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Lady Vanishes, The (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Alfred Hitchcock
Margaret Lockwood
Michael Redgrave
Dame Mary Whitty
Basil Radford
Naunton Wayne
Bottom Line: 

For many “The Lady Vanishes” stands at the pinnacle of Alfred Hitchcock’s achievements in British film during the first part of his career, before the big move to Hollywood that came about soon after the film’s 1938 release, with the signing of a seven year personal contract with RKO’s David O Selznick the following year. The espionage subject matter which had formed the basis of nearly all of the thrillers Hitchcock had been making back-to-back for the last four years at Gaumont-British and its successor Gainsborough Pictures, continues to be the main generator of events in “The Lady Vanishes”, but is combined with the witty dialogue, efficient story development and the dash of humour and romance (with an undercurrent of sex ) that would mark out the more polished and sophisticated fare of the Hollywood years yet to come. The plot – involving the prototypical Hitchcock McGuffin, predicated on the attempts of a disparate group of Balkan terrorists to stop a vital clause in a pact between two central European countries from reaching diplomats in London after being encrypted in a song known only to a British spy posing as an elderly Governess called Miss Froy – serves as the jumping off point for the perfect package of finely honed repartee, light thrills, mystery and whimsical humour (in the words of the distributor’s handbook: ‘Comedy! Chills! Chuckles!’) which is often thought the definitive iteration of the Hitchcock formula as it then stood, for those who look at the British period mainly as Hitchcock’s training ground, and the pictures he directed during that time his apprentice works made before he went on to achieve his really serious cinematic feats abroad, blessed with all the resources of the American studio system.

The odd thing to note about this film, though, is that it isn’t strictly a ‘Hitchcock film’ at all -- at least not in the usual sense in which we think of his work being painstakingly prepared in an elaborate process that involves Hitch’s initial selection of the material, with him usually taking some source novel or script idea as the basis for a scenario that is then worked on intensively by the director and his chosen team of collaborators until the entire film is completely planned out shot-for-shot, in detailed storyboards Hitchcock then merely has mechanically to re-create in front of the camera.

None of this process applies to how Alfred Hitchcock came to be behind the lens on “The Lady Vanishes”. Originally, it wasn’t even his project at all.

Based on the 1936 novel ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White, the screenplay (then titled “Lost Lady”) was written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, two young screenwriters who later struck up a highly successful director-writer-producer partnership in British cinema after Launder persuaded Gainsborough production head Edward Black that the company should buy the rights to the novel as the first of a series of intended properties Launder had been promised in his contract with Gainsborough he’d be allowed to adapt. Gilliat was freelancing at Gainsborough at the time, and was commissioned to begin work on an early treatment for “Lost Lady” while Launder finished up on other commitments. It was during this early stage that Gilliat invented the film’s most memorable characters, the cricket-obsessed Englishmen Charters and Caldicott (who are not in the novel at all), before being joined by Launder to complete the screenplay. With the artistic (and commercial) success of the movie later being primarily attributed to Hitchcock, the director spinning the story that he had chosen Gilliat and Launder to adapt the novel for him, with Hitch even taking credit for the addition of Charters and Caldicott to the screenplay, the duo were even more greatly spurred on to go into production for themselves, and were to be responsible for many classics of British cinema during the 1940s & ‘50s, including “The Belles of St. Trinian’s” (1954). They were also quick to claim ownership of the Charters and Caldicott characters, bringing the duo back in a whole series of sequels, starting with 1940’s “Night Train to Munich” which was directed by Carol Reed, and in which the duo were reunited with the female lead of “The Lady Vanishes”, Margaret Lockwood.

The plan at the start was that the then-British based American director Roy William Neill -- who would go on to helm a series of wartime Sherlock Holmes second features at Universal between 1943 and 1946 starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, one of which, “Terror By Night”, was a train-bound thriller very much in the style of “The Lady Vanishes” -- would be given the director’s seat, and second unit material was soon being shot in Yugoslavia while he made his initial preparations. Hitchcock became attached to the project only because, after his last feature, “Young and Innocent”, he still had one more picture left to make at Gainsborough for producer Edward Black in order to fulfil his two-picture contract. By now Hitchcock was also fielding offers to go and work for Charles Laughton and the German producer Erich Pommer as well as the Selznick Brothers in the U.S., but his negotiations, which involved several foreign trips, left him with no time to prepare his next British film, thus forcing him to go to Black and ask if there were any completed scripts ready to go that might’ve been abandoned by others and that he could therefore take over. In the mean time, the second unit trip to Yugoslavia for “Lost Lady” had ended in disaster when the assistant director broke his ankle and the entire crew were deported after the subsequent local police investigation uncovered some unflattering references to the country in the script which the assistant director had forgotten to remove beforehand. Neill’s enthusiasm for the project had waned by this point, and he flew back to the states, abandoning the film and forcing Black to cancel the production completely despite the initial cash outlay … until, that is, Hitchcock came a calling.

 Hitch read the Launder & Gilliat script and after calling for some minor revisions, which led to some alterations to the opening act and an increase in the action during the climactic gun battle on-board the diverted train, agreed to direct the film in five weeks at the cramped Islington Studios which Gainsborough often used for their smaller films, the tight schedule leaving him no time to prepare and plan using his customary storyboarding technique.  Apart from these tweaks, the screenplay was essentially the same one Roy William Neill had originally been assigned to shoot; an extended section that comes in the middle, and which is set in the luggage compartment of the transcontinental Express on which the majority of the action takes place, combining comedic farce, romantic repartee, action and suspense all in one self-contained unit, is probably the only part of the movie that was entirely invented at Hitchcock’s behest. The beauty of the Launder-Gilliat setup is that it is almost entirely character based, but involves Hitchcock’s diverse cast in an cross-country adventure that deftly combines the personal and the political by virtue of an astute analysis of the English and their relationship with (and position within) Europe, on what turned out to be the eve of the country’s gravest hour on the world stage -- all the while never once forgetting its duty as a piece of light box office entertainment, precision engineered to thrill and amuse. Hitchcock serves up the screenplay’s many dialogue witticisms and ingeniously unlikely spy plot-related mysteries without recourse to ostentatiously showy set-pieces such as those which had dominated previous hit films of his such as “Blackmail”, “The 39 Steps” and “Young and Innocent”. Instead, the action takes place in a series of confined spaces where a disparate bunch of nationalities are forced to co-exist side-by-side; and it is communication -- or rather miscommunication -- which forms the central motif of the movie: either miscommunication of an accidental nature, which usually takes the form of the inability to make oneself understood properly on an interpersonal level (thus forming the basis of much of the picture’s comedy) or that which is deliberately engineered by the film’s potpourri of European antagonists, whose entire mission depends on stopping a piece of disguised information from crossing their country’s borders.

The first third of the film, in which the cast is stranded overnight at a snow-bound inn in the fictional central European country of Bandrika after an avalanche blocks the main rail route out, plays more like an extended comedy of manners than the conventional Hitchcock spy thriller, but it allows the director to indulge his interest in the sexual psychology of his characters, as well as to establish the anti-appeasement message that underlies the comedic thrills of the Launder and Gilliat script. The characters of Charters and Caldicott (played by two actors previously known only for their serious roles, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne,  but who became a comedic duo and appeared in a number of movies together throughout the ‘40s as a direct result of the popularity of their turn in the Hitchcock film) represent middle England in all its narrow but supposedly good intentioned ignorance. They’re introduced with a series of conversations in the crowded lobby of the inn that seem to hint that the duo are most anxious to get back to England, having missed a connecting train at Budapest, because of some dire unstated international political situation at that moment affecting the country (in 1938, this is what viewing audiences would have assumed); ‘that last report was pretty ghastly … “England on the Brink!”’, bemoans Caldicott, as the duo desperately scan newspapers and attempt to reacquisition the hotel’s only phone; while Charters reassures his friend that ‘the old country’s been in some tight corners before.’ Of course, the joke turns out to be that the couple are not concerned at all about the possibility of war, or anything of that nature; they are simply attempting to glean information about how the English cricket team are performing in the Test Match taking place back in Manchester! Their interactions with the babel of French, Italian and German guests who also inhabit the now bustling inn are predicated on a self-mocking idea that the English have an inherent inability to understand or accept foreign mores, particularly the peculiar habit most of the rest of the world has of not speaking English (a trait that seems genuinely to bewilder the pair). This leads to some typically saucy Hitchcock humour later on, when Charters and Caldicott find themselves having to take the maid’s room (where they are forced to sleep side-by-side in a single bed) because the rest of the inn is full up with stranded holidaymakers. Sex often becomes the examining lens through which Hitchcock views society and class, and a near-the-knuckle sight gag in which Charters and Caldicott turn away in horror as they walk in to discover the maid, whose attic room they have just been offered for the night, reaching under her bed to remove what they both assume to be her chamber pot but actually turns out to be a hat case, underscores both the couple’s befuddled naiveté and their essential decency. The film both gently mocks them for their embarrassed rushed exit as the maid obliviously strips down to her underclothes in front of them while preparing to move in with the hotel’s butler (who is presumably also her lover), while also celebrating the good intentioned decency behind their stiff-upper-lip English reserve and manners.

The flip side of this English diffidence over sex is examined from the perspective of the film’s main heroine, Iris Henderson, played by Margaret Lockwood -- then a relative newcomer to film who was to become one of the leading British female actors of the 1940s, famed mostly for her villainous roles. Her character is delineated extensively, before the main action gets going on-board the train, through a series of personal interactions at the inn that encode a simmering sexuality and a spirit under threat of  the stifling confinement of marriage. Iris is holidaying with two friends (played by Sally Stewart and Googie Withers) before planning her return to England to marry ‘a blue-blooded cheque chaser’ and become Lady Charles Fotheringail, in the belief that there is nothing else for her to do, having enjoyed her independence for the last few years, but marry for social status and wealth. While Charters and Caldicott get into a dither over being intimately confined in the company of the maid during her state of undress, Iris and her friends are just as oblivious in considering the effect that their similarly revealing attire might have when the hotel butler enters their shared quarters carrying a Champagne tray just as the girls are preparing for bed. There is another rather risqué sight gag here, involving the positioning of the bottle of Champagne relative to the butler’s crotch as he stops before Iris, who is stood on a side table while she holds court in front of her friends wearing only her undergarments. The class conventions involved in the servant-master relationship playing out between the girls and the hotel functionary make him completely invisible to them, while he must continue to affect an air of indifference to the troubling arousal their insouciant state of undress is clearly bringing about. This dynamic does not apply when it comes to the other male English guest staying in the room above Iris, though: an expert in European folk music, whose noisy late night folk dance rehearsals with hotel staff and a group of locals disturbs Iris’s sleep and leads her into wielding the power of her social position in order to get the manager to have him removed.  This compels him in return to get his own back on her by invading her room in the middle of the night, moving his toiletries into her bathroom and threatening to leap into bed with her -- so beginning a love-hate sex and class based flirtation which will end, before the climax of the movie, in Iris deserting the finance who’s waiting back in England.

Michael Redgrave was a former teacher who turned to the stage in the mid-thirties. His first film role consisted of a small part as an army captain in Hitchcock’s 1936 film “Secret Agent” and his promotion to leading man in “The Lady Vanishes” was instrumental in kick-started his film career, although he clashed with Hitchcock over the lack of rehearsal time available on the movie and made no bones about the fact that he did not really think an awful lot of the material itself, despite respecting the director’s professionalism. In fact, the two never worked together again. His role as quipping folk music expert Gilbert Redman encapsulates the favourite Hitchcock back-and-forth dynamic that so often takes place between his independent female characters and his dominating male leads, Redman’s combatively droll romantic courtship of Iris eventually finding a level ground in their joint investigation of the disappearance of Iris’s elderly  school governess friend Mrs Froy (Dame May Whitty) after the rest of the train’s passengers insist on denying her existence, even when they had clearly been present while the two were in each other’s company before and during the train journey. The English travellers each has a reason for denying Froy’s existence: Charters and Caldicott don’t want the train stopped because they won’t reach England in time for the end of the test match; English lawyer Mr Todhunter (Cecil Parker), meanwhile, is conducting an illicit affair with his mistress (Linden Travers) who is posing as the fake “Mrs Todunter”, a fact which makes him extremely unwilling for either of them to have to be called as a witness at a later date in any subsequent investigation Of Mrs Froy’s disappearance. The other European travellers, a waiter in the restaurant carriage and the other passengers occupying the train compartment the two ladies had been sharing before Mrs Froy’s sudden disappearance (a saturnine Baroness [Mary Clare], a jovial Italian stage illusionist, Signor Doppo [Philip Leaver] and his inscrutable wife [Selma  Vaz Dias] have their own very particular reasons for conspiring in the lie: they’re part of a spy network headed by the urbane Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas) -- and Signor Doppo’s stage act ‘The Vanishing Lady’ holds the key to the illusion responsible for providing the idea for Hartz's plot to smuggle the little old lady in oatmeal-tweed from the train by swapping her for a heavily bandaged fake accident victim, brought on-board as one of the doctor’s patients mid-way through the journey.

Gilbert gamely plays along at first with Iris’s apparent delusion (as diagnosed by Hartz after her bump on the head just before boarding the Express), until realising that she’s actually been telling him the truth all along when the wrapper from the particular brand of herbal tea, unused on the train but which Iris remembers Mrs Froy giving to one of the waiters, briefly sticks to the window in front of him when the rubbish is thrown out by the serving staff. Iris herself almost comes to believe Herz’s convenient diagnosis of her state of mind until reminded that Froy actually scrawled her name in condensation on the window of the restaurant cart during lunch. Given that the film was almost directed by the man who went on to oversee most of the entries in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, it’s ironic that there is actually a Holmes skit in “The Lady Vanishes” during the sequence in which Iris and Gilbert investigate Signor Doppo’s magician’s paraphernalia in the luggage compartment -- eventually losing custody of the man himself when they try to  lock him in a trunk only to find that it is also a magician’s prop and has a false bottom! Redgrave dons Holmes’s deerstalker and pipe at one point in the sequence to suggests that the two stop a moment to ‘marshal our facts over a pipe-full of Baker Street shag!’ This film also marked the screen debut of the actress Catherine Lacey, who plays the nun whose sexy high-heels finally gives the conspirators’ game away … The Catholic angle always works its way into Hitchcock’s movies somehow. 

Hitchcock was and is notorious for being uninterested in actually directing his actors, often coming across on the set as a sort of benign sleeping Buddha; yet “The Lady Vanishes” is justly celebrated for its many compelling performances and a surfeit of memorable, eccentric characters. The tiny soundstage at Islington is opened out somewhat by a cunning use of process photography, back projection, matte shots and miniatures (the movie’s opening aerial shot, a glide down mountains across a snow-capped valley dissolving into a tracking shot that floats through the inn window, anticipates with miniatures the opening introductory shots of “Psycho”) which still stand up remarkably well even when the film is viewed in high definition: a feat that probably should be put down to the genius of Jack Cox,  who had been Hitchcock’s frequent cinematographer since 1927’s “The Ring”. The film was an instant hit with critics (Hitchcock went on to win the New York Critics’ Circle Award for Best Director) as well as audiences of the day, and it works just as well today, now that it has been restored and cleaned up sufficiently for all of its detail to shine through. This UK Blu-ray edition from Network is sparse on extra features, including only a short introduction from critic Charles Barr, an image gallery and a theatrical trailer, with PDF file promotional materials accessible from a PC or Mac -- but the restoration is exemplary in both picture and cleaned up sound, and brings Hitchcock’s most celebrated pre-war British comedy-thriller to life like never before. It’s a reliable upgrade for the Hitchcock aficionado.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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