The Lady Vanishes: Criterion Collection Review
The Lady Vanishes is Alfred Hitchcock’s last great British film from a period which produced some of his most interesting work including The Lodger, Blackmail, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Sabotage. It’s a light, witty thriller which is recognisably the work of a director who is on the verge of bigger, if not always better, things. It points the way forward to his Hollywood work in both the way that it minutely builds suspense and in its carefully wrought mixture of comedy and thrills. In other ways, particularly in regard to character and dialogue, it’s at least as good as his later films and perhaps among the best of them. There’s certainly a case for saying that The Lady Vanishes, thanks to Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, is one of the two or three finest scripts that Hitchcock ever worked with.
The genesis of the film is particularly interesting because it’s one of the few occasions upon which Hitchcock took over a project which had been intended for another director. The script, begun in 1936, was based on Ethel Lina White’s bestselling suspense novel The Wheel Spins and was written as part of Launder’s contract with Gainsborough Films. The film was to have been directed by Roy William Neill but he left the project following problems in Yugoslavia where exteriors were being shot. It seems that the political content of the script offended the authorities who had found a copy when the assistant director broke his ankle. The production was just about to be abandoned when Hitchcock read the screenplay and announced that he could shoot it within a month. He made some minor changes to the script, concentrating particularly on the opening and closing scenes. But the structure and characterisation would seem to have been in place before Hitchcock came aboard and The Lady Vanishes is, therefore, perhaps the ultimate evidence for Hitch being at his best as a collaborative artist rather than as an ‘auteur’.
The plot of the film sticks closely to White’s book and has been used time and again in the years since it was released – most recently in Flightplan. Iris Henderson (Lockwood), a bright young thing returning to London after spending time in the central European country of Bandrika, is befriended on the train journey by a little old lady called Miss Froy (Whitty). Iris goes to sleep and, on awakening, discovers that Miss Froy has vanished and that no-one on the train is prepared to admit that she ever existed. Her only ally turns out to be a musicologist, Gilbert (Redgrave), who falls madly in love with her. The other passengers on the train have their own agendas – Dr. Hartz (Lukas) has a patient to treat; Mr Todhunter (Parker), a British lawyer, has a lady with him who is not his wife; Signor Doppo (Leaver) is a sinister magician; and British civil servants Charters (Radford) and Caldicott (Wayne) are desperate to get back in time to catch the Test Match.
This is a scintillating collection of colourful characters and Hitchcock revels in the chance to explore their eccentricities in a confined space. Iris is a surprisingly resourceful woman for the era, willing not only to stick up for herself in the face of being labelled mad but also capable of breaking off a long-standing engagement when she finds real love elsewhere. Margaret Lockwood looks ravishing and is much less mannered than she became in her 1940s work. She plays well against Michael Redgrave, making his film debut as Gilbert and delivering plenty of off-beat laughs – Redgrave’s quality of being slightly off the line makes him endearingly odd, particularly in a charming scene where he imitates Will Hay.
These are two thoroughly engaging and sympathetic heroes, rather more so than Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps or the dull teaming of Derrick DeMarney and Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent. Much depends on the dialogue of course but Hitchcock seems genuinely engaged with his protagonists here, perhaps because of the diverting challenges imposed by shooting within the tiny Gainsborough studios in Islington. Their slightly adversarial relationship points forward to those between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint and James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
The rest of the characters have plenty of quirks to keep them interesting. Paul Lukas seems avuncularity incarnate until his true purpose is revealed and Catherine Lacy is excellent fun as a very unlikely nun, complete with make-up and black high-heels. Cecil Parker makes the most of one of his best early film roles as the hopeless Todhunter who has neither courage nor the sense he was born with and he makes a good match with Linden Travers as his mistress – Travers made surprisingly few films and gave up acting to eventually become a psychologist. Dame May Whitty is delightful as the eponymous lady, giving her familiar warm-hearted but imperious performance which, by all accounts, seems to have been identical to her off-screen persona. Best of all, we have Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne who are so brilliantly funny as Charters and Caldicott that they had a spin-off success first on radio then in other films including Night Train To Munich and Crooks Tour - the latter included on this Criterion DVD.
Charters and Caldicott are emblematic of a certain breed of Englishman which is now unfamiliar if not extinct; peaceable, courageous, cricket-loving, gentlemanly, determined to do the decent thing and devoted to their bachelor way of life without any obvious signs of homosexuality. Radford and Wayne immortalise this particular stereotype once and for all, finding humour in their roles but never overdoing them.
The timing of the movie makes it impossible, in retrospect, not to see the shadow of Munich falling over it – although both screenplay and film were made well before Chamberlain’s famous announcement of “Peace in our time!” The characters seem to reflect various attitudes of resistance, appeasement, isolationism and collaboration. Iris and Gilbert are resisting, accompanied eventually by Charters and Caldicott. Todhunter wants to stay aloof initially but later tries the white flag approach, to no avail. Meanwhile, characters such as the Nun and the Baroness are happy to collaborate with evil. Meanwhile the Bandrikan military have more than a little in common with the Gestapo. The political attitude of the film can be summarised in Caldicott’s line to Todhunter; “Pacifist eh? Won’t work old boy. Early Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions!” The film celebrates the triumph of brave Brits over duplicitous Europeans, succeeding against the odds. Of course, one has to overlook the basic improbability of the plot – why would an old lady be charged with the task of taking a secret message across Europe? Still, it seems a prescient portrait of British pluck, refusing to bow to superior firepower and coming successfully out the other side.
The cheeky sense of humour which bubbles up in most of Hitchcock’s movies is much to the fore here. The whole idea of a nun in black high-heels was no doubt thrillingly naughty to a good Catholic boy, as was her mild cursing and the scene where she applies make-up while still wearing her habit. There’s also a surprisingly frank emphasis on sex with some cracking innuendos from Charters and Caldicott – misunderstandings over the maid who will be “removing her wardrobe” and comments about getting a girl each – and the immortal line from Gilbert; “My father always taught me, never desert a girl in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying mother.” The Lady Vanishes is a very funny film but the comedy doesn’t get in the way of the suspense. The lengthy build up at the mountain hotel allows us to meet the characters and become engaged in their particular interests. It also, in classic style, means that the suspenseful pay-offs seem all the more effective. Once the suspense starts, about half-an-hour in, it is virtually non-stop to the conclusion and Hitchcock pulls off some classic moments, notably a set-piece with drugged drinks which involved the construction of some large glasses. The use of sound is equally impressive – the balance between train noise and dialogue is exemplary, so much that one barely misses the absence of a music score.
During production of the film, Hitchcock was engaged in negotiations with Hollywood – both Selznick and MGM were keen to put him under contract – and The Lady Vanishes is clearly the last time that a British film had his full attention. Jamaica Inn is a disaster which was made in between trips to the Selznick offices to discuss the finer points of his contract. As such, it’s the summation of his British work and one of the most purely enjoyable of Hitchcock’s movies.
Criterion originally released The Lady Vanishes in the early days of DVD on a relatively basic disc. This long-awaited re-release is sheer delight, containing a gorgeous transfer and some fascinating extras.
The film is presented windowboxed in its original fullscreen ratio. This is a little irksome – the practise of windowboxing is an annoying quirk of Criterion – but the excellence of the image makes up for it. It’s a smooth and attractive monochrome image with strong blacks and impressive greyscale. Perhaps it could do with being a tiny bit sharper but on the whole it looks as good as the film has ever looked for home viewing. There is a small amount of damage on display but very little digital artifacting. Detail is good throughout. The mono soundtrack is a model of its kind – well balanced, good fidelity and clear dialogue. This is the kind of transfer which gives Criterion its reputation and is a pleasure to watch, despite the aforementioned windowbox effect.
The extra features are also splendid. There’s a commentary track from Bruce Eder which stays interesting throughout the length of the film and offers plenty of background information. Eder has a slightly somnolent delivery but his content is fine. This is the only extra on the first disc, the rest being given a second disc on their own. By way of analysis, we get a thirty minute video essay from Leonard Leff, author of Hitchcock and Selznick, which is engaging without being essential. Many of the points he raises are made in the commentary and it’s only when he gets onto the political side of the film that he strikes new ground – although even this is rather better dealt with by Charles Barr in the booklet which accompanies the DVD. We also get a generous stills gallery and a chance to hear ten minutes of the interviews which Francois Truffaut held with Hitchcock in 1965. Hitchcock is a mesmerising speaker and he reveals some interesting things about the making of the film, although he seems quite keen to downgrade his British period in comparison to his later films.
The best of the extras, however, is a complete film featuring Charters and Caldicott. This is John Baxter’s Crook’s Tour from 1941, based on a Launder and Gilliat radio series. It’s a low-budget second feature and would be completely forgettable were it not for Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. They are reliably funny throughout, decked out with ludicrous headgear and making familiar complaints about the basic lack of civilisation in the middle of the desert. The use of stock footage is often hilarious in comparison to the ultra-cheap sets and the performances of the Arabs have all the ethnic credibility of The Black and White Minstrels. It’s all vaguely racist but this has its own nostalgia value and at least Charters and Caldicott are far too reserved to be uncomplicated examples of imperial power. Caldicott appears to have acquired a fiancé, Charters’ sister, but one can’t see him making a very satisfactory husband. It’s short enough to be watchable and there are a few good lines. The condition of the windowboxed picture is more than acceptable – indeed, in terms of clarity, it’s often staggeringly good – and the mono soundtrack is very pleasing.
All features are introduced with explanatory notes and, where necessary, are indexed. The film is divided into 27 chapters and has optional English subtitles. Sadly, the extras are not subtitled.
The Lady Vanishes is a delight to watch, the kind of movie which has you hugging yourself with pleasure. This new Criterion DVD presents it to its very best advantage and is an essential purchase, especially for Hitchcock fans.