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The Lady Vanishes Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 4, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    The Lady Vanishes Review

    All aboard the mystery train as Hitch wages war against Johnny Foreigner armed with nothing more than plucky English spirit!!!

    One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most enjoyable thrillers comes to Blu-ray in exuberant style from Criterion in this region A-locked release.

    After being befriended by tune-loving Miss Froy (Liverpool-born Dame May Whitty), a kindly, tweed-clad old lady in a provincial railway hotel in a distant and fictitious corner of Europe, young Margaret Lockwood as perky, opinionated dancer, Iris Henderson, is then dismayed to find that her eccentric but loveable companion has apparently vanished into thin air on the trans-continental train they board the next day, headed for England. After dozing in the carriage having received a somewhat suspicious bump on the head back on the platform, Iris finds that nobody is willing to believe her story about nice old spinsters. They all claim that there never was any old English lady escorting her.

    Only the cocky, irascible and rakish Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), the same man who ignorantly disturbed her night in the hotel with some impromptu clarinet-playing and the staging of a pretend Balkan wedding ceremony for the benefits of his musical thesis, seems prepared to listen to her story and, perhaps because he loves the sport of such a mystery or, most likely, he is actually attracted to the girl, decides to help her with her strange detective work aboard the speeding train.

    So where has she gone? And why do all these people claim never to have seen her?

    Things get even more bizarre and sinister when another lady, dressed in the same clobber as our sweet Miss Froy suddenly appears and claims to be the very person that Iris insists has disappeared into the ether. But this woman is Russian and called Madame Kummer (played by Josephine Wilson). So is Iris going mad and having delusions brought on by the knock to her head, as the suave Bela Lugosi-voiced Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) seems to think, or is there some crazy sort of conspiracy going on? And what is going on with that heavily bandaged patient who was brought onboard at the last stop, with their curiously mute attendant nun?

    All will eventually be revealed as Hitch and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder skilfully develop and then unpeel, layer by layer, the magical Mcguffin of the vanishing lady in a patently anglicised interpretation of the way that Penn & Teller reveal how their illusions are achieved.

    Based upon the rather stuffy novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes has become synonymous with a certain type of thriller, the comedic mystery caper. Remade and riffed-upon in every medium since Hitch’s train first left the model miniature platform in the rustic Alpine enclave of Bandrika, this is the classic trendsetter encapsulated at its best and most endlessly enjoyable. As we shall see, Hitchcock was able to inject a whole lot more than mere rom-com japes and scrapes and, viewed today, it is impressively shocking to see how intuitive the film was to the then-current climate of paranoia, fear and xenophobia, addressing tensions that no government or social commentator would openly speak of.

    “After all, people don’t go about tying up nuns!”

    Hitch was extremely adept at combining shrewdly drawn characters with situational comedy and tense drama. His out-and-out thrillers like Psycho andThe Birds were an entirely different kettle of fish, although they were still stained by a uniquely black sense of humour. But, arguably, his most beloved films were those that found romance in the most unlikely of circumstances and pitched two disparate souls together to unravel a dastardly plot. Film critic Geoffrey O’ Brien writes that Hitchcock would lose the spontaneity of his fate-spun romantics once he reached America, and he certainly has a point. When you compare his favoured leads of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and their assignations of Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eve Marie Saint, Doris Day and Kim Novak, you can see a deliberate and meticulous approach to their clinches and the overarching relationships seem more poised and studied, more elegant and knowing than impetuous and on-the-fly. Here, the sheer playfulness and implausibility of thrusting Lockwood and Redgrave together makes for the sort of fantastical adventure that rushes headlong through sexist farce, parlour-room mystery, Bulldrog Drummond derring-do and outright sabre-rattling jingoism, and yet makes us laugh in the comfort of two incredibly talented stars who bristle with charisma and confidence.

    Both, however, are very, very English, though. Which is why this sort of caper is exceedingly limited in scope. You watch and love The Lady Vanishes partly because of this, of course. I mean you don’t watch and love North By Northwest, Rear Window, Marnie orVertigo for their idiosyncratic Americanisms, do you? But these British thrillers from the 30’s and early 40’s, which The Lady Vanishes totally epitomises, have something in their clipped, refined bouts of repartee and “have-a-go” distinction that hits a certain spot and hits with the sort of charm that some, but not all, find irresistible. They have a class that is intrinsic and not manufactured. They have a natural celluloid deportment that is neither arch nor contrived. They know they have this semi-aristocratic aura entwined within their fabric … and the best of them delight in it without shame. But only Hitchcock would be savvy enough to play the game from both sides. Thus The Lady Vanishes is a celebration of such etiquette and a satirical sideswipe at its own aloofness.

    Lockwood is a sheer delight. Oozing precocious sex appeal with the sort of confidence that would have rattled many a staid bloke back in those days and threatened his once forthright masculinity, she is the British Vivienne Leigh. Upturned perky little nose, athletic, nervous demeanour and forthright, spoken-mind disposition reveal her Iris as being a new breed of woman – someone who knows what she wants and believes in herself enough to challenge authority whenever she feels affronted and to never back down in the face of grievance. She is also totally in charge of her own sexuality, gamely exchanging gender-barbs with the clearly smitten Gilbert. That she is to be married to the “blue-blooded cheque-chaser” Lord Charles Fotheringale back in London is a matter of continued jest and caste-spiking satire. After all, she admits to her friends that she has “done everything”, implying quite directly that she has been around a bit, had a lot of fun and, well, done everything. What cements this “new gal” attitude is that we know, right from the minute that she claps eyes on the initially irritating Gilbert, that she will never go through with the marriage of convenience and title, and opt for a partnership out of mutual attraction and love, settling for happiness far more engagingly than wealth. The screenplay therefore mocks the establishment and the class divide even in the once never-questioned ethics of formal attachment. Not only blessed with beauty, she has a knee-trembling chirpiness that sets her far apart from the normal leading lady. It is doubtful that she could ever have played a femme fatale, though, being far more Nancy Drew than Mata Hari. Her comic timing is as beguiling as her radiance, Lockwood astutely combining victim/heroine status in one cohesive and often scene-commanding package.

    Her partner-in-solving-crime is no less a force of nature. Redgrave, in his first feature-film, verbally slips and slides all over the place, smoothly running censor-baiting remarks under their radar with such a glib, eternally smiling delivery that he’s moved on to the next pithy remark before you’ve fully digested his last one. His words chatter-out at a machine-gun rate of fire, but you are never less than fully aware of where he is going, or what he is driving at. An American counterpart would be “knowing”, sassy and dauntlessly wise-ass. Redgrave is essentially and damnably English about it all, but, dash it all, he makes such a bygone vogue seem preternaturally cool. Redgrave would play the haunted ventriloquist in the most celebrated story of Ealing’s chilling portmanteau, Dead of Night and would lend some gravitas to the brief role of the Uncle in the classic ghost story, The Innocents. He is at his most energetic and freewheeling here and, best of all, you can read every emotion in his nervous smile and darting eyes.

    Tickets please!

    And the rest of the cast sparkle too.

    Dame Whitty does away with the prim and proper aspect of such a twee character by investing the errant Miss Froy with oodles of personality, and is able to manifest a complete, though effortlessly believable character revelation in the latter stages. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers are a tetchy pair of illicit lovers, Mr and “Mrs” Todhunter. Their collapsing affair may seem like so much set-dressing and the sort of baggage that later “disaster” movies would shovel into their ensemble gatherings of reluctant survivors, but this is a good metaphor for the closed-shop attitude of British foreign policy during the period of Nazi build-up before World War II. They are carrying-on like wildfire behind closed doors but, outwardly, they are the pillar of respectability and terrified of getting involved with anything that may draw attention to their own skulduggery. They, like almost every character in the film, are a sly response to the huge groundswell of European fear at what was soon to prove an inescapable and cataclysmic situation. They are also comically rendered so as to aid Hitch’s smuggling of such issues into the story with almost subliminal virtuosity.

    Though none are more amusing, and clandestine, than the great double-act in-the-making of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne who play the vintage Morecombe and Wise couple of cricket-obsessed travellers, Charters and Caldicott. Hell-bent on getting back to Manchester to catch the test-match, these two are slow-witted, arrogant bounders who will also deny all knowledge of the missing Miss Froy purely they don’t want any unwanted investigation to delay their return … but who will both come good, and indeed gun-totingly heroic, come the finale. Although Morecombe and Wise in attitude, both toward one another and towards society in general, their antics, especially during the immaculate opening act set in the hotel, are almost Laurel and Hardy in execution. Charters keeps banging his head on the low beams, there is some wickedly devised visual punning with an errant coat-hanger and amusing problems caused with a long-distance telephone call that they had no right to have intercepted. But whereas there is never any suspicion that either of those other two classic double-acts are homosexual, despite often seen sleeping together and living intimately in each other’s pockets, there is a shade of concern settling over these two that Hitch has placed there to deliberately goad audiences. At the overcrowded hotel, the two are left with only one room in which they are forced to share a bed. It also happens to be the maid’s room. And this maid, played with in a brilliantly flirtatious manner by the luscious Kathleen Tremaine, is clearly something of a man-eater. Charters and Caldicott, however, are instantly mortified at the prospect of any sexuality rearing its ugly head and retreat with child-like terror whenever she draws near. There is simply no scope for credibility in this day and age for such a depiction of masculine innocence in a movie. We just wouldn’t believe it … unless it was the asexual Mr. Bean, say. But back then, Hitchcock could have his cake and eat it too. He could quite happily imply that the two men are gay because he knows all along that they aren’t. He’s toying with his audience and prompting assumptions on their behalf – once more challenging them not to leap to the wrong conclusions. He would deliberately explore overt sexuality in other films, of course, even breaking a few taboos, and he would have a clearly homosexual character in North By Northwest. Clearly, he is testing the water here. There is even the little nudge-nudge, Carry On-style exchange between the two when they realise the ramifications of the sleeping arrangements. “They might at least have given us one each,” says Caldicott. “What?” stammers Charters in the belief that his companion is after a maid apiece. “The room, at least.” His friend reassures him.

    So successful was this bunk-up that the two made a living out of either reprising their intricately linked association as the bumbling duo forever caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or playing near-as-dammit approximations of it throughout many subsquent movies. The cloud of their characters' sexual persuasion never dulling the audience's fascination with two such charismatic Englishmen abroad.

    And there is a certain erotic charge beyond this to how Hitchcock handles The Lady Vanishes that must have raised more than just a few eyebrows in other directions.

    Poor Boris, the servant in the hotel, brings champagne to Iris and her two bosom-buddies, one of whom is played by Googie Withers (who would also appear in Ealing’s Dead of Night, alongside Basil Radford and Michael Redgrave), and when he enters their room, he is confronted by all three in a state of undress. Blithely revealing shapely legs and delicious curves, the three carry on regardless as he struggles to find somewhere to place the bottle and the glasses, eventually settling for the little table upon which Iris is standing, her bare flesh inches from his face. Look at him wrapping the towel around the bottle as he flusters, and tell me that the phallic image created was not intentional. And then there is the maid, with her wildly lecherous expressions towards the two impotent Englishmen. A fight occurs with Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver), the strange little Italian magician who is seemingly in on the disappearance and conspiracy, that rampages around the baggage compartment. Both Gilbert and Iris are locked in comical combat with him, but the scene becomes one of impromptu seduction for our two heroes, with the knife-wielding villain acting almost as a surrogate love-aid. Lockwood again finds the opportunity to flash her legs during the melee. The mysterious nun (Catherine Lacy) who comes aboard with the mummified “burns victim” sports high-heels under her robes, which is an image that would go on to gain enormous mileage in the realms of cult exploitation.

    “They can’t possibly do anything to us. We’re British subjects!”

    Elsewhere, Hitchcock commands his limited environment (just a ninety-foot set, extended via miniatures and transparencies) with devilish aplomb and a supreme mastery of visual finesse. Just look at how convincing the bounce and jostle of the carriages are as we move from one to another, the swaying and sense of motion are incredibly vivid. His visual tricks – the use of immaculate, large-scale miniature sets for the Alpine town in the lee of a mountainside is tremendous, even down to the model car and the tiny figurines; his dissolves and superimpositions of faces; the kaleidoscopic jigsaw swirl of a hallucination etc – are brilliant devices that would inspire many other filmmakers from Claude Chrabol and Francois Truffaut to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. The matte paintings are created by the great Albert Whitlock, who would go on to compose majestic backdrops and scenic visuals for The Birds, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, The Sting, The Car, Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People, John Carpenter’s The Thing and for Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin. The set for the hotel is a wonderfully three-dimensional mock-up that recalls the artistic and expressionist splendour of early German Cinema and the wacky designs of the old Universal chillers. His direction is adroit and typically experimental. There are lots of long takes and slow zooms, and careful set-ups, frames whose dead space in one shot will be filled with something of importance in the next, Hitchcock pre-empting our focus with assured manipulative dexterity. Interestingly, later Hammer Films alumnus Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass And The Pit, The Scars Of Dracula) would cut his teeth as Assistant Director for Hitch in The Lady Vanishes.

    Aided by Jack Cox’s sublime photography, there is a genuine sense of geography to the train. The action that takes place in the baggage compartment is like a comedic variation on what would happen to Connery’s Bond when he took on Robert Shaw’s Aryan assassin in From Russia With Love on another transcontinental train crossed with the use-everything-you-can-reach ethics of Jackie Chan. The use of the magician’s trick cupboard and special FX chest is superb. Watch for the rabbits that suddenly appear as spectators. Although necessarily talky, this is a romp of a story and Hitch doesn’t skimp on the dramatics. The final shootout is weirdly tense for all the comedy that has gone before, upping the ante considerably with death and sacrifice and a do-or-die attitude that shakes the previous English apathy into patriotic fervour. The sense of the common man doing his “bit” for King and country is excellently hauled out of the bluff ‘n’ bluster of malnourished manners.

    As terrific as both Lockwood and Redgrave are, they were both disillusioned with how their careers took off afterwards. Lockwood, so divine and plucky a presence, was whisked off to Hollywood where she could never settle with the attitudes and the studio system that she found there, and she worked her way back to the smaller British productions in which she felt much more at home and independent. Redgrave was never really at ease with the process of making movies. He would go on to deliver great performances, of course, even gaining awards for The Browning Version and Mourning Becomes Electra, but, in his heart, he belonged to the stage, where he felt the freedom to explore a character and to shape and evolve it with each successive showing was conducive to his more improvisational nature. Screenwriters Gilliat and Launder would continue to devise witty and fast-paced capers for the home-market, and Hitch … well Hitch would make Hollywood his playground, although in some ways, he would lose the political and societal edge that he had been quietly staining his films with in England.

    During its inevitable fall from favour during the mid-seventies, Hammer (now revitalised and back from the grave with a vengeance on Blu-ray and at the cinema – hurrah!) decided to branch out from their regular slew of blood-spattered cleavages and plastic fangs and to attempt to reach a new audience with an ill-conceived remake of Hitch’s effervescent classic. Starring Elliot Gould and Cybil Shepherd as Gilbert and Iris, and featuring Arthur Lowe and Ian Carmichael in the Charters and Caldicott roles, this was a damp squib with critics although, to be fair, I still found it quite entertaining.

    The Lady Vanishes 1938-style is fun, fast and frothy. It skates easily over the top of plot implausibility and winks mischievously at the established trends and conformities, stabbing blithely at class structure, world politics and the cold shoulder so often turned towards the burgeoning assault of feminism. Hitchcock was way ahead of the field by being able to confront such ideals in the form of a free-spirited mystery caper that is both high romp and dark premonition all rolled into one.

    A true classic … and very highly recommended.