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:
“I’m about as popular as a dose of strychnine.”
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 Hitchcock’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 Flight Plan, 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 very serious premise 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, 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 sensed the fact that The Lady Vanishes is one of Hitchcock’s least personal movies. Hitchcock didn’t participate in the construction of the script. The screenplay was prepared for another filmmaker, who for whatever reason couldn’t make the movie. Hitchcock quickly stepped in and made very few changes to the script. In all fairness, Hitchcock liked the script and was happy with the assignment.
The Lady Vanishes does contain many of Hitchcock’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 and Michael Redgrave get into all sorts of kooky 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.