Blog Directory CineVerse: The vanishing lady reappears

The vanishing lady reappears

Thursday, June 16, 2022

It’s always a treat to revisit works by the Master of Suspense—even if a film in his repertoire predates his arrival in Hollywood in the late 1930s. In fact, some of his British productions equal or best his cinematic efforts from the 1940s through the 1970s. One such example is The Lady Vanishes (1938), which combines elements from various genres to create something unique—at least up to that time. Our CineVerse club studied this picture last week and discussed several fascinating angles (to listen to a recording of our group talk, click here).

What stands out as interesting, distinctive, and unexpected about the Lady Vanishes, especially for a 1938 film?

  • 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 broad 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 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, making 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 prominent 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, despite attempts to gaslight her.
    • Ms. Froy is a resourceful spy entrusted with a significant political responsibility; and
    • the adulterous mistress shows pluck and independence in defying her lover and fighting back against the fascists at the movie’s end.
  • 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 (Bandrika) consisting of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Switzerland.
    • 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 wrote: “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.”

This film attempts to make not-so-subtle sociopolitical statements about Britain and its place in the world in 1938. Can you cite any examples?

  • 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 grit and unified character of the British people would present itself and help the Brits defeat their foes.
    • Consider how Todhunter, who insists that their adversaries are reasonable, is shot in cold blood 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).

Similar works

  • 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
  • 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.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Changeling
  • Narrow Margin
  • The films of Laurel and Hardy, the comedy duo that 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

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