Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Synopsis:

A British socialite (Margaret Lockwood, Night Train to Munich) on vacation in Europe, befriends a charming elderly governess (Dame May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver) on a train. When the governess disappears, the young woman tries to locate her but no one seems to remember seeing the old woman. A musician (Michael Redgrave, The Browning Version) does agree to help the confused socialite look for her friend.

Reaction & Thoughts:

The Lady Vanishes is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular thrillers, yet it has never been one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. It’s by no means a bad movie, but I’ve never felt passionate about it. I thought a re-watch would make me like it a bit more, and I was right; this time around the film’s deft blend of droll humor and mystery totally charmed me. I still think this isn’t one of Hitch’s masterpieces.

Although The Lady Vanishes is an official adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins, the plot is based on a popular 19th century urban legend.

Many movies have been inspired by this legend. It goes something like this: a person disappears without a trace, but no one seems to remember seeing the person. Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing and Jodie Foster’s 2005 movie Flightplan, just to name a few, are variations on the same idea. Hitchcock himself produced a straight adaptation of the legend for his 1950s TV show.

The Lady Vanishes takes this serious situation and plays it mostly for laughs. This is perhaps a ploy to distract the viewer from noticing that the story makes no sense. I didn’t mind the lack of logic — the cheeky humor is irresistible — I just expect a little more complexity from a Hitchcock movie. In his book, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, film scholar Donald Spoto explains quite succinctly my main issue with the movie: “the film lacks rigor and gravity.”

Perhaps I subconsciously sense the fact that this is one of Hitchcock’s least personal movies. It’s one of the few movies Hitchcock made where he had little input in the script. The screenplay was written for another director, who for whatever reason couldn’t do the movie. Hitchcock stepped in and made very little changes to the script.

The Lady Vanishes does contain many of Hitch’s favorite motifs. Two of the director’s most recurring themes, “things are not what they seem” and “people pretending to be what they are not,” dominate the narrative. Also, the director’s predilection for creating contrasts is very much apparent here: humor vs suspense, romance vs politics, capitulation vs resistance, etc.

As I said before, The Lady Vanishes is very funny. At times it feels like a screwball comedy. The film will remind you of The Thin Man series. Margaret Lockwood Michael Redgrave get in all sorts of weird, funny situations. Redgrave’s smart-aleck attitude and Lockwood’s feistiness blend well together. The cricket-obsessed characters played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford are hilarious! They proved so popular with audiences that they were used in other movies. The cast also includes Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine) as a famous surgeon with nefarious intentions.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Lady Vanishes was a huge box-office hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s most important movies; it is the film that (finally) won him a long-term contract with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. In addition, Hitchcock received his very first top award, the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director. Today, the film is almost universally loved. The Lady Vanishes is not in the same league as Vertigo or Psycho, but it’s a charming movie — it’s mainstream entertainment at its finest. B&W, 97 minutes, Not Rated.

Hitch’s Cameo

P.S. This is my contribution to The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

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12 responses to “Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938)

  1. Pingback: The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon Arrives – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films·

  2. Lovely article, Eric! I agree with you that this film is very charming but I don’t rank it up there as one of his best efforts either, though it’s hard to resist the appeal of such an amazing cast. The shining star of this film is the fabulous Dame May Whitty. 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree, Eric…not up there with his best, but still good, fun Hitchcock. Much better than…uh oh, one I think you just reviewed it today. I’ll go check it out and see if you liked it more than I did!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like it more than you do, and just see it as a good escapist film. The cast and characters make this one work in my opinion. If different people had been cast I’m not so sure it would be as good as it is, but that’s just my view of it.

    I love the relationship between Gilbert and Iris. Get a good giggle at good old Charters and Caldicott.

    Thanks for joining me, Eric.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll nudge them down the list a tad. The ones I haven’t seen are I Confess, Shadow Of a Doubt, Stage Fright, Spellbound, Trouble With Harry, To Catch a Thief, Marnie, The Man Who Knew Too Much and pretty much everything under Saboteur (which I liked a lot).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, you have some good-times ahead of you! Shadow of a Doubt and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) are among his best films. Marnie is a masterpiece, but it is an acquired taste. Spellbound and To Catch a Thief are lots of fun. I Confess and Stage Fright are flawed, but interesting. The most interesting pre-Saboteur is (ironically) Sabotage (1936), a truly gripping film! Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca are great too.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you so very much for jigging them into some kind of order. That has made my life easier. I will be working my way through. Yeah I had “spied” the similar titled Saboteurs and i’m very excited about hearing that Sabotage is a goodie. As I’ve started to dip my toes in the 30’s, that will fit in well for me. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

            Liked by 1 person

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