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15 May 2021

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave,
Dame May Whitty, Basil Redford,
Naunton Wayne, Cecil Parker,
Linden Travers, Paul Lukas,
Catherine Lacey
We had left The Lady Eve mid-watch, and when we went to look for it again, the Criterion Channel helpfully threw up several films with ‘Lady’ in the title. This was one of them. I’d seen it several years ago after reading Madhu’s excellent review over at Dustedoff and had then been underwhelmed by Michael Redgrave. But S had not watched this before, and I haven’t watched a Hitchcock film for ages. So…

When the film begins, a little village in the [fictional] central European country of Bandrika is besieged by travellers – the train they were travelling in has been forced to a halt due to an avalanche that has buried the tracks. The British travellers on board (an excellent ensemble cast) join the over-excited throng to seek boarding in the little provincial inn, the manager of which is trying his best to cope with the different nationalities all wanting his attention at the same time. Among them is the beautiful Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her two friends; Mr and ‘Mrs’ Todhunter (Cecil Parker, Linden Travers), whose acerbic conversation makes it clear they are not actually married to each other; Charters (Basil Redford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), two cricket-crazy gentlemen who are frantic that this enforced stop will prevent them from seeing the third test match of the Ashes at Manchester; and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a retired English governess and music teacher, returning to her home country.

Alas for Charters and Caldicott, they are too late to snag a room; the only one available is the maid’s room; she has agreed to shift out, says Boris, the manager. (Only, she speaks no English at all, and keeps popping in to grab her clothes and change.) But Iris and her friends Julie and Blanche, on very friendly terms with Boris, have managed to acquire rooms. 


Iris, who’s returning to London to get married – her father has money, and her fiancĂ© has a title – is being exhorted by her friends to change her mind. Iris morosely replies that there isn’t much left for her to do but get married.

In the room next door, Miss Froy is enjoying a folk song by the village balladeer, when a burst of loud, foot-stomping music disturbs the quiet of the inn. Miss Froy goes out of her room and runs into Iris, who’s furious. 


So furious that she calls Boris and asks him to chuck whoever it is out of their rooms. ‘Whoever’ is Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), a footloose Englishman who’s (he says) writing a book on the disappearing folk music of Europe. The foot-stomping is ‘research’.

When Boris reports his inability to turn Gilbert out of his room (Gilbert having sent him off with a flea in his ear), Iris bribes him. A furious Gilbert marches into Iris’s room and states his intention of remaining there unless she gets his room back for him.

 

Meanwhile, Miss Froy is appreciatively listening to her folksinger. Song over, she drops a few coins out the window and draws her curtains, not noticing that below, an unseen hand has abruptly cut short the singer’s career.


The next morning, the tracks have been cleared, and the passengers are assembling on the station. Iris’s friends are still trying to dissuade her from what they believe will be a disastrous marriage when Miss Froy, passing them, drops her spectacles. Iris picks them up and goes up to Miss Froy, who is bending over the piled-up luggage under the station window, looking for a missing bag.  An unseen hand pushes a flowerpot off the upper window; it lands Iris a heavy blow, just as the train’s whistle blows.


Miss Froy assures Iris’s friends that she will take care of her, and bundles Iris onto the train, where she just manages to wave goodbye to her friends before fainting. When she recovers, Iris finds herself in a compartment with Miss Froy, Signor Deppo (Philip Leaver), an Italian magician with his wife and child, and Baroness Athona (Mary Claire).

Miss Froy suggests a cup of ‘good, strong, tea’ as a remedy. Upon Iris agreeing, the two make their way to the dining car, with Miss Froy stumbling into the Todhunters’ compartment on their way. There, Miss Froy orders tea, giving the waiter her own special tea – a herbal tincture that ‘millions of Mexicans drink’. Then, she introduces herself to Iris – she’s Miss Froy. Only, with the train’s whistle drowning her voice out, she’s forced to write her name on the dusty windowpane – F R O Y.


At the next table are Charters and Caldicott, who are still annoyed at missing the Manchester test. Caldicott even empties the sugar bowl to show Charters the placing of the team on the field and is none too pleased when Miss Froy asks for the sugar – the waiter having forgotten to bring any for them.


Tea drunk, they return to their compartment and Miss Froy encourages Iris to go to sleep – her head will hurt less after a good sleep. Iris needs no convincing.

When she finally wakes up, she is much better, but the seat opposite her is empty – where is Miss Froy? The Deppos and the baroness merely shake their heads at her query, and Iris goes out to look for her friend with little success. In fact, the waiter who served her insists she was alone – why, he even has the bill to prove it.


Iris is worried about Miss Froy now. She runs into Gilbert, who’s initially sarcastic and disbelieving, but does offer his help. Only, as everyone they ask seems to deny anyone like that even existed, he’s beginning to wonder whether Iris is imagining things. (A conversation between Todhunter and his lover makes it clear that the former wants no part of any investigation lest the scandal mar his chances of being appointed a judge.) Caldicott also denies Miss Froy’s existence since he’s afraid Iris will stop the train if she’s not found – and that will mean they miss the Manchester match!


The brain surgeon Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas) reckons that the blow to her head is responsible for Iris’s confusion. And he’s awaiting a patient, the victim of a terrible accident, at the next station – the first stop since they left the little village in the morning.


So. Where did the lady vanish? And why is everyone denying she was on the train at all? And who is this Miss Krummer, who claims she was the one who helped Iris? 

 

The Lady Vanishes was Hitchcock’s penultimate film in Britain before he was lured to Hollywood by David O Selznick. Released in the aftermath of the Anschluss, Hitler’s invasion of Austria, The Lady Vanishes was also a stinging critique of the arrogance of British power, the insularity of Britishers while Europe was teetering on the brink of war and their wilful denial of the evil that would soon disrupt their rosy view of the world.

Hitchcock takes his time getting to the darker side of the film, running the film as a farce for the first half an hour, with gags and withering repartee between the characters. The scriptwriters also throw in some irreverent political commentary on Britain’s isolationist foreign policy under Neville Chamberlain. As Gilbert quips in one scene, “Never climb a fence if you can sit on it.” Yet the film ends as an ode to British pluck – everyone unites against the common enemy and their victory, such as it is, is to be fĂȘted as much by the enemy as by the audience.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s novel, The Wheel Spins, the film script was radically reworked by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (overseen by Hitchcock himself). They added scenes to the plot and invented the characters of Charters and Caldicott, the greatest comic duo ever in British film history.


With their introduction, we also got dollops of dry, crisp British humour. For instance, reading an American newspaper, the “Herald Tribune” (a mash-up of two different newspapers), which is all he can find, the cricket-mad Caldicott quips disappointedly, “Nothing but baseball. You know, we used to call it Rounders. Children play it with a rubber ball and a stick. Not a word about cricket. Americans got no sense of proportion.”

The humour is not restricted to the two either. When Iris first checks into the hotel and is disturbed by Gilbert making an unholy racket upstairs, she calls the manager to say, “Someone upstairs is playing musical chairs with an elephant. Move one of them out, will you? l want to get some sleep.”

And Gilbert, who upon being told by Dr Hartz that he had once operated upon a British cabinet minister: “Did you find anything?”


Or when Todhunter self-righteously declaims “The law, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion”, the acerbic response from his mistress is “Even when the law spends six weeks with Caesar’s wife?" 


Margaret Lockwood was the British box-office queen of the time, while Michael Redgrave, a well-known stage actor was making his film debut, but their interactions had an ease that augured well. The film catapulted Redgrave to international acclaim, though neither he nor Lockwood ever acted with Hitchcock again. (And I reverse my opinion of Redgrave; he was charming!)

The Lady Vanishes was also Hitchcock’s final ‘comic’ thriller – never again would his films combine romance, comedy and suspense the way this film did. If you must catch one pre-Hollywood Hitchcock film, then let this be the one. It scores over even The Thirty-Nine Steps, in my opinion.  

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