The Lady Vanishes

UK (1938) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

The “Master Of Suspense” became a globally revered name once he moved to Hollywood in 1939 but before he left Old Blighty, Hitchcock’s parting gift to his homeland was this celebrated comedy-thriller, based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

In the small European town of Bandrika, a tiny guesthouse is overrun with guests when an avalanche causes the train heading back to England is postponed for the night. The next morning the train leaves, with one passenger, rich soon-to-be bride Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), suffering a blow to the head before boarding.

On the train Iris is cared for by the kindly old music teacher Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), until Iris dozes off for a long sleep. When she awakens Iris finds that Miss Froy has vanished and bizarrely, the other passengers vehemently deny Miss Froy’s existence. With musician Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave) the only person on her side, Iris is determined to prove Miss Froy is on the moving train.

This plot is tailor made for Hitchcock and he makes the most of it, the largely singular location being a blessing in lieu of the paltry budget the film was afforded, something the use of models for the trains and the villages attests to. But this doesn’t prevent Hitch from keeping us glued to our seats for 90 minutes as this peculiar mystery unfolds.  

Some liberties were taken with the source material – most notably having the train make a couple of stops whereas in White’s novel it ran continuously until the end. Some of the characters were renamed or had their occupations altered in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s screenplay, and a third act shootout was exclusive to this adaptation.

Also created for this film were the characters of Charters (Naunton Wayne) and Caldicott (Basil Radford), two bumbling cricket enthusiasts who were such a hit they ended up retuning in other Launder and Gilliat scripts and eventually scored their own BBC TV and radio shows. I would say that this quintessentially British duo was the resident comic relief but the entire film is rather humorous with or without them.

The packed Bandrikan guesthouse serves as an introduction to the main cast. Iris and Gilbert meet when Gilbert is making a noise in the room above Iris’s, disturbing her sleep and making an instant enemy, the age old plot device where you know they’ll end up together by the end.

Charters and Caldicott are hoping to make it back to Manchester for the final day’s play of the cricket, and the recurring gag is that they will discuss nothing with anyone if it isn’t related to their beloved sport. The jovial Miss Froy is returning home to see her parents, which is rather amusing as she looks about 70 herself! Finally there is the cagey looking couple, barrister Mr. Todstone (Cecil Parker) and his mistress (Linden Travers).

On the train, Iris and Miss Froy share a compartment with Italian magician Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver), his wife and son, and a Baroness (Mary Clare) all of whom are later adamant Miss Froy didn’t exist. Noted brain surgeon Dr. Egon Hartz (Paul Lukas) is also onboard the train, suggesting Iris is experiencing a concussion related hallucination.

This film moves very quickly and when one takes into account the period it was made, when audiences wanted straightforward entertainment, the unravelling of the mystery occurs in rather rapid fashion. Beginning with simple shot-in-the-dark theories, all it takes is one lose thread for the whole charade to fall apart, and that comes in the form of a nun (Catherine Lacey). Don’t worry, it’s nothing blasphemous but a small oversight anyone could have missed.

Of course there is more to the plot than Miss Froy’s disappearance – here is the reason why she might have disappeared if it had been deliberate, and why the other people on the train are going to such great lengths to deny her existence. Then there is Todstone whose deception is born out of his own personal need for anonymity which further complicates the case when he could have helped Iris.

The layers of intrigue are piled on nice and thick and Hitchcock refuses to let up right until the end, creating a steadily flowing narrative that neither peaks nor troughs for the 90 minutes, yet never slows down. Even when you think the solution has been found another spanner is thrown into the works, and it is back to square one.

One element Hitchcock exploited heavily here was the subject of international political relations, complete with richly prescient moments considering the fracas which would begin just a year later. The sentiment is pro-British of course, with the jackbooted foreigners posited as the enemy to be taught a lesson from the stiff-upper lip heroes. In the most scathing scene, a self-confessed pacifist is shot trying to surrender.

Hitchcock may have had bigger budgets and greater facilities at his disposal for his Hollywood films, but here his proves he can still make a deeply involving film without them. The train setting proves to be of no restriction to him while the sharp and witty writing, along with the astute plot construction and unfolding of the mystery, is one of the tightest scripts ever filmed.

The cast were either largely well known or on their way up the star ladder in 1938, and none of them can be faulted. Of course they are all very much a product of their time with their plummy accents and their characters replete with sturdy British resolve, but this is just as much a part of its appeal as the engaging story.

For Hitchcock The Lady Vanishes was a turning point in his career, and in departing with this perennial classic, this was less a case of “Britain’s loss and Hollywood’s gain” and more “Britain’s gift to you”! Almost 80 years later and it still a suspenseful thrill ride you’ll never forget.

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