Sunday, June 29, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE LADY VANISHES (1938)

Like his earlier film, The 39 Steps (1935), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) straddles the line between mystery thriller and screwball romance. The sinister elements of this disappearing act staged on a moving train are matched, if not outweighed, by a pair of bickering amateur detectives and a cast of wildly comical passengers, particularly the vanishing lady herself, played by the delightfully dotty Dame May Whitty. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave deftly manage both laughs and thrills as the picture’s leads, holding their own against the scene-stealing antics of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. Filled with Hitchcock’s sly humor but still capable of real suspense, The Lady Vanishes is a highlight of the director’s British career and a must-see film for fans of his later work in Hollywood.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris, a spoiled socialite who befriends an elderly governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), while boarding a train filled with British tourists leaving a continental holiday. When Miss Froy suddenly disappears, Iris finds that nobody will admit to having seen her, and a doctor (Paul Lukas) insists that Iris imagined the whole encounter. With the help of a good-humored music scholar named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris searches the train for her missing friend, but nefarious forces conspire to prevent Miss Froy from being found. Meanwhile, the other British passengers have their own reasons for hindering Iris’ investigation, some more innocent than others.

The picture opens with a comical scene involving a holiday hotel overwhelmed by delayed train passengers, and this sequence sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. The major characters are arranged like chess pieces, or perhaps dominoes, in these introductory segments, each with defining characteristics that will play into the larger plot. Iris and Gilbert clash in their initial interaction, and their energetic attempts to irritate one another prove that they are destined to become a couple. Most of the other passengers appear in pairs or small groups: we have the adulterous lovers traveling as the Todhunters, the suspiciously foreign Signor and Signora Doppo, along with the formidable Baroness, and the cricket mad tourists Charters and Caldicott. Aside from Miss Froy, who spends much of the movie missing, the most memorable of these are the cricket fans, who impede Iris’ search for Miss Froy only because they fear that stopping the train will make them miss a much-anticipated test match back in England. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne walk off with the picture every time their hilariously obsessed characters turn up, but their best and most scandalous scenes take place early on, when they are forced to share the maid’s bedroom in the overcrowded hotel.

As funny as the movie is, it doesn’t forget that it also has a mystery to solve. Miss Froy’s disappearance propels the initial suspense, but the plot gets thicker as time passes, ultimately evolving into a tangled web of political intrigue and espionage. Paul Lukas gives his brain surgeon, Dr. Hartz, a condescending air that the audience sees as suspicious right away, which builds the dramatic irony when Iris and Gilbert keep turning to him for assistance. The foreigners also give viewers the willies with their staring eyes and repeated insistence that Miss Froy does not exist, but Iris becomes suspicious of them much sooner. Magic tricks, a nun in high heels, a mysterious patient wrapped in bandages, and a dramatic finale all keep the plot twisting and turning right up to the end, when the gathered passengers get the chance to prove their mettle.

Be sure to note well-known British actress Googie Withers in a small role as one of Iris’ friends. For more of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films, see The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Sabotage (1936). You’ll find Margaret Lockwood in Susannah of the Mounties (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940). The Lady Vanishes is the first screen appearance of Michael Redgrave, whose later career includes The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and The Innocents (1961). Don’t miss Dame May Whitty in Suspicion (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Gaslight (1944). Paul Lukas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Watch on the Rhine (1943), but he also appears in Dodsworth (1936), Strange Cargo (1940), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne were such a hit with audiences that they went on to reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott in Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour (1941), and Millions Like Us (1943).

The Lady Vanishes is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion; the special features include Crook's Tour for those smitten with Radford and Wayne's comical duo. You can also see The Lady Vanishes on Hulu Plus, as part of their collection of Criterion releases.