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Friday Film Review: The Lady Vanishes


The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Grade: B

“Traveling aboard a transcontinental train, young Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) becomes alarmed when an acquaintance, elderly governess Miss Froy (Dame Mae Whitty), suddenly vanishes. Inexplicably, all the other passengers deny having seen the woman. So Iris turns to her lone ally — handsome music scholar Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave) — for help. As the two search for clues to Froy’s disappearance, they uncloak a sinister plot.”

I’ve tried a lot of Hitchcock’s early English made pieces. And while some work for me – to various degrees – others decidedly do not. This is one which works and does so very well. It’s hardly the master’s best movie but still an important one based on what he was trying to do – point out the fallacy of Britain being able to stay neutral and the fact that it was morally wrong based on the character and intentions of the Nazis. While I watch it, I’m pulled along by the suspense and the humor. It’s only afterwards that the plot holes appear but by then, I’ve enjoyed myself again and am willing to make allowances.

The film also foreshadows later Hitchcock works in which innocent people suddenly get caught up in situations beyond their control which all turn out to be vast conspiracy plots. The charming country inn and scenic landscape at first lull one into a sense that all is well, only to have things get out of control once the characters are confined to the small space of the train. This also heightens the sense of drama and the suspense – how will they escape from the villains, how will the vital information make it to England and what kind of romantic future do Gilbert and Iris have?

There’s plenty of romance in the movie despite their initial rocky meeting. Here’s Iris who’s set to marry a man she obviously doesn’t love but one who will give her status, a title and a coat of arms on the jam pot. Then she meets devil-may-care Gilbert. At first sparks fly but he proves himself to be her match and mate when he alone believes her story – even though he has no reason to do so – and is willing to help her when all the others think her cracked or a nuisance. The chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave sizzles.

The script is bursting with English dry wit. Gilbert’s a Cambridge man who sticks to his school loyalties. There are two other fun Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott, who are obsessed with finding out the score of a cricket match but who come through when the chips are down. Their characters proved to be so popular that they were reused in several other films including another English vs the Nazis on a train in Europe called “Night Train to Munich.” The other Englishman protests up to the end that he’ll stay out of the conflict – only to find it overtakes him despite all his protestations. At first, all of them have touches of that English sense of superiority and disdain for foreigners but in the end, they do what’s right.

Lockwood is great as the plucky Englishwoman who knows what she knows and who will not be hushed because it’s convenient for her or others. Redgrave embodies the English sense of fair play yet willingness to stand by what might appear to be a lost cause because it’s the right thing to do. I adore the fight between Gilbert and one of the villains in the baggage car with Iris trying to help out. It looks a bit silly at times but comes off as more natural than that Gilbert should suddenly turn out to be a boxing champ. Watch for the rabbits in their hat who appear then disappear during the clumsy fight – as if this is too low brow for them to be a part of. Hitchcock includes lots of these shifts between funny and serious to lighten the mood the film before turning up the tension even further.

For a film of its time, the “special effects” are surprisingly well done though there are points where it’s obvious that we’re watching doll houses and model trains. Still the work done on the “train” set is good. But it’s a 70+ year old movie so don’t expect today’s realism. I will say it’s a shame that there doesn’t appear to be a DVD version with subtitles. Between the accents and a lot of whispering, close attention must be paid in order to catch all the dialogue. And even then it pays to rewatch the film once you know all the twists and turns in order not to miss things. It is a product of the time with several of the female actors resorting to what I call the hysterical method of acting – this is seen in the shootout scene and to a lesser degree during Iris’s initial attempts to get people to believe her tale of a mysteriously vanishing woman. Plus the villains seem surprisingly blase once our intrepid band has finally got beyond their clutches.

The first 20+ minutes of the film are used to set up the characters – who they are individually and in relation to each other. There is also a touch of the sinister events to come as a code is passed on and a murder takes place. But audiences might well wonder who is the lady who vanishes and when, by God, is she finally going to go missing? That takes a while to get to as even after the second part of the film begins, clues must be left to be found later and still more characters must be met. It’s not until the halfway point of the movie that things begin to pick up steam then rush towards a conclusion. Even if the plot is a bit creaky by today’s standards, give it a shot for the lovely banter between Iris and Gilbert as they begin to fall for each other. B

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

10 Comments

  1. Dabney
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 08:41:51

    Thanks for this review. I’ll have to watch it–it’s been years since I’ve seen it. I watched, for the first time, Strangers on a Train last year and, though I thought parts of the plot were flimsy, I was impressed with its utter menace, tight directing, and very good acting. This sounds as though it has similar strong points but a better plot.

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  2. Jayne
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 09:02:30

    @Dabney: You’ve got me curious about how I’d like a rewatch of “Strangers.” It’s been years since I’ve seen it so it’s probably due for another viewing.

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  3. carmen webster buxton
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 09:32:31

    I so empathize! I need captioning for a lot of British films. A Scottish accent is the worst, followed by a Yorkshire one, but even the aristocrats can be difficult to follow. It took me a while to get that “gel” (a hard g, and it rhymes with fell) meant girl.

    I love train movies, probably because I love trains! Romance is just not going to blossom on a plane ride these days, but a train is another story. :)

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  4. Karenmc
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 09:57:17

    From this time in Hitchcock’s career, I prefer The 39 Steps (a train, autos and early helicopters!), but The Lady Vanishes has its moments. Redgrave is very engaging, and the Charters and Caldicott characters are hilarious. I think a Hitchcock viewing weekend is on my calendar now.

    I hadn’t thought much about Hitchcock’s message about the need for Britain to move from its neutral position concerning the Nazis. In post-war high school history classes the emphasis was on the war itself, not the kicking and screaming required to get everyone on the same page. I vaguely knew that the Duke of Windsor had Nazi sympathies, but that’s about it. Until recently I hadn’t known that Ireland remained neutral throughout the war (thank goodness for NPR and a tweeter who’s recounting WWII daily: RealTimeWWII).

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  5. Jayne
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 10:18:40

    @carmen webster buxton: Over the years of watching (esp) British mysteries/crime shows, my ear has gotten better but it’s still nice to have the backup of subtitles to make sure I caught everything that’s been said.

    I so agree with the romance of trains vs planes. By the time you’ve endured the strip search to get on the plane and paid for the air you’re going to breath inflight, the glamour is gone.

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  6. Jayne
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 10:23:17

    @Karenmc: “The 39 Steps” is great and hopefully will be a future Friday review movie. “The Remains of the Day” and “Glorious 39″ are two other movies I can think of offhand that show the British upperclass’s views on the Nazis before the war.

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  7. cate
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 08:12:19

    One of my favourite early Hitchcock films. ( I’m not even going to think about the abysmal remake with Cybil Shepard & a hideously miscast Elliot Gould :( :: shudder:: )
    It’s probably Margaret Lockwoods most sympathetic role, as she was usually gloriously typecast as the “BAD GIRL” – The Man in Gray – anyone ??
    And as an aside – it’s just been announced that the Beeb are making a version with Keely Hawes, & the fabulously named Tuppence Middleton which should be shown around Christmas time.
    Ethel Lina White’s book As The Wheel Turns on which the film is based isn’t bad either – if you like Dornford Yates or John Buchan you might like to give it a whirl .

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  8. Jayne
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 12:40:08

    @cate: Looks like they’ve got a great cast for the upcoming remake.

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  9. riga
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 17:08:44

    I actually prefer Hitchcock’s older flicks to the stuff he did later on – North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, all of them were enjoyable enough but not movies I will rewatch unless forced to. The 39 Steps is by far my favorite, with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much in second place, but I love The Lady Vanishes, too. And Charters and Caldicott are basically my favorite part. (And yay for the Night Train to Munich shoutout. That is a damn good movie, and I’m so glad Criterion released a restored version of it. The print that I had seen before that was in TERRIBLE condition.)

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  10. Nicole
    Aug 26, 2012 @ 07:32:15

    I love this movie; it’s one of the very few that I’ve seen multiple times. The characters are wonderful and the story has a bit of everything. I saw it first as a teenager and found it highly suspenseful. I later read Ethel Lina White’s novel (I thought it was called The Wheel Spins?) and gained a greater appreciation of Hitchcock’s skill at adapting material for the screen. And I marvelled at how prescient he was to make that film in 1938.

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