Alfred Hitchcock’s sleekest and funniest British film is The Lady Vanishes, a dazzling comic adventure tale from 1938. It is a well-constructed picture from start to finish, featuring a lengthy introduction sequence before the train trip that sets up the characters and presents the MacGuffin in cheeky and highly amusing fashion. The film builds energy as it pulls away from the station, a lot like a train.
The Lady Vanishes is based on Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, but Hitchcock had his screenwriters (Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder) add characters and finagle some new tricks along the way. It features a number of complex relationships as well, with each one factoring in uniquely with respect to both upholding and inadvertently undermining the main plot thrust.
We’re first introduced to a set of characters stranded at an inn. Among them is Iris (Margaret Lockwood), an Englishwoman set to marry a man she doesn’t love upon her return to Britain. There is also Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a cocky musicologist who proves annoying to Iris. And let’s not forget Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a “former governess.”
Before the characters get on the train back to Britain, Iris has been plunked on the head by a falling planter. She comes to and Miss Froy is missing. Iris appears to be the only person to remember her, with different characters “forgetting” her for different reasons. She reconnects with Gilbert, the only passenger on the train to believe her, and sets about to find out what’s going on.
The Lady Vanishes traffics in the idea that human factors can set even the most well-laid plans on fire, with various deceptions and misunderstandings leading to Iris’ views of Miss Froy. Did something really happen to Miss Froy or is Iris suffering the effects of a head injury? The clues start to pile up and something sinister does indeed seem to be afoot.
A lot of The Lady Vanishes is absurd, especially as the proverbial wheels start to come off the train. Hitchcock employs a ragtag group of conveniences and creative twists to spin his flip this game into overdrive, jubilantly plunging his audience into a world of espionage and confusion. The pacing is curt, which helps a lot of the more supportive dialogue waft by almost innocuously upon the first viewing.
What really sets this picture up are the elegant reasons behind each character’s participation in larger deceptions. Consider Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), two cricket nuts hoping to make it back to England in time for the test match. This puts them in the position of extreme impatience when it comes to Iris and her quibbling about a missing old bag.
Into the mix, Hitch tosses a pile of other problems for poor Iris. Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) produces more confusion, including a bandaged mystery patient and a nun (Catherine Lacey) with high heels and a potty mouth.
Along with the characters, The Lady Vanishes also uses the director’s Machiavellian technical prowess to its advantage. The appearance of “Froy” on the window, coupled with the train whistle and Lockwood’s pitch-perfect eyes, crafts a sequence of pure brilliance. It is classic suspense; we watch the name of the AWOL woman emerge at sight level before the characters do. Screaming at the screen is encouraged.
This movie is a masterpiece. It is my favourite of Hitchcock’s British films, benefitting from the textbook collision of absurdity and impeccable detail. Toss some indiscriminate chance into the mixture and The Lady Vanishes becomes one of the most diabolically cunning motion pictures of its era.