The Lady Vanishes
(SPOILERS) Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate UK-based picture, The Lady Vanishes can be comfortably paired with The 39 Steps as a co-progenitor of his larkier suspense formula (watch these two and then jump to North by Northwest and the through line is immediately obvious). Part of its great blessing is Hitchcock being handed a screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, latterly directors themselves, and knowing to make the most of the very funny dialogue, including arguably the picture’s greatest gift (well, other than Hitch himself): Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as ultimate English cricket enthusiasts – to the exclusion of all else – Charters and Caldicott.
The plot is reminiscent of many of Hitch’s spy-centric affairs, in which ordinary people are thrown into extraordinary and nefarious goings-on, requiring them to figure out an impenetrable puzzle and secure a vital McGuffin, as all the while antagonists are drawing in on them (or making life very tricky); Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) becomes convinced that something dodgy has happened to Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who has disappeared after boarding a train departing the hitherto unknown country of Bandrika; everyone she speaks to claims not to have seen her, but Iris knows they’re lying and, aided by Michael Redgrave’s self-regarding artist Gilbert Redman, investigates.
The screenplay takes it’s time; the first third occurs at a makeshift stopover (the Gasthof Petrus inn), and it isn’t even evident who the protagonist will be until Iris begins sparring with Gilbert. Frank Miller (not that one) notes Hitchcock worked with Launder and Gilliat to tighten up the ending and opening but otherwise essentially shot it as written (“I made some changes and we added the whole last episode” he told Truffaut in Hitchcock). You wouldn’t call the first act exactly tight from the perspective of today’s eye, but it pays off in establishing the key relationships, most notably the inimitable Englishness of Charters and Caldicott and the classic romantic sparring of Lockwood and Redgrave.
Hitch liked his innuendo, and there are caskets of it during these opening scenes; we first see Iris in her underwear, telling her lady friends (Including Googie Withers) “I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything”; she’s now to sink into normality, to marry a “blue-blooded cheque chaser”.
Iris: You’re the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in my life.
Naturally, she needs someone to disrupt that, in the form of Gilbert, who’s doing his best to be an entirely ungracious guest, making a hell of a racket by learning obscure national folk music (he’s a musician). In contrast to Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim in The 39 Steps, where we side with the man, Gilbert instantly puts our backs up, perhaps because Redgrave omits to lend him anything approximating a winning personality in the first instance, assuming it and not quite nailing the necessary lightness of delivery, such as when he’s insulting Emile Boreo’s hotel manager (“Always assuming you were born in wedlock, which I doubt”). He also does a dreadful Will Hay impression (notably, Redgrave and Hitch did not get on, as the former favoured rehearsals and the latter did not). As with The 39 Steps, the real danger of lives in peril is preceded by the social danger of morality impugned (Iris has Gilbert ejected from his room for the din, and he promptly invades hers) but with added quips ("My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying mother").
Iris: If you must know, something fell on my head.
Gilbert: When, infancy?
Even on the train, it takes him a while to accept her story – willing to swallow the psychiatrist’s line that she imagined the old lady due to being hit on the head – but when he does, he’s fully on board. Pauline Kael noted of the movie that “it has come to represent the quintessence of screen suspense”, adding that it is representative of a “satanic kind of humour” to be found in Hitch’s early movies (via shocks and perversities of editing and detail).
The director creates a strong sense of isolation, the duo alone in their beliefs with unknown antagonists around them creating a cover up (“A conspiracy, that’s all it can be”), and witnesses shirking any knowledge, for their own reasons (Charters and Caldicott don’t want to be delayed in getting home, Cecil Parker’s Todhunter is worried about scandal if his adultery with Linden Travers’ “Mrs” Todhunter comes out, and Paul Lukas’ brain specialist Dr Hartz explains away her belief with science but is actually one of the ringleaders).
Iris: I don’t think she’s a nun at all.
Along the way, they establish that Miss Froy is the bandaged patient being overseen by Hartz and Catherine Lacey’s fake nun (she wears high heels). At one point, we believe, as do they, that they’ve been drugged with Hydrocin, in a classic escalation (“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep”), but they’re the fortunate beneficiaries of nun ex machina, as she patriotically decides she can’t do that to her fellow country folk. I have to admit, I found this the most unconvincing of plot conveniences, the potential ingenuity of “How will the duo escape their fate?” replaced with a (dubiously motivated) change of heart.
Of course, Hitch had no problem exposing deficits when it came to the “plausibles” in his material. He noted his concerns to Truffaut, such as “why a message was entrusted to an elderly lady so helpless anybody might knock her over”, “why the counterspies simply didn’t send the message by carrier pigeon, and why they had to go to so much trouble to get that old lady on the train, with another woman standing by to change clothes, not to speak of shunting the whole coach away into the woods”. Added to which, as Truffaut notes of the message being a few bars of a song, “It’s an absurd idea, but quite delightful” (Truffaut is cited as claiming The Lady Vanishes for his favourite Hitchcock). It’s the vital clause of a secret pact between two countries, apparently. Which is your Hitchcock MacGuffin all over.
Charters: Pacifism, eh? Won’t work, old boy. Early Christians tried it and they got thrown to the lions.
The Lady Vanishes is very much a propaganda flick, positioning itself as warning of the dangers of ignoring a fascist advance. Such blithe indifference is personified, initially, by Charters and Caldicott. Much worse is appeasing it, as encapsulated by Cecil Parker’s cringing cur, who ends up dead for having “the sense to try and avoid being murdered”, and being labelled a pacifist. In contrast, the brave nun, admitting she has hitched her skirts to the wrong team, is rewarded by being only shot in the leg.
Charters: No food? What sort of place is this? Expect us to share a blasted dog box with a servant girl on an empty stomach? Is that hospitality? Is that organisation?
Charters and Caldicott’s assumed superiority, through the mere fact of their nationality, is one of the picture’s most amusing elements, both for the fact of itself and its undercutting. Early on, there’s an effective suspense gag whereby we assume they’re on tenterhooks to learn the latest concerning inevitable war or political turmoil (“England on the brink” as they put it: “Tell me, what’s happening to England?”) but it turns out they merely want to hear the test match score (“You can’t be in England and not know the test score!” exclaims Charters indignantly, after intruding on someone else’s waiting phone call in an attempt to glean the vital information).
Charters: They can’t possibly do anything to us. I mean, we’re British subjects.
Disappointing service at the inn elicits denigrating remarks regarding the locale and the locals (“Well, third rate country. What do you expect?”; “What a country. I don’t wonder they have revolutions”) and comedy of manners as they are forced to share their room with Kathleen Tremaine’s maid (the duo also share a bed, Morecambe and Wise-style, and pyjamas, Charters’ having got wet in a cut scene).
Iris: I don’t see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people.
Charters: Oh, don’t you? Well, if that’s your attitude, obviously there’s nothing more to be said.
Naturally, though, being properly English, rather than contemptible cowards, the duo step up when the situation demands it. When Charters is shot at the door of the carriage, he’s cool as ice, re-entering the compartment and simply admitting “You were right”. Hitch wasn’t really in his element when it came to outright comedy (The Trouble with Harry feels more like a neat little doodle than a great movie), but the punctuation of the serious business here with comic vignettes only complements the overall effect.
Caldicott: Seems a bit queer. I mean, after all, people don’t go about tying up nuns.
And the effect remains highly polished, Hitch drawing on a variety of techniques to achieve the required illusion, from king size glasses during the Mickey Finn scene, to model shots establishing the opening location, and outstanding use of rear projection when Gilbert must climb out of a carriage and avoid an oncoming train (even though you’re never less than aware that’s what it is, the timing of the derring-do is highly suspenseful). The big man himself appears right at the end, at Victoria Station; he soon forswore such late-stage cameos, after realising people spent the whole movie looking out for him.
Events conclude on an appropriately cynical note as, asked what the British Government will have to say about all this, Gilbert’s assumption is “Nothing at all. They’ll just hush it up”. The screenwriters, who had adapted Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins into The Lady Vanishes, had something to say about the film’s success, though, as Hitch noted: “When the reviews labelled it a Hitchcock picture, Launder and Gilliat decided forthwith to undertake their own producing and directing”. You can’t really blame them, but it would have been nice to see the two creative forces collaborate again.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.