Skip to main content

You can’t be in England and not know the test score!

The Lady Vanishes
(1938)

(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”.


IrisYou’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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…