Friday Film Review: The Lady Vanishes
Genre: Romantic Suspense
“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