The Lady Vanishes: Criterion Collection
December 18, 2008
The Lady Vanishes (1938) marked Alfred Hitchcock’s last British film before he made the move to Hollywood and greater fame and fortune. It also demonstrated what the Master of Suspense could do with very little money. Once in America, he would have access to bigger budgets and movie stars like Grace Kelly and James Stewart.
When an avalanche traps a train under a lot of snow, the passengers are forced to stay at a nearby hotel in the European city of Bandrika. Hitchcock introduces us to a colourful cast of characters. Iris Henderson (Lockwood) is traveling with her two girlfriends. Caldicott (Wayne) and Charters (Radford) are two cranky British cricket fans forced to stay in the maid’s room. Gilbert (Redgrave) is a musician who disrupts Iris’ stay by noisily reenacting a Balkan wedding dance in the room above hers.
Nothing sinister happens until 24 minutes in when, unbeknownst to anyone, a musician is suddenly strangled to death by a mysterious assailant. The next day, the train tracks have been cleared and everyone boards the train. Iris befriends Miss Froy (Whitty), a kindly, elderly governess who is almost brained by a plant on the station platform. They share the same compartment on the train and get to know each other over a meal.
Afterwards, they retire back to their compartment and Iris drifts off. When she awakes, Miss Froy has vanished without a trace and none of the compartments other companions are aware of her existence. Even the train staff insists that they never saw her. Iris runs into Gilbert and asks for his help in tracking down the governess. But did the knock on the head Iris received earlier in the film cause her to imagine Miss Froy? No one seems to believe her.
Iris is the epitome of the plucky heroine, persevering even when everyone around her thinks that she’s delusional. Margaret Lockwood does a fine job as the film’s persistent protagonist. She has a certain charm that makes us want to see her character succeed.
There is a loose, playful attitude that Hitchcock adopts on this film that is missing from his slicker, more sinister Hollywood films. For example, Iris and Gilbert’s struggle with a creepy magician in the cramped confines of the baggage car is amusingly awkward and one never feels like her life is truly in danger while in later films like Psycho (1960), all bets are off and anyone could be killed in the most ominous fashion. The mood of The Lady Vanishes, however, is light and breezy – an entertaining romp cum whodunit by a filmmaker on the cusp of a pivotal turning point in his career.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder. He talks about the film in relation to Hitchcock’s career in general. Eder points out how the stylistic touches and themes explored in The Lady Vanishes would surface in later Hitchcock films, like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). Eder also provides the backstory for the film, including how Hitchcock got the gig. Eder gives brief biographical sketches of the main cast while also providing all kinds of fascinating filming anecdotes on this very informative track.
The second disc starts off with “Crook’s Tour,” based on the 1941 radio serial of the same name. This film reunites the Charters and Caldicott characters from The Lady Vanishes. They were so popular that screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat wrote them into Carol Reed’s 1940 film, Night Train to Munich, this feature film, and Secret Mission 609 in 1942. These characters are written in the Laurel and Hardy tradition as they get caught up in international intrigue while arguing about cricket.
“Hitchcock/Truffaut” features audio excerpts from a 1962 interview with film critic/filmmaker Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense talks about how he made The Lady Vanishes and recounts a few filming anecdotes.
“Mystery Train” is a video essay that starts off putting Hitchcock’s career into context when The Lady Vanishes was made. It examines the film’s place in British cinema and is a fairly detailed analysis and look at the making of the film. It also acts as a nice companion piece to the commentary on disc one.
Finally, there is a “Stills Gallery,” a collection of behind-the-scenes photographs and poster art.