Retrospective: The Lady Vanishes (1938)


When looking at movies in the distant past there is always a problem regarding how to approach such old material. Do you try to compare it to something modern or do you try to understand and enjoy a movie for what it is? Some philistines would prefer to remove the smoking, or the various racist characters from old movies rather than accept the films for what they are. For example, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a good example of a movie which often struggles to get shown due to the caricatured nature of Holly Golightly’s landlord.

Enough stalling, what I’m reviewing is one of Hitchcock’s earliest movies based on a play in a period known as his English years. It’s a pre-Second World War movie released in 1938 but still influential to this day, with a remake and a recent, horrible re-interpretation known as Flightplan inspired from it. At its core is a reflection on the increasingly dangerous world Europe has become. It contains Hitchcock’s signature style and plotting, with inadvertent spies and complex conspiracies behind seemingly benign surroundings which he would use to great effect in North By Northwest and Rear Window, both films featuring a plucky team of young pretty men and women uncovering murky truth. It sounds like a cliché now but it’s one of the earliest movies to use these methods to create an interesting thriller with a daring escape, a classic example of a chase movie.

This movie is rather short, being just under an hour and a half which showcases one of the great abilities of a good director to ensure that that a movie doesn’t outstay its welcome, a lesson many directors fail to heed. What you see initially is a mountain town snowed in with a train in a snow drift and a hotel filled with customers of various nationalities in an unnamed middle European state. We are introduced to various English characters in these cramped surroundings: the cricket obsessed duo of Charters and Caldicott (a music hall duo of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), a sweet old governess called Froy (May Whitty) who is a lot more than meets the eye, a bubbly soon-to-be wed much to the disappointment of her friends (played by a pretty Margaret Lockwood, one of the best known stars of her period), a slightly roguish but charming and ultimately good Gilbert (a young Michael Redgrave, father of the great acting dynasty) and an unmarried couple attempting to keep an affair intact. With the characters introduced now time to deal with the utter contempt that they all feel for their surroundings, with nationalistic statements which would be surprising in a modern movie and the great feeling of superiority that an Englishman feels abroad. Some with ‘modern’ tastes might find this unpalatable but it is something I personally really like in a movie as it gives it a real sense of period.

The train is central to the plot as the characters are snowed inside it for a day which gives the movie an excuse to introduce the various characters to each other and neatly footnote the character progression when they all finally board the train. The characters are introduced and their own petty issues are brought to the fore, giving plenty of time to emphasize character development which is always so important in good thrillers. After tea, Iris falls asleep and the kindly old lady she was talking to earlier, Miss Froy, is gone. What has happened to her on a train which hasn’t stopped with lots of seemingly normal passengers and crew? And why is everyone telling her that she has imagined the lady? This is a key area which Hitchcock is so good at gaining tension by creating the feeling that the main characters and the audience are against the world in discovering what the big mystery is and why this old lady is so important. The atmosphere he creates on the train is impressive because it lacks violence but it still feels like an oppressive, confined world filled with secrets and hidden agendas.

The engagement with the various characters is very compelling due to solid dialogue which captivates you and makes you forget that what you’re watching is a 70 year old movie in black and white. You see all the various different feelings of war by various parts of the British population, from ignoring it until it cannot be ignored any longer, to discussions until there is no hope of peace at any price, to those who are prepared to explore the horrible truth. It is really the most English of English movies. It’s worth watching for being one of the best thrillers I have ever seen, rather than just a period piece.

Written by Harry Riedl

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