don’t.
Francois Truffaut famously told Hitchcock in 1962 that he had tried repeatedly to ignore the storytelling mechanics of Lady and learn how it worked from a technical standpoint, but every single time he became swept up in the compelling and witty drama of it all: the charming young would-be bride and her mysteriously errant friend, the enigma gathering around the reason for her disappearance, the slow formation of a collaborative male-female unit that will thwart evil doings aboard a moving train, and that’s really just the start. My own relationship with the film is similar to Truffaut’s, and I suspect the same is true of most of those who love it. Donald Spoto wrote dismissively of this being the Hitchcock film for those who seek nothing more than “a cracking good time,” but as in nearly all of the director’s works, the simplicity betrays a true hard-won elegance, a gloss over an impossibly sophisticated surface.
This is one of the few cases in which Hitchcock may deserve less credit for the immaculate storytelling drive of one of his classics than his screenwriters. He seldom took a screen credit for writing but was known to nearly always polish and punch up scripts and treatments himself, to work extremely closely with writers, and in the end to use his camera to write the final draft of a screenplay. In this case, however, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s bustling, gleefully universal and direct cloak-and-dagger bonanza is so incredibly tight and well-constructed that Hitchcock knows better than to fuss too much with it. He essentially films it as written — to the extent that Gilliat and Launder’s frustration with this being labeled “a Hitchcock picture” would lead them to launch their own career as a writer-director team — but of course, the end result involves much expertise on blocking, scenario, camerawork, staging, and cinematic prowess in tight quarters, not to mention the injection of the subtle gothic-horror atmosphere that infuses all of Hitchcock’s late ’30s films with unstated, pregnant menace. It’s easy to regard his more florid and romantic American films as darker than the fast-paced, supercharged British thrillers, but this looks conveniently past Hitchcock’s awareness of the pending outbreak of war in Europe and the way it was about to permanently alter the landscape and fill the air with death. This sense is stronger in The 39 Steps and Sabotage but was never addressed so directly as in The Lady Vanishes, a light comic caper that slowly but surely turns out to be a politically potent allegory about pacificism, appeasement and warmongering, with what feels like not just nail-biting movie terror but palpable real-world danger and death lurking just beyond each corridor of the character-filled train cars.
A conceptual intrigue like that at the center of The Lady Vanishes is a once-in-a-lifetime hook for a potential audience; few great ideas in cinema or storytelling in general have the energy and universal immediacy of boarding a train with someone, falling asleep, and awakening to find he or she nowhere to be found. Film vaults the world over are stacked to the ceiling with myriad variations on ideas so simple but so automatically appealing. Hitchcock’s parlor trick is that he has up his sleeve a climax that justifies all the mystery, that is big and scary and just this side of believable enough to keep the audience with him well past the point of “oh, so that’s what was going on, let’s go home” frustration so common to mysteries and some thrillers. The crazy suspicions being floated by Margaret Lockwood’s increasingly anxiety-ridden Iris are fully warranted! As a result, Hitchcock never lets his audience down; he gives them the rip-roaring shootout and living nightmare they came in to see.
The most important element to this trick is the pacing of its buildup; play any card in this deck too early and the film would seem to become either too ridiculous or too predictable, but there’s not a false note to be found. Miss Froy (the splendid, wonderfully physical Dame May Whitty) is introduced casually and taken away from us casually. Smarmy sidekick Gilbert is no sufferer of fools but is fascinated by Iris’ charges and her plight. A lesser director would’ve positioned Gilbert as the audience vessel, as the guy who says the stuff we’re all thinking, that this daft young woman’s lost her mind and why don’t we all have some tea and get over this nonsense. Instead, we are so thoroughly in Iris’ head that we often wonder if we are ourselves hallucinating — and her gradual conversion of Gilbert to her way of thinking is an enormous triumph for us, one we feel in our bones. Along the way, the frustration and not-trivial agony of knowing something passionately that others won’t believe is driven into near-madness by vignettes involving the other occupants of the moving train: the desperate Cricket buffs anxious to see the match, the nervous lawyer and his mistress, and of course the classic gaggle of unknown spies (one in a nun costume, with high heels!). We see in all this human cross-section a prototype for Rear Window and this film is equally subjective, right down to its affluent (nonchalantly; Hitchcock’s got no interest in making anything of it except a throwaway line about caviar and her clear ability to occasionally bribe people to get what she needs) lead character’s quiet apprehension about marriage.
This isn’t, of course, the first Hitchcock film with a female lead character or the first explore his favored “Woman Alone” thematic mythology. Blackmail and Sabotage both have a substantial head start on it, and while both had arguably stronger, more modern feminist leanings than the relatively conventional romantic comedy subplot here and as fine as Anny Ondra and Sylvia Sidney’s performances were, Iris is the first truly tough and resourceful Hitchcock heroine — frankly, the most cunning Hitchcock protagonist of any gender thus far. Her ingenuity and her alliance with Gilbert lead to the third act of the film, which occurs after the grand enigma is essentially resolved — yet it’s the best, most satisfying sort of payoff, dissolving into action and humor (“Well, I went to Cambridge” is, in context, one of the most uproariously funny lines in cinema) and driving forth a message that signals the chaos of its era. What’s more, Hitchcock arranges this expertly enough that it seems not like a dated portrait of a bygone period but a fascinating window into the day-to-day realities of the time depicted: an instant period peace. Following its detachment from the engine, it’s not merely the train car that’s cut off and adrift but us as well. The film is then engaged in a shootout that vividly recalls The Man Who Knew Too Much and absurdly but magnificently sends Whitty racing off into action — then generates a melting pot of ideology and humanity among the remaining occupants, calling ahead to the less subtle and natural Lifeboat.
Lifeboat and Rear Window are important reference points here all the same, since both are the logical conclusion of the confinement upon which The Lady Vanishes is so reliant. The train chugging through a logically, cleanly presented story that scuffles and teeters along the way is a device roaming all the way back to the physically manifested symmetrical structure of Buster Keaton’s The General, but it becomes here the source of one of Hitchcock’s great aesthetic fixations: that of the drama in the smallest, most claustrophobic possible setting. It seems impossible that he and cinematographer Jack Cox could come up with so many imaginative ways to shoot a series of passenger cars, a dining room and a group of charming miniatures, yet as the film goes on its relationship with the train itself becomes an essential component to its narrative. This is a story that could take place in no other setting, and it’s utilized to its fullest extent. Even the storage cars, the exteriors, the very manner and nature and various quirks of train travel, are made useful to the story. Much as Secret Agent harnessed Switzerland, milking it for all it had, The Lady Vanishes harnesses the train itself.
All but one of the Gaumont Six (Sabotage) hinges upon travel, but only this one wrings suspense out of the inherent act of being in a certain uncontrolled limbo between destinations. As such, the lessons learned over the previous four years can be seen falling into place; Cox and Hitchcock weren’t capable of crafting a thriller this technically proficient earlier in the ’30s. By now, the merry company is so settled and polished you feel it’s a pity they’d make no further films together — the humor and suspense are perfectly timed, with none of the ragged edges visible in The Man Who Knew Too Much or Secret Agent (both fine films, but in a different ballpark), and the visual acrobatics are subtle, calm, expert, everything in service of a wonderfully streamlined narrative. But Hitchcock’s most magnificent advancement is his new affinity and skill with the direction of actors. It’s not unreasonable to look upon the great story of the Master’s 1930s work as being more than anything else the story of his evolving compassion and resourceful management of his cast members. Not so long ago, a performer like Edmund Gwenn could lazily dominate The Skin Game and Waltzes from Vienna; even the fine performances of The Man Who Knew Too Much seem almost surreal at times in their heightened, mismatched bounciness. But track the five films thereafter and something new develops, something that in some ways foretells the most important factors of the director’s soon-to-explode success in Hollywood.
He’s not given big names to work with on The Lady Vanishes; for heaven’s sake, his first two films back in Germany had big American stars attached, so is this a step backward? Indeed, scrappiness carried its own appeal for Hitchcock as a storytelling device, yet he senses the elegance in his performers. He’s blessed instead of “names” with a simply wondrous cast that, in addition to meeting the screen on a perfect balance of beauty and self-effacement, exudes a warmth that renders the film difficult to stay away from, difficult to shut off, difficult or impossible not to adore. Michael Redgrave was a stage actor who held some classic of-the-time disdain for screen performing, but he gave The Lady Vanishes his best shot during the day and makes an astonishingly trustworthy transition between smarmy self-regarding twit and utterly delightful romantic match. His reading of Gilbert offers so many splendidly offbeat and telling moments, and Hitchcock handles and enhances the performance so beautifully, it’s hard to know where to start. But two examples that never leave my mind: first is after the whole confusing business bonds him irrevocably with Iris, the richie-rich he resented brutally not so long before, and he hijacks a dinner conversation with meandering blather about his father and upbringing, grinning with the vacantly smitten smirk of a man who’s attempted to generate love and admiration with these tired tales a hundred times before. Hitchcock, in turn, wanders off in an odd direction with the camera as we lose interest along with Iris, preoccupied just as she is, sealing our affection for Gilbert and our immense identification with her in one brilliant movement. Later on, after Gilbert has himself fully converted to the conspiracy theories and a potential baddie cuts through the two of them, he balletically cuts off midsentence and generates some complete English nonsense as a cover, a subtle act of bullshit justifying and paying off his earlier rambling quite hilariously. Over in seconds but hard not to rewind and watch several times.
And the supporting cast is like someone’s dream mystery novel — as with Redgrave, everyone’s performance is divided neatly into halves, with all of our initial impressions challenged by what we later learn. Whitty’s own transformation and deception — kindly old lady is in fact a British secret agent — is sold with not a whiff of hesitation, a screenplay’s improbability cut down instantly by brilliant casting. Paul Lukas’ devilish “brain surgeon” Dr. Hartz makes up the difference between nefarious mad scientist and beard-stroking Good Doctor and is ably offset by Redgrave’s adult tomfoolery. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford create their forever-hence beloved Charters and Caldicott as fixated, arrogant Brit stereotypes but by the finale have revealed themselves with utter nonchalance as humble, casual heroes. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers show up as an adulterous couple on the run, creating intriguing challenges and complications to those around them as the story casts its own whirlwind on their lives. Catherine Lacey’s Nun is never convincingly evil, but perhaps that’s the idea. Further in the background, Iris’ disoriented waking up is made a worthy nightmare for the cinematic canon by the sheer facial menace of Mary Clare, Philip Leaver, and especially Josephine Wilson, whose dry glare into the camera is among the creepiest moments in a Hitchcock picture.
Yet after all this, the film ultimately lives or dies by Margaret Lockwood as Iris, and how it does ever live. Lockwood and Hitchcock didn’t get along particularly well, a trend among the cast members of his British films, but his camera loved her and brought out the best in her. Okay, she’s beautiful, and I admit to refreshing a crush on her each time I watch the film, her determination and confidence and obsession so far beyond the traits typically afforded female leads in the American films of the same period. This is well after the establishment of the traditional Hitchcock blonde with Madeleine Carroll’s roles in both The 39 Steps and Secret Agent, yet it’s brunette and non-movie-star Lockwood whose enchantment across the screen lingers. Hers is a stunningly expressive performance, eyes and waving arms and frantic but never uncontrolled wavering. And there are few moments of character exposition in any movie more quietly heartbreaking than her resigned surrender, early on, to her pending marriage to some sort of society oaf, despite her friends’ pleads that she reconsider. It’s hard to say whether The Lady Vanishes‘ intended point is that the train ride through the growing troubles of the continent emphasize to Iris that the world is too big for her to sacrifice her place in it to a man she doesn’t love, or that she simply realizes she likes one dude more than another, but either way, the longing and curiosity in her face are so real and telling that anything you read into her transition — and that wonderful, cathartic first kiss with Redgrave — works.
After The Lady Vanishes was completed and Hitchcock was recruited by Selznick, he would nevertheless make one more film in Britain, a quickly produced version of Jamaica Inn owed to his former studio, British International Pictures. A swashbuckling action piece sharing its source material’s author — Daphne du Maurier — with Rebecca, the basis of his first Hollywood film (du Maurier hated Jamaica Inn so much she considered pulling back the rights to the latter), the result isn’t cheap but feels like it is, and includes one of the simplest and least interesting screenplays in the Hitchcock canon, amazingly enough also written by Gilliat. Yet the film, perhaps thanks to the persence of celebrated commercial draw Charles Laughton, was a great box office success. Yet in his filmography, it feels like an afterthought. The Lady Vanishes is really the culmination of Hitchcock’s work in England even if it isn’t quite the best of his early films. It is, of course, a masterpiece, and in quite a different sense than the many he would soon create in America. On Jamaica Inn, he reported — and you can sense it on screen — that Laughton tried to take control of the picture and ran circles around and above Hitchcock. Much more indicative of the future is the way that in The Lady Vanishes, even if the director had no serious rapport with his cast, he makes sure that the audience does. So the first half of the Hitchcock legacy really ends here, and you almost feel excited to bursting when you think of what was to come.