Alfred Hitchcock Reveals “The Lady Vanishes”

4 07 2010

“It’s fantasy, sheer fantasy!” — Alfred Hitchcock

Fantasy it may be, Mr. Hitchcock, but “The Lady Vanishes” is an extremely engaging movie with characters so relatable that we don’t really question the plausibility of the plot – and if you watch it, you may find plenty to question. Released in 1938, the movie stars Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson, Michael Redgrave as Gilbert and Dame May Whitty as Mrs. Froy, the vanished lady.

The story begins in the storybook nation of Bandrika, a stand-in for Switzerland, in a small town where a train has been delayed due to an avalanche. The passengers are stranded in a hotel, and we meet them in this stressful situation: Iris, on holiday with two girlfriends and on her way home to London to marry a penniless but titled young man; Gilbert, a musicologist studying folk dancing; Mrs. Froy, a governess who is returning home after years in Bandrika; a pair of middle-aged gentlemen who are both inseparable and obsessed with cricket; and a couple having an affair behind the backs of their spouses.

The characters reveal themselves as they try to secure rooms: Gilbert recruits the hotel’s staff to demonstrate some folk dancing, Iris and her friends discuss the impending nuptials, and the adulterous couple trade barbs as the moment approaches in which they will have to either give up their affair or begin divorce proceedings. It’s a situation with many opportunities for humor and drama.

Danger is afoot, too: The guitar player serenading Mrs. Froy is quietly strangled, although she can’t see it happening. The next morning, someone tries to drop a flower box on her head, striking her new friend, Iris, instead. With the train ready to go, Iris is hustled on board, along with all the others. Seeing that Iris is still stunned from the flower box, Mrs. Froy takes her to the dining car for a cup of tea. Over introductions, Hitch plays a favorite trick with sound: Mrs. Froy can’t make her name heard over the train whistle. Instead, she resorts to writing her name in the grime on the window.

After a nap, Iris awakens to find Mrs. Froy gone – and none of the passengers remember seeing her. A doctor tries to tell Iris that her injury may be causing her some confusion, but she insists that Mrs. Froy is real, and must be found. She enlists Gilbert’s help, because, despite the fact that they clashed at the hotel, he believes her story.

Iris and Gilbert search for clues to Mrs. Froy’s whereabouts while the other characters throw up roadblocks: Neither the adulterers nor the cricket fanciers will cooperate, even though they did see Mrs. Froy, because of their own agendas, while others, including a countess and a stage magician, seem to not understand enough English to understand what’s going on.

The plot grows more complex as the train reaches its first stop, where a patient of the doctor’s is brought on board on a stretcher, his face concealed by bandages, accompanied by a nun. And now, Mrs. Froy is reported to have turned up – but instead, it’s another woman, younger than Mrs. Froy if similarly dressed. Everyone insists that this is the women Iris was with, but Iris and Gilbert refuse to believe it. They sneak into the patient’s room, spot that the nun is a fake (high heeled shoes!) and unwrap the patient’s face to find – Mrs. Froy!

Believing that the doctor is on their side, Gilbert and Iris try to explain things to him over a drink, but of course he has had their glasses drugged. He marches them back to their cabin before they can conk out, then locks them in, but somehow they do not lose consciousness. They do find the real Mrs. Froy at last, bound in and hidden in the cabin’s tiny bathroom.

As we learn, the doctor had ordered the nun to drug the drinks, but she could not do it, as she, like them, is British. Meanwhile, the train reaches its next stop, in hostile territory, where Mrs. Froy is to be removed. She, though, had been replaced again on the stretcher by her look-alike, and the doctor takes steps to see that the real Mrs. Froy will not escape by uncoupling the front cars of the train from the rest of the coaches. Now, it’s the engine, coal car and dining car, full of British passengers who were there for tea, including the adulterers, the cricket fanciers, Gilbert, Iris and Mrs. Froy, as well as the doctor and the nun. The train is diverted into a forest where foreign forces are prepared to shoot anyone who resists them, but the passengers rally against the common foe. They find arms and fight back while Mrs. Froy at last reveals that she is more than a governess – she’s an agent of the British government, carrying a message encoded in a tune. She teaches the tune to Gilbert, then dashes out of the other side of the train.

Gilbert gets the train moving again, and they soon reach allied land, then head back to London. Iris and Gilbert are about to part ways, but, on spotting her fiance, Iris jumps into Gilbert’s cab to accompany him to the Foreign Office and also to show us that they are in love. At the Foreign Office, Gilbert realizes that he can’t remember the tune – all he can think of is the wedding march. Fortunately, as they are ushered in to an office, they see Mrs. Froy playing the  tune on a piano. She has survived her own journey and welcomes the young couple with open arms.

Hitchcock said later that “The Lady Vanishes” was filmed on a small stage due to budget limitations, but he and his team use every trick in the book to create their illusions, including miniatures, multiple exposures, dissolving shots, distorted perspective, rear projection and more. The town in Bandrika was a model, and was meant to look like something you’d see in a department store window, and every window on the train showed projected footage to create the illusion of movement.

This was Michael Redgrave’s first leading role in a movie, and while he reportedly preferred stage work, he took to film easily, looking much more at ease than his fellow thespians John Gielgud (“Secret Agent”) or Laurence Olivier (“Rebecca”). The chemistry between Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood is believable in a classic 1930s way – indeed, this follows the pattern set in “The 39 Steps” and “Young and Innocent,” in which an irritating but charming young man and a headstrong young woman find romance together. In one of the film’s most enchanting scenes, Iris and Gilbert explore a storage compartment full of the magician’s belongings, only to find pigeons, rabbits and a calf. But when the magician turns up with a switchblade, the humor of the moment turns deadly.

Dame May Whitty is a delight, too, as she transforms from a doddering old woman to a clever, if elderly, spy, steps ahead of the others. Of course, her ability to leap off a train and run off into the forest, dodging bullets all the way, stretches believability a bit.

Hitchcock also comments on the coming war in Europe without getting too specific – although the efforts of the male adulterer to avoid conflict by appeasing their attackers certainly reflects the futility of Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Adolph Hitler.

Hitchcock makes an appearance here, on the train platform in London at the end of the movie, fumbling with a cigarette and carrying what looks like a lunch pail.

“The Lady Vanishes” became the most successful British film to date when it was first released, winning Hitchcock the New York Film Critics Award for 1939 and was named Best Film of 1938 by The New York Times. After the slump of “Secret Agent,” “Sabotage” and “Young and Innocent,” “The Lady Vanishes” showed Hitchcock at the peak of his abilities, with a story worthy of his talents and a cast that held audience’s interest. The film allowed Hitch to finalize his plan to move to Hollywood, which he would do in 1940, after his final British film, “Jamaica Inn.”


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