Week 21: ‘The Lady Vanishes’ – 1938

There’s a danger with certain of these films to just bang on in a litany of superlatives, especially when the movie in question is as gripping, funny, exciting, composed, beautifully structured and performed and just plain all-hands-down classic as ‘The Lady Vanishes’. With certain Alfred Hitchcock films it’s actually quite difficult to watch them with objectivity and a fresh eye – they’re so well known and oft-viewed that you need to watch them whilst perched on a step ladder just to get a fresh perspective. This be one of the biggies, and my word does it stand up well.

He’s straight in there with one of his model shots – the camera, pretty smoothly, craning down to then dissolve into a snowbound inn interior. Pretty slick, even the dinky little car that sidles by. The inn is crowded with soon-to-be-irate travelers, all delayed by an avalanche. Some neat comedy dialogue here as the beleagured receptionist attempts to house all the jostling guests – including the venerable Charters (Basil Radford) and his sidekick Caldecott (Naunton Wayne): ‘there no ‘eating on the train’ ‘no eating on the train?!’ ‘no heating – brrrghhh’ ‘oh, that’s awkward’. It’s pretty rapid and kicks the film into top gear from the outset with pretty broad comedic moments (the occasional head crack on a low beam, the maid about to disrobe in front of the two guys etc). Fantastic also, from a modern perspective, that the two guys get completely togged up in black tie in order to go down to dinner in a snow bound lodge in the middle of nowhere – I quite like that idea.

Charters sneakily grabs the telephone intercepting a call from England – not bothered by the weather, he wants to know the cricket score in Manchester. We later see the two guys in bed together – Caldecott with no shirt on, Charters with just a long pyjama top. I suppose it must have been normal, in a ‘how-come-Morecambe-and-Wise-share-a-bed?’ kind of way.

As the two gents manage to grab a shared table in the (as it transpires, food-free) restaurant, we meet the eponymous Lady – Miss Froy played by (Dame) May Whitty. She’s plummy and of a comfortable shape and in her 60’s it would seem. She proceeds to bore them rather with a mountain metaphor – a neat cut to the pair of them gazing glazed with heads slanted on hands.

‘Queer sort of bird’ Charters notes as she scuttles off. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is one of three flighty young girls who are also sharing a room – she clocks the old girl as she passes her in the corridor upstairs.

There follows shortly after our introduction to the lead male, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), playing the clarinet as three individuals hammer away on the wooden floor in a dodgy dance. This dancing racket irks Iris and soon Gilbert appears boldly in her room to confront her – he has bribed the manager to let him move in with her, much to her annoyance. Turns out he’s just winding her up – ‘you’re the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in my entire life’ she says ‘I think you’re a bit of stinker too’ he retorts in a whisper: You know there’ll be together by the end.

It’s all played for laughs until twenty four minutes in when a singing guitarist is strangled by a mystery pair of shadowy hands and suddenly we see the dark side of the film.

Miss Froy hears this tune and the melody will transpire to be the McGuffin* at the heart of the plot. They then all pile on a train out of there and the main intrigue is introduced. Iris meets the old girl on the platform and then gets herself clonked on the head by a falling plant pot  – planting the thought that all that is to come is her imagination. As the train pulls out, leaving her two friends behind, Iris sinks into a faint (all multiple images/blurry p.o.v shots and the like) and she comes to being looked after by the older woman.

The following scenes are key: as they go to the restaurant car for tea it’s interesting to see how many people see Miss Froy and how later they will deny all knowledge of it. When the elderly lady attempts to say her name a loud train whistle makes it inaudible – she writes it on the dust of the window. This is all done so beautifully and elegantly – you’re wrapped up in their chatter and banter, but at the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘how is one of these ladies going to vanish?’ There are some particularly sinister looking individuals sharing their carriage and sure enough these will transpire to be the dodgy captors.

When Iris awakes her p.o.v pans across to the newly vanished Miss Froy and the main crux of the film gets going. Even though this is over a third of the film in, it’s been pacey and entertaining enough to not matter. The director has established all his main characters and laid a solid groundwork to then build his intriguing missing person’s tale.

Iris starts to get frantic as she goes around the train being contradicted by people stating they never saw the old lady. She unwillingly enlists Gilbert in her search (he: ‘can I help?’ her: ‘only by going away’) and they proceed to quiz everyone they meet. A handy quack (Paul Lukas) explains it could all be a delusion caused by the bump to her head, and there’s a clever composite shot as he leans out of the train window – a neat way of opening the film up from its studio bound feel. They stop briefly at a station to allow a heavily bandaged patient on board – the face totally wrapped in bandages (very convenient). Then Iris is further foxed when a replacement Miss Froy appears in the same getup – but with that old suspicious Johnny foreigner accent that screams of the sinister. Her insistences seem to be growing more and more wobbly as time goes on.

Grumpily slumping back in the carriage full of lying villains, Iris sees Miss Froy’s kindly face superimposed over each of them. Gilbert and her adjourn to the buffet car – my, he’s a charmer and slick with it. There’s a real chemistry between them as they discuss the missing lady and other matters (he taken aback when she mentions her fiance). They happen to sit at the exact table where Miss Froy wrote her name on the window – and eventually Iris remembers this. ‘Look!’ she says as the train whistle blows and just at that precise moment they go into a tunnel and the name is erased by steam and smoke! But she has seen it and knows she’s not a nutjob. She then proceeds to pretty much lose it in front of everyone – berating them for not remembering the old duck. She is wrestled under control by Gilbert and Herr Doktor. ‘Leave me alone! Leave me alone!’ she cries, pulling the emergency stop lever before falling face first to camera, taking us to black. Strangely, even though it sounds like the train is braking, the next scene has our two gentlemen friends relaxedly chatting while the countryside zips by behind them – a bit odd and feels like a mistake to me.

Gilbert notices a herbal tea label thrown out of the window (Miss Froy’s chosen brand) and suddenly he is totally on Iris’s side. They hunt around in the cargo car and locate a goat in a big basket followed by a magician’s poster advertising a vanishing lady trick (said magician is riding on the train with the bad guys). There’s a whole lot of entertaining business involving rabbits and birds appearing and both of them disappearing – all very well handled and entertaining.

Gilbert spins out a few impersonations (Sherlock Holmes/Will Hay etc) until they find Froy’s specs – a sinister hand clutching into shot – the magician himself. A great comedy fight sequence breaks out between the three of them – no music here (see the classic ‘Torn Curtain’ fight which is a whole lot messier and more violent).

They eventually shove the fat magic man in a box only for it to be one with a false bottom and he’s vanished yet again – with the spectacle evidence.

It all kicks off as they realize the doc is in on the whole thing and they pretend to have taken a sedative each. Gilbert springs into action and grapples along on the outside of the train (very well done as another one screams by on the parallel tracks) to locate and save the bandaged up Miss Froy.

There follows a great scene where all the passengers we have got to know are to be taken off the train by the authorities for their own safety, Gilbert telling them it’s trap. Charters doesn’t believe Gilbert and goes to the train door, stands still and gets shot in the hand. He literally doesn’t react and just looks blank, coming back into the carriage and saying to Gilbert ‘you were right’. Completely stoic and deadpan, and really wonderful. The shooting that follows is also completely underplayed, Gilbert casually raising a pistol and popping one of the footsoldiers (handy to have a few of them around, like those chaps in red shirts who beam down to the planet in ‘Star Trek’ just to get phaser-ed).

In the midst of the gun battle stand off, Froy starts imparting her secret coded message tune to Gilbert and Iris – it’s all very eccentric and a bit silly but really entertaining. They get the engine going and you know you’re in for some great train/car chase/model/rear projection action – and sure enough Hitchcock delivers. It’s great that multiple people actually get shot, not your usual bullets spraying everywhere and no-one actually buying the farm. It’s pacey and exciting, Gilbert whistling and humming the prized melody to ensure he can deliver it safely to the government. Finally, they cross the border and are home free. Charters and Caldecott (they sound like estate agents) are shocked to read the news that the cricket has been adandoned due to flooding – outrageous! It’s a nice little gag that runs through the movie and I like these two chaps a lot.

The film is undeniably studio bound (shot in Islington, no less) – but the backdrops of snowy mountains and matte paintings are all pretty effective. Model shots, matte paintings and backdrops are all pressed into service and are all pretty slick and effective. The film is fast moving, filled with great characters and a central plot that does have you guessing all the way through. When Gilbert eventually launches on Iris at the end (she hiding from her fella) it’s perfectly believable they would get together (although they need to remember that line at the end of ‘Speed’ – about relationships that start under extreme circumstances not lasting. Sure enough Keanu Reeves has become Jason Patric by ‘Speed 2: Cruise Control’). ‘The Lady Vanishes’ is top drawer entertainment and has a charm that is timeless.

Miscellaneous notes

Hitchcock to Truffaut: “(a McGuffin is) the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories, it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” The thing that characterizes a MacGuffin is that the content of the tune or papers is not important and, most times, never even revealed.

Hitch pops up walking right to left across the frame with a cigar stuck in his chops – near the close of the film in London’s Victoria Station:

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