The CMBA Fall Blogathon: THE LADY VANISHES (1938)

This post is part of The CMBA Fall Blogathon: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Be sure to take a look at all the other entries here!

It is always difficult to talk about Alfred Hitchcock films, not because they are bad but because they are so tricky and well plotted that one is constantly making sure not to spoil the surprises of the story.  With that in mind we will proceed with a mild spoiler warning.  I will not give away the ending but as we talk about the film a few plot points may be revealed so if you are sensitive to that or have not seen this film yet, you might want to keep this in mind.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a young Englishwoman on a mission.  She is trying to get back to London in order to marry her chosen fellow but a recent avalanche has blocked the railways.  She and several other passengers are stranded at an inn in the country of Bandrika, including cricket fans Charters and Caldicot, a lawyer called Todhunter, his “wife” Mrs. Todhunter, and governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty).  That night Iris is having a terrible time getting any rest due to music being played in the room above her.  When she complains to management they remove the musician from his room.  This is all fine and dandy for a time, until the musician shows up at Iris’ door.  Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a fellow stranded passenger, having been dispossessed of his lodgings has decided that he will now share a room with Iris, much to her chagrin.  Unlike Iris, Miss Froy enjoys music and is listening to a local folk musician playing under her window.  Unseen by her, someone comes from the shadows and kills the man.

Morning comes and Iris is already having a bad day.  On her way to the train she was hit on the head by a planter and had to be helped aboard by Miss Froy.  Iris blacks out and when she awakens she is in a compartment with Miss Froy and several Italian women.  Iris and Miss Froy strike up conversation and soon make their way to the dining car for tea.  Iris asks for the name of her new friend but is unable to hear her answer over the roar of the train.  Miss Froy writes her name on a window for Iris to see and the two continue their pleasant afternoon.  Upon returning to their compartment, Iris falls asleep.

When she awakens, Iris cannot find Miss Foy any where.  The other people in the compartment claim to have no knowledge of an elderly English woman.  Stranger still Todhunter, who had actually spoken to Miss Froy, now claims to have never seen her as do Charters and Caldicot.  The European doctor on board, one Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), believes that Iris is suffering from a concussion and has imagined Miss Froy but Iris is insistent.  The only person will to believe Iris is Gilbert, and the two begin searching the train for their lost friend.  Their search turns up nothing but as they return to Iris’ compartment they spy a familiar hat.  Hurrying forward they find a woman…a German woman, one dressed exactly like Miss Froy but one who is decidedly NOT Miss Froy.

First conceived as a script called The Lost Lady, to be directed by Roy William Neill, the first film crew was kicked out of Yugoslavia after the local police found that they were not being portrayed in a positive light and the project was scrapped.  A year later when Alfred Hitchcock could not find a project to direct to fulfill his contract with producer Edward Black, he was offered The Lost Lady.  Hitchcock accepted and after some tweaks to the script, THE LADY VANISHES was born.  For his leads Hitchcock chose two relatively unknown actors.  Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, who was a rising theater star but had no influence in cinema.

I love Michael Redgrave.  He brings such a great quality to Gilbert, who comes across as a roguish character with truly decent heart.  He is utterly charming and you can’t help falling for him.  Margaret Lockwood is terrific as well, portraying the character of Iris as intelligent and determined without being obstinate.  The best parts are when Iris and Gilbert are working together.  She knows what she saw and who she is looking for, and he is initially somewhat amused by her but as time goes by he becomes more and more certain that something is going on.  He always believes her but at first he takes it more lightly until finally becoming completely convinced that something terrible is going on.

This is also one of my favorite Hitchcock films.  It has what can only be described as a cracking good mystery with some truly entertaining and complex suspects.  Each supporting character has reasons and motives to be suspicious, each one feels like a fully fleshed out person and not like a piece of the background.  There is also such terrific wit and intelligence to the dialogue that just listening to the characters talk is an engrossing experience.  THE LADY VANISHES is fun, thrilling, tense, and unexpected.  I love every minute!

As this is a blogathon about transportation let us take a moment and talk about the train in THE LADY VANISHES.  It is practically a character unto itself.  In each scene the sounds of the train can be heard, the characters gently swaying with the movement.  The train adds several elements of suspense to the story.  First there is a question of space.  A train is small, cramped, with many places to hide but not enough room to move quickly.  This means that around every corner and in every compartment there could be someone hiding and listening.  It also means that escape is difficult but pursuit is even more so.

The fact that a woman has vanished in such a small space also makes the mystery so much more confusing.  How could a woman vanish on a moving train and no on see her?  It doesn’t make sense!  One of the things that Hitchcock did best was to get into his audience’s heads.  He manages to make the audience think and feel exactly the way his main characters do.  So while Iris is astonished and confused about the disappearance of Miss Froy, we are as well.  We want to know why people are lying about not seeing a woman that they spoke to the night before?  We want to know why a woman has vanished from an enclosed space?  The train is the perfect environment for this mystery to occur.

There is also a deadline, a time when the mystery will no longer be solvable.  The train approaches its final destination and with each station that passes the question of what happened to Miss Froy becomes more and more difficult to solve.  Each stop is a chance for someone to get off the train, a chance for new people to get on, a chance for someone to hide something or leave something behind.  And when the train finally stops at the last station it won’t matter if Miss Froy has been found or not, everyone will depart and it will be almost impossible to find them all again.  Each stop, each lurch of the train, each squeal of the brakes and hiss of the engines adds a layer of anxiety to the story as we feel the stakes rising each time and the chances of discovering the truth behind what happened to Miss Froy falling in return.