Blog Directory CineVerse: New train of thought

New train of thought

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" is a vintage confection that's both delectably sweet in its humor and richly rewarding in its dark chocolate skulduggery. The crafty blending of these tonal elements, and the inclusion of a colorful gallery of memorable passenger personalities aboard a mystery train canvas allows the Master of Suspense to create an indelible impressionistic painting that reveals new insights with each revisiting. Far from frivolous popcorn entertainment, this film is densely layered with context and message. Consider:

It helps set a new template for the romantic comedy thriller formula by infusing plenty of humor as well as social and political commentary with the Hitchcock brand of suspense.
This is a film with wide tonality shifts between frothy and light to dark and unsettling—shifts that are deftly handled here. Consider that we don’t feel the first inkling of foul play and peril until the 24-minute mark. Sudden and quick acts of violence and the suggestion that perhaps Iris is not in her right mind underscore this tonal shifting. In regards to the comedy, some critics and film scholars also insist that this movie is the funniest Hitchcock ever made—even more than his lone screwball comedy, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
The picture is excellently cast, boasting an array of notable English thespians and talented British character actors for this time, including Margaret Lockwood (then a major box office draw), Michael Redgrave in his film debut (this film made him a star), Paul Lukas, and Dame May Whitty; the characters of Charters and Caldicott, in fact, were so popular that they were featured in three later films starring the same two actors in their respective roles.
It has been theorized that the aforementioned duo are gay characters, which makes them even more memorable and rare for this period. Hitchcock had a history over his career of slyly but knowingly featuring gay characters in his films, including the college roommate murderers in “Rope,” Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca,” Bruno in “Strangers on a Train,” and Leonard the henchman in “North by Northwest.”
The three main females in the story are all strong women characters who at least somewhat buck the mold of subservient, secondary, male-dependent counterparts as are often depicted in films from the golden age of cinema: Iris is stubborn and determined to find Ms. Froy; Ms. Froy is a resourceful spy entrusted with a major political responsibility; and the adulterous mistress shows pluck and independence in defying her lover and fighting back against the fascists at the end of the movie.   
There’s a fabricated, deliberately artificial feel to the look and setting, with Hitchcock employing transparencies and miniatures, including a quite obvious toy train station in the opening sequence; the main action was filmed using a set that was only 90 feet long, consisting of a single coach. Additionally, the locale is a fantasyland Balkan country consisting of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Switzerland, and the evil forces/soldiers threatening the train passengers are from a make-believe nation that is an obvious surrogate for Nazi Germany. These decisions allowed Hitchcock “to establish a playful tone and a sense of quaint, reassuring artifice crucial to his technique. The more secure the audience feels, the more susceptible they are to the horrors of disruption Hitchcock will visit upon them later in the film,” wrote Slate writer Nathaniel Rich.
This penultimate British film from Hitch has been called a “farewell to England and farewell to youth”. Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey O’Brien said: “The mood is frankly sexy in a way that would never really be matched in Hitchcock’s American films, where even the most impassioned exchanges…seem too carefully planned to allow much room for spontaneity. Lockwood and Redgrave…really do seem like young people who have just met and who, despite their bumpy introduction, can’t wait to run off together. We never forget that these are young people still somewhat on the margins of the grown-up world, with Lockwood rushing too quickly into well-appointed adulthood by way of marrying the wrong man, and Redgrave lingering maybe a bit too long in uncommitted, footloose world roving—a forecast, perhaps, of the Grace Kelly–James Stewart couple in Rear Window, but in a younger and less neurotic mode.”

The filmmakers are using allegory here to suggest that Neville Chamberlain and his government’s stance of appeasement to Hitler was a mistake, and that the true moxie and unified character of the British people would present itself and help the Brits vanquish their foes. Consider how Todhunter, who insists that their adversaries are reasonable, is shot in the back by the bad guys after waving a white flag; the Brits on the train, meanwhile, including the would-be evil nun and the laid-back cricket lovers, turn out to be heroes who fight back and defeat the enemy.
DVD Savant writer Glenn Erickson wrote: “The Lady Vanishes reinforces 1930s' prejudices against Europeans, who exploit English gullibility and mask their murderous schemes with impeccable manners. When the chips are down the English show their true character. The war is still a year away, but the message imparted is that England can take it.”
This is also a movie about class distinctions: the middle class, represented by someone like Gilbert, contrasted with the snobby or idle upper class, as exemplified by Iris as well as Charters and Caldicott. By the end of the movie, the Brits from the upper and lower rungs of the social ladder are brought together for a common cause (defeat the fascists) and romantic passion (Iris and Gilbert fall in love).

Hitchcock’s later efforts “Foreign Correspondent” (which also depicts a crime festering in Europe while the British pay no attention) and “North by Northwest” (which also takes place partially on trains)
“So Long at the Fair,” an adaptation of the true life story of the strange disappearance of a young woman’s sibling during the 1880 Paris Exposition
The murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, which often also feature a plethora of memorable suspects
The films of Laurel and Hardy, the comedy duo Calidcott and Charters, the cricket-obsessed train passengers, are often compared to
“Bringing Up Baby,” a screwball comedy also from 1938; Michael Redgrave’s character has been compared to Katherine Hepburn’s chaotic and destabilizing personality in “Baby,” and Margaret Lockwood’s Iris has similarities to Cary Grant’s David Huxley.
Two other class-sensitive British dramas of the late 1930s: “Pygmalion” and “Goodbye Mr. Chips”
“Silver Streak,” which also features comedy and foul play and a missing agent aboard a train
“Flight Plan,” featuring Jodie Foster as a mother searching on an airplane for her child who’s disappeared during the flight.

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