Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: The Lady Vanishes (1938)
After looking at Hitchcock’s America in Shadow of a Doubt, let’s jump back to 1938 with Hitchcock’s last British film The Lady Vanishes. Starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, and May Whitty, this comedy-thriller is one of Hitchcock's best known 1930s films. It has a very droll sense of humor with some goofy bits thrown in. The central mystery is exciting, and it really shows off Hitchcock’s great skill of structure and payoff. The Lady Vanishes provides an excellent hook for a mystery, one that has influenced many stories and films.
Iris Henderson (Lockwood) is traveling by train to marry her established but boring fiancé. Due to an avalanche, the entire train is delayed to the next morning. That night, Iris is disturbed in her hotel room by the folk music coming from the room of a musician below, Gilbert (Redgrave). Meanwhile, Miss Froy, another passenger, listens to a folk tune by a singer outside her window. The singer is murdered. On the train, Iris befriends Miss Froy but after a quick nap, Iris discovers she has disappeared. Searching frantically for her, Iris realizes that no one on the train remembers seeing Miss Froy—or so they claim…
Hitchcock stages this thriller in a very goofy universe. The characters surrounding Iris are narrow-minded oddballs, who only have eyes for their own interests and goals. Without undermining the danger, Hitchcock sets up many sight gags and comic lines, keeping th pace energetic. The Lady Vanishes is a really quick movie, even though it has a lot of moving parts and many story beats to cover.
The Lady Vanishes is also the film that introduced Charles and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, respectively), two cricket-obsessed English fops. Charles and Calidicott became so popular that they appeared in subsequent films, radio plays, and television series. Naunton and Radford played the roles until 1940. Most notably, Charles and Caldicott appeared in 1940’s Night Train to Munich also starring Margaret Lockwood. Charles and Caldicott are really fun characters, and it is easy to see why their legacy lasted beyond the film. Hitchcock gives just enough screentime to the cricket fans, but thankfully they do not overtake the film.
The idea of someone vanishing into thin air with no witnesses has become a common thriller plot. The Jodie Foster film Flightplan (2005) is perhaps the most high profile rip-off of the concept. But the main theme of gaslighting—making someone believe they are crazy by manipulating the situation—is one that recurs often in thriller plots. The Lady Vanishes explores that theme with the added tension of being stranded on a train. With the train setting, Hitchcock delivers even more suspense as Iris searches the whole train for Miss Froy and can’t find her. Is she really crazy? Can we trust her as a protagonist?
I found it interesting that the British characters all have their own reasons for denying Miss Froy’s existence. An adulterous man wants to continue hiding his mistress and avoiding scandal. Charles and Caldicott want to keep the train running smoothly so they can make their cricket game. And yet, even one of the conspirators betrays her superior and helps Iris as a fellow Englishwoman. Eventually all the British characters unite to stop the conspiracy they’ve found themselves embroiled in. As a spy thriller, The Lady Vanishes finds some political commentary with the denial then verification of a criminal conspiracy.
Like most of Hitchcock’s films, this one includes a witty and tempestuous romance between Iris and Gilbert. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are pretty terrific together, with a jokey but fiery chemistry. This was one of Margaret Lockwood’s first major roles, and she became well known as a British actress in the 1940s. Michael Redgrave was a renowned theatre actor, and this film shot him to fame. I really enjoy their performances because the work well together. Both characters feel fully realized and engaging, and their interactions are believable.
There isn’t a lot to say about The Lady Vanishes. Not because its bad or unmemorable, but because it’s a perfect example of a Hitchcock popcorn thriller. It’s very funny, well-acted, perfectly paced, and quite thrilling. The first part of the film is pure lunacy, then the film moves on to its mystery (with some time allotted for lunacy). The Lady Vanishes is a terrific vehicle for Hitchcock the showman. He’s knows how to conduct the orchestra, and turns the film into a perfectly designed symphony.