Saturday, December 24, 2011
The Lady Vanishes
Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty
By Alan Bacchus
A delicious early Hitchcock classic featuring all the familiar Hitchcock tropes – contained and precise choreographed action aboard a train, an ordinary female heroine inadvertently caught in a world of international espionage, a mysterious but high-priced maguffin and that dry British wit to ensure the film never takes itself too seriously.
Hitch places us conspicuously in a fake European country with the continent on the brink of war. A varied group of travellers includes a couple of British fops desperately trying to get updates on the cricket scores back home, an Italian magician, a suave British folk singer, a trio of sexually charged gals, and a host of inept locals. Before anyone steps on a train or anyone 'vanishes', we're introduced to our ensemble of characters stranded in a small town with only one hotel while snow is being cleared from the tracks. We're not even sure who the hero will be. Perhaps it’s the affable cricket fans, the musician, the old British Governess or the betrothed young woman at the end of her world tour of sowing her wild oats (Hitch is very coy but clear about this). This opening act is nothing but comedy, completely disarming us to where the journey will ultimately take us.
Once aboard the train, Hitch spends more time with Mrs. Froy, the Governess, and the bride-to-be, Iris. The shoe for this picture drops when Iris falls asleep in her train car only to wake up and find Froy missing, gone, vanished into thin air. The magician, who now sits across from her, claims he's never seen Froy. It’s the same with everyone else on the train. Is Iris crazy? The conveniently placed psychoanalyst on board thinks so. But just as she's about to accept her own insanity she finds an ally in Gilbert, the folk singer, who after finding a shred of evidence that Froy is real, becomes Iris’s sleuthing partner.
The entire second act plays out aboard the train, a frequent motif for Hitchcock and a device that serves to create claustrophobia and containment of the characters, as well as a metaphor for the intensity of the chase that ensues. Hitchcock remarkably shot all these train sequences within a 90-foot space with only one replica train car, meticulously storyboarding his shots, of course, to create an efficient production.
The film's most famous and celebrated scene comes midway in - a confrontation between Iris and Gilbert and one of the kidnapping suspects, during which the suspect attempts to poison the duo with drinks. Hitchcock squeezes out every drop of tension from the exchange by shooting the scene through the wine glasses placed mere inches away from the camera.
The film arguably loses its edge once the train comes to a stop and a gunfight ensues between the heroes at the clandestine political enemy faction. The Lady Vanishes works best in motion in the moments of confusion and mystery from Iris's point of view. Hitch not-so-subtly drops hints about the mystery along the way, unbeknownst to Iris, but very clear to the audience. We know that Froy's dropped eyeglasses, which are given a bold close-up, will pay off somewhere down the line, same with the Governess' handwritten name on the foggy window, or the very specific herbal tea she requests on the train, fun clues to trace back later on to prove Iris' sanity.
The Lady Vanishes, which was extremely popular in its day, was one of Hitchcock's last British films before he moved to Hollywood, and it marks the end of this pre-war espionage pictures, such as The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much. His move to Hollywood and his work under David O. Selznick would be marked by significantly higher budgets and production values. But there's something more inspiring and vivacious in the production constraints through which Hitchcock crafted some of his best works. The Lady Vanishes exemplifies this unique period of his career.
The Lady Vanishes is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.