The Lady Vanishes
Of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films from the British Isles, it’s a challenge to pick out just one as ‘essential viewing.’ From the two decades Hitchcock spent in London, many of the films he had a hand in are silent (ex: The Farmer’s Wife, The Lodger), others are hard to find (Rich and Strange, Blackmail), and nearly all are in desperate need of remastering. With some, the audio and visual aspects of the films have become so tarnished with age that they can be only recommended to the most dexterous of film buffs. For the rest of us, there is The 39 Steps, The Secret Agent, and The Lady Vanishes.
Of the three just mentioned, it’s The Lady Vanishes that deserves the most praise. The 39 Steps features a wonderfully frightful atmosphere redolent with fog and dimly lit streets, while The Secret Agent is high in thrills, but it’s The Lady Vanishes that offers the most bang for its buck. Firstly, it pairs the directing talents of Hitchcock with the writing talents of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the duo who would go on to write and direct Green for Danger only a few years later. They brought with them their characteristic droll English wit and dark humor to distinguish this picture from Hitchcock’s other spy thrillers. More important though, the pair of Gilliat and Launder, working with the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel White, supply the film with the necessary content to back the director’s playfulness with form.
The plot, for at least the first fourth of the film, seems rather innocuous: several guests are staying at a modest overbooked hotel while waiting for a transcontinental train. The light and comic tone (not unlike a scene from Kauffman and Hart or Capra) takes a dramatic shift when a troubadour serenades a patron only to be suddenly strangled by a pair of shadowy hands while the killer’s face is hidden. Like Brughel’s painting The Flight of Icarus, life goes on its merry course; no one takes notice of the dead man and more light comedy ensues as the various guests finally board the train. The heroine Iris Henderson, played by British star Margaret Lockwood, befriends a genteel old English lady in the seat beside her, and, as the title states plainly, the lady vanishes. To give away more of the plot would be to give away too much. Just be forewarned there will be a good deal of thrills and gallows humor ahead.*
It is aboard the train though that the film showcases the strange political climate of Continental Europe between scenes of derring-do from Michael Redgrave and a serious turn from Lockwood. To a viewer uninformed about the history of Europe during the interim years between the wars, it is implicitly clear things were rising to a fever pitch. The train is brimming with a motley cosmopolitan crowd made up of bit players with accents ranging from upper-class British to Slavic to Germanic, all laid on thick and insidious at times. At the onset of their journey, the scene seems set for a thematically Jamesian study of how people of different classes and nationalities interact while on vacation, but half-way through the film there is enough ambiguous dread and paranoia to satisfy fans of Graham Greene or even Thomas Pynchon. As a contemporary viewer, you are struck by how presciently the film predicts the war that is to come.
The titular ‘lady’ of the title supplies the film with its most ominous theme. Her name is Mrs. Froy and she is–by her own description–a governess, but then goes to no great length to supply further background about herself. That she is a governess means she is, by extension, part of the aristocracy. Mysteriously then, when she ‘vanishes,’ the event becomes symbolic of the disappearance of the entire former status quo. Just as during the fin-de-siecle those with ‘old money’ were supplanted by the noveau-riche, and just as the haves became the have-nots in the Depression, so too does the old aristocratic order that held sway for much of the nineteenth century suddenly vanish and give rise to a new breed. Indeed, as W.B. Yeats put it, something new is ‘slouching towards Jerusalem to be born.’
Mrs. Froy’s disappearance immediately gives rise to the appearance of a spy in the guise of a doctor, a counter spy in a nun’s habit, and mercenaries acting as servants. Two British passengers, Charters and Caldicott, first appear as fastidious gentlemen but turn into an oafish comic-duo during the action scenes (these minor characters became so popular they would later reprise their roles in a Carol Reed thriller, then a few times more after that). Another character who exhibits great sangfroid and honorableness during the escalation of the crisis later proves to be the biggest coward. In the malay and confusion of this dangerous masquerade, it is an outlandish musician and a spirited flapper who step into the roles as heroes. It is clear then that in this movie, as well as in the world it depicts, anything can happen.
That Mrs. Froy’s slightly absurd name sounds an awful lot like Doctor Freud is no coincidence. Psychology, especially that from the Viennese school, would come to play an increasingly larger role in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, peaking, of course, with Psycho. The Lady Vanishes deals more with the way in which psychology can be misused, and how impressionable people can be taken in by charlatans. See for yourself as a man with the ethics of a quack tries–and nearly succeeds–to convince Iris she wasn’t seated beside an English lady at all. He suggests it was a whim of the imagination, an image culled from her subconscious somewhere, that it may have been a scene from an old book (perhaps like the books about the upper class that used to be churned out before WWI). Quack science though will always be vanquished by real science, just as Iris is led to spend a good chunk of the film proving Mrs. Froy’s existence through empirical evidence.
It is clear then that The Lady Vanishes isn’t the cheap potboiler some have dismissed it as. It manages to give an expression to the changes that were rapidly occurring in Europe, metamorphoses that happen so incomprehensibly swift that they become like a blurring landscape viewed from a passenger train in motion. The deft writing from Gilliat and Launder bypasses the queasy feeling one might get from suspending their disbelief, and does so by creating plot twists that both make little sense out of context, but makes perfect sense aboard the train. For instance, how does a waggish ethnomusicologist suddenly know how to be a good marksman and how to conduct a train? Such quibbles are immaterial, all because the old way of life has vanished, and people can suddenly, for good or ill, be whoever or whatever they are capable of being.
After the success of The Lady Vanishes in 1938, Hitchcock would direct one other in London (Jamaica Inn) then leave the Old World for the New, where a bigger budget and better equipment waited. Then he would show the rest of us not only who he was and who he could be, but also just what he could do.
*Also be forewarned that the Jodie Foster film Flight Plan borrows much from the plot and structure of The Lady Vanishes, but fails to take off with its wit and artistic flourish intact.
Hulu offers The Lady Vanishes streaming for free, you just have to sit through six thirty-second commercial breaks.
I have published a novel titled A Rapturous Occasion. It’s a comedy-of-errors revolving around a middle-aged couple’s fear of the Apocalypse. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.
If you like The Lady Vanishes, check out my long analysis of the famous Hitchcock film Psycho.