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

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

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…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

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.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…