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The Lady Vanishes (1938)
On a train through Europe, Iris Henderson meets the kindly old woman Miss Froy, and they meet several other passengers over the course of their conversation. Iris later wakes up from a nap to discover that Miss Froy is nowhere to be found, and none of the people they met seem to have any recollection of her.
A psychiatrist on the train suggests that Miss Froy never existed: Iris was bumped on the head before boarding, and the conversation may have only taken place in her head. However, Iris is certain that something more sinister is going on, and teams up with another acquaintance, the musician Gilbert, to find her before the train reaches its destination.
Margaret Lockwood ... Iris Matilda Henderson
Michael Redgrave ... Gilbert Redman
Paul Lukas ... Dr. Hartz of Prague
Dame May Whitty ... Miss Froy, Governess
Cecil Parker ... Eric Todhunter
Linden Travers ... 'Mrs.' Margaret Todhunter
Naunton Wayne ... Caldicott
Basil Radford ... Charters
Mary Clare ... Baroness Isabel Nisatona
Emile Boreo ... Boris the Hotel Manager
Googie Withers ... Blanche
Sally Stewart ... Julie
Philip Leaver ... Signor Doppo
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Codecs: XVid / AC3
Although Hitchcock was noted for his wit and often sprinkled his films with wickedly funny moments, he seldom gave comic elements such a free reign as he did in THE LADY VANISHES, which is among the most memorable of his early British films. Charmingly cast with Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, and Dame May Witty in the leads, the extremely witty script mixes 1930s romantic froth with increasingly tense suspense in the story of sharp witted young woman (Lockwood) who befriends an elderly lady (Witty) during a train journey--and is extremely disturbed when, as the title states, the lady vanishes.
Many regard this as the best of Hitchcock's early work, and it is easy to see why: the film demonstrates his growing talent for building suspense from an unlikely mix of the commonplace and the incredible. He is also remarkably blessed in his cast, with Lockwood and Redgrave possessing considerable chemistry and Dame May Witty particularly endearing in one of the character roles at which she so excelled; the supporting cast is also particularly memorable.
Hitchcock guides them all with never a misstep through a complex script that progresses from very lighthearted to extremely sinister and then back again, and the result leaves audiences with both the satisfaction of a well-made thriller and the glow of a romantic comedy. Although it lacks the subtle tones of his later work, THE LADY VANISHES is among my own favorites by Hitchcock, and fans who have never seen it are in for a real treat. Highly recommended.
Before Alfred Hitchcock struck gold with such well known films as "Vertigo" and "Psycho," he made films in his native country: England. It was in the UK that he filmed such 1930s classics as "The 39 Steps," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Sabotage." Among these was another slightly forgotten classic, 1938's "The Lady Vanishes." It starts as a cheery lightweight romp, it becomes a suspense-filled mystery, and it ends as an engaging thriller. Most movies nowadays get stuck in a rut and become nothing more than a run-of-the-mill action extravaganza set in a simple plot which serves as the way to get the characters on screen. Hitchcock did something else: He cared about the plot, stretched it out and made it elaborately intriguing, and then filled it in with the characters afterwards.
There's a mastermind behind this, and it belongs to that big horror master himself. "The Lady Vanishes" is one of his best early films (and it would be his last British film), a true sign of what was to come in the later years of his life. It was remade in 1979 with Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd, but lacked the freshness and striking narrative that the original contains.
In Germany, prior to World War II, a young woman travels cross country in a train, with an eccentric woman known as Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) as a companion. Froy is a short little woman who reeks of naivety and innocence. But perhaps not everything is as plain and simple as it seems--after falling asleep on the train for a short time period, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), the young traveler, awakens to find Miss Froy absent from her seat opposite herself.
The worst thing of all is that no one recalls having seen a little old lady aboard the train. Iris looks like a delusional loony, and she even starts to doubt the story herself, when odd clues start to turn up throughout the train. Enlisting the help of Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), a goofy man who is crazy enough to believe Iris' story, the two search in a frantic race before their train meets its arrival and Miss Froy is unloaded--if she's even still on the train.
The fundamentals of the story lie in its plot, and also in its characters. They're all lovable, from Gilbert to Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Redford), two traveling men looking to get back to England for a cricket tournament. After the train is stopped towards the end of the film and a band of Germans tries to board the plane, one of the men quips to the other something to the effect of, "We'll never be back for the cricket match, now."
It's interesting how so many mysteries make so much sense by the end, but you can't for the life of you guess the ending ahead of time. Sometimes this is not the case (I guessed the "surprise" ending of "Identity" from the trailer), especially nowadays with each mystery film being a retread of "The Sixth Sense." But back in the Hitch days, most every mystery was a complex one that had a totally unexpected climatic ending.
Filmed on an extremely low budget, "The Lady Vanishes" surprisingly boasts some amazing special effects in some areas, at least for the decade the movie was filmed in. One of these is when Gilbert climbs the exterior of the train, and on the opposite tracks another train swooshes by, knocking him backwards. You find this type of low-budget effect nowadays in homemade movies, but then it was quite good.
But other scenes are not quite as exquisite. The opening scene post credits, in which the camera swoops down into a small German village, is filmed well but the background and foreground are both models. If you look closely, you can see that the village folk walking along the street aren't actually walking at all--they're miniature figurines! Look for the little toy car that drives by behind the building--stuff like this is classic! But even with a horrible budget Hitchcock manages to control the scene the way he wants. It shows that even with a minimal amount of money he still tried to make everything intriguing and mysterious.
And that he did. Not only is "The Lady Vanishes" one of the best mysteries of all time, it's one of the best films of all time, too. It takes a while to start, but once it does, does it ever! It's low budget, yes, but not nearly as hard to make out as "The 39 Steps," one of Hitch's earlier British films. There are a lot of Hitchcock fanatics out there, and they may not have even heard of some of his earlier, lesser known films. Plus, they may be turned off by how hard it is to make out dialogue and scenes. ("The Man Who Knew Too Much" is notorious for being hard to understand.) And so for interested Hitchcock fans, your journey starts here.
Note: Towards the end of the film, look for a quick Alfred Hitchcock cameo. He's the man at Victoria Station who walks by with a cigarette.
This is the best of the early Hitchcock films. The plot is absorbing, the dialogue clever and the cast great. Whether or not this was the first of the director's films to place its principal action on a moving train I cannot say, but it's a theme that would come back again in his later work, most notably in "Strangers on a Train."
The film gets off to a somewhat rocky start with the camera panning over an Alpine inn and a train halted mid-journey by an avalanche. I agree with the review who observes that we've become spoilt by more sophisticated special effects. A Lionel half buried in a heap of bleached wheat flower just doesn't cut it nowadays. Think also of the stick figure engulfed in the munitions factory explosion in "Saboteur." I suppose directors of that era had to do with whatever was available.
But after this point the film really takes off, and one scarcely recalls the unpromising opening. Viewers always look for the chemistry or lack thereof between actors. Well, Lockwood and Redgrave definitely have it. One cannot help but enjoy seeing how the initial sparks flying between their clashing characters develop into true love by movie's end. As the two are making their way through the train trying to locate Whitty, they move from one barely plausible predicament to another. But we love it, as one witty exchange turns quickly into another. (For example, Lockwood is asked to describe the missing Whitty and launches into an extremely detailed portrait that leaves not a single button unaccounted for. Then she ends by saying, "That's all I can remember." Counters Redgrave dryly: "Well, you can't have been paying attention.")
Much of the film's action occurs in the fictional country of Bandrika, which seems to be a thinly disguised stand-in for nazi-controlled Austria, so recently annexed by Hitler's Germany. As an amateur linguist, I found myself trying to make sense of the made-up "Bandrikan" spoken by the natives, but of course was unable to do so. (What could it be? A Finno-Ugric language? :) Most of the time the identity of Hitchcock's villains remains deliberately vague, except in "Notorious" and "Torn Curtain," where they are nazis and communists respectively. It works better when he leaves us guessing.
As an amateur musician I loved Hitch's "macguffin," namely, the secret formula encoded in a song which the protagonists had to memorize and carry to the Foreign Office in London. (I should think, however, that a genuine secret message might translate into something more like Schoenberg's twelve-tone music than a central European folk song, but of course that would hardly work in a film. :)
The early Hitchcock seemed to like shootouts, as seen also in the first version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much." But shootouts are an ineffective way to convey suspense, and this is perhaps the one thing that dims what is otherwise a masterpiece.
It's too bad the director lived long enough to see this film remade in 1979. Cybil Shepherd is no Margaret Lockwood, and it's pretty unpleasant-almost embarrassing-to see her shrieking her way through each scene. Couldn't they have waited a few years until he had passed on? They ought to have let him die in peace.
* Director Cameo: [Alfred Hitchcock] near the end of the movie at Victoria Station wearing a black coat and smoking a cigarette.
* The fictitious country where most of the story takes place is named in the movie: in her first scene, Miss Froy says, "Bandrika is one of Europe's few undiscovered corners." The first two stations in the movie are identified by briefly visible signs, and the third in dialog: they are Zolnay, Dravka, and Morsken.
* Gilbert says he once drove "a miniature engine on the Dymchurch line". The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a real-life miniature (1/3 normal size) railway in southeast England, which in 2003 still uses steam locomotives and carries passengers over 13 miles of route.
* Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford proved to be such popular characters that they were teamed up in other films. They also got their own radio show.
* The set that the movie was shot on was only ninety feet long.
SPOILER: A musician is mysteriously strangled by disembodied hands after serenading Miss Froy under her hotel window. This is not one of the film's loose ends as previously reported. Froy uses a musical code and the singer can be assumed to be passing information to Froy. Note that Froy is carefully listening to the notes, not just enjoying the serenade. The singer is an informant or another spy.