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.

Watching with Warner: THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

I think that I have an addiction to the Warner Archive.  Between the sales, the podcast, and the AWESOME movies I have bought so many films that I haven’t even seen yet.  So, the other night I decided to watch one of my many offerings from the Warner Archive and I decided to let my husband pick it.  After some careful perusal he handed me a copy of THE NARROW MARGIN starring Charles McGraw and directed by Richard Fleischer.

Arriving from Los Angeles, Detectives Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) head out from the train station to the Chicago hideout of a federal witness.   Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) is a gangster’s widow who is set to testify in front of the grand jury and to present them with his “pay-off” list.  Brown and Forbes are sent to make sure that she arrives unharmed, but there is one catch.  No one, not even the hitmen gunning for her, know what Mrs. Neall looks like.  Brown and Forbes arrive at the apartment where Mrs. Neall is waiting, not at all patiently.  She is surly, argumentative, and scared.  The three get ready to head back to the train station and start down the stairs.  As they descend, from the shadows a man with a fur collared coat readies himself to take the shot.  Suddenly, the back door opens and an unsuspecting tenant enters the building.  The hidden gunman startles and begins firing wildly.  Forbes comes down first and is hit immediately, Brown giving chase to the assailant while Mrs. Neall stays hidden on the landing.  Brown manages to clip the fleeing gunman, but loses him in the alley when a car pulls up and takes him to safety.  Upon returning he finds his partner is dead and Mrs. Neall is in no mood to mourn him.  She demands to be taken to safety and quickly.  Brown leaves instructions for the tenant to call the police and give his information about the assailant, and then proceeds to a taxi with Mrs. Neall.

During the ride to the station Brown bemoans the loss of his partner but Mrs. Neall once again proves herself to be a class act by showing no sympathy for the dead man.  She figures that the job of both Brown and Forbes is to protect her no matter what, and if that means dying for her than that is just fine.  Brown is disgusted but duty-bound to help her, so he hops out of the cab two blocks before the station after giving detailed instructions as to how to safely board the train to the irate Mrs. Neall.  Brown knows that he was spotted by the hitman and his getaway vehicle but that Mrs. Neall was not.  That means he is the only one who can lead them to Mrs. Neall, so by separating they have a chance to keep up her cover.  In the station, two men are waiting for him not knowing that their actual target just walked right by them.  Brown makes every effort to lose his tail, but he can’t shake them before boarding the train.  Arriving at his compartment, Brown has little time to settle in before there is a knock at his door and the conductor is standing there with a man.  The man is Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and he claims to have lost his luggage which he thinks might be in Brown’s compartment.  Brown recognizes Kemp as the man who was tailing him at the station and knows that he is just trying to snoop around his compartment for signs of Mrs. Neall.  Brown calmly shows Kemp and the conductor that his compartment is empty of rogue luggage when Kemp wants to look into the adjoining room.  The door is locked and on the other side is Mrs. Neall, hiding in the darkness.  Brown tells the conductor that his partner missed the train and so the compartment is empty.  Satisfied, the conductor escorts Kemp from the room though Kemp promises to be back.

Brown makes his way to the dining car to get a drink but he soon spots Kemp sitting nearby.  In order to keep an eye on him, Brown takes a seat at the same table as a young woman.  The woman, Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), is surprised at her new visitor but soon strikes up a conversation.  Brown makes absentminded small talk until he sees Kemp exit the dining car, at which point he hastily takes his leave of Ann and hurries after Kemp.  Kemp is searching through Brown’s compartment and finding nothing.  While Brown spies on him, Kemp makes his way into the adjoining room and finds nothing again.  Frustrated, Kemp leaves and Brown ducks into a nearby compartment in order to remain hidden.  The room that he has picked is occupied however, and a little boy named Tommy (Gordon Gebert) accuses him of being a train robber.  Brown gives excuses to the woman in the top bunk and hurriedly exits, while Tommy locks the door behind him.  Brown retrieves Mrs. Neall from the bathroom, where he sent her to hide, and they both return to their respective cabins.  As Brown gets ready for bed he notices the handle of his door beginning to turn.  Grabbing the handle, Brown finds a man trying to enter his room.  The man introduces himself as Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco) and he offers Brown a lot of money, if he will turn over the list carried by Mrs. Neall.  Brown refuses the bribe and Yost begins to leave, pausing only to entreat Brown to reconsider because they are going to find Mrs. Neall eventually so why not make some money for himself?  Unbeknownst to Brown, Mrs. Neall is listening at the door and hears the whole exchange.

The next morning Brown spots Kemp leaving his own berth and seizes the opportunity to do some snooping of his own.  He finds a telegram informing Kemp that a man named Densel will be contacting him soon, but is unable to find much more before Kemp returns from the bathroom.  Entering the dining car again, Brown is met by Ann and the two strike up a conversation.  Soon Brown notices that Kemp is sitting nearby having a conversation with a very large man.  The man approaches Brown and introduces himself as Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey).  He says that Kemp has informed him that Brown is in possession of a spare compartment which he would like to buy.  Brown refuses and Jennings angrily goes to ask the conductor to intervene.  Brown goes after him and is able to smooth things over with Jennings, just as the conductor informs them that they are approaching their next stop.  During their twelve-minute stop in a small Colorado town, Brown sends a telegram to his home office informing them about current developments onboard the train.  Outside he runs into Tommy once more, and takes the time to make friends with the boy.  He then discovers that the child’s mother is none other than Ann Sinclair, the woman he has been talking to.  The two spend time conversing on the platform all under the watchful eye of Kemp, who sends a telegram of his own.  Having no idea what Mrs. Neall looks like, Kemp has picked out Ann Sinclair as most likely target and has sent word back to his bosses of his suspicions.

This was a movie that I had neither seen nor heard of before it was brought up on the Warner Archive podcast.  As mentioned in a previous post, this is a fantastic podcast that often prompts me to buy films that I might never otherwise purchase due solely to the enthusiasm of the hosts.  This film was described with such fervor I knew that I had to check it out, and I certainly am glad that I did!  This is a terrific noir, a tight little story that moves quickly and packs a punch (no pun intended).  The setting of the train makes it really claustrophobic but only in the best sense.  I felt like the story was similar to the modern film 16 BLOCKS with Bruce Willis, but having it take place on a train gave a greater sense of tension and urgency.  On a train there are only so many places to hide and only so much time available to find what you are looking for.  Having all your characters in one small place adds a dimension of fear that around any corner there is someone waiting, or someone might spot the hidden witness on her way to the bathroom.  At seventy-one minutes, this story MOVES but never feels rushed or slapped together.  There are some really great twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil for you here, but if you go along for the ride you will definitely have some surprises.

One of the best parts of this film is the camerawork.  This was one of the first films to use handheld cameras, in order to avoid removing walls on sets.  The handheld look works with the grittiness and “down in the streets’ mentality of the story, and actually adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.  Another great feature is that the background is just as important as the foreground.  More than once I noticed characters walking by in the background or drifting in and out of the frame that caused me to wonder what they were doing?  Were they listening to the conversation happening on camera?  Were they spies too?  It added to the feeling of not knowing who to trust or who might be hiding around the corner.  When you watch this film, make sure you keep your eyes on all characters because you might catch them doing something.  It almost felt like a WHERE’S WALDO book in that there are people all around, but once you stop looking for Waldo you notice other little details that were thrown in.  It makes viewing and re-viewing an enjoyable possibility.

All in all this is a fun and punchy (again, no pun intended) film noir.  A B-picture that has the qualities of an A-picture, and one that I really enjoyed.  Guess I’ll have to thank my husband!