Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Lady Vanishes (1937) - Alfred Hitchcock

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a young socialite on vacation in Mandrika, a fictional European country, is on her way back to England to be married. Waiting to board a train, she strikes up a friendship with elderly Mrs. Froy, another English woman, who later helps Iris after she is injured by a falling flowerpot. On board, Iris awakes from a nap to find that Mrs. Froy has mysteriously disappeared, and none of the other passengers admit to having remembered seeing her. A psychiatrist on the train wonders if the head blow has affected Iris, but she is convinced something sinister is afoot. Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musician she previously encountered and found irritating, offers his help. He doubts her story but is attracted to the girl. Hitchcock's penultimate British film before relocating to America in 1940, The Lady Vanishes is one of the best of his early canon. Characteristically, innocent people get caught up in intrigue.

Where's Mrs. Froy?
But it is an odd film, one that isn't quite so easily categorized. It starts with most of the cast gathered together at a crowded inn, snowed in over night, waiting for tomorrow's train. Comedy dominates this segment, the first twenty minutes or so, leaving those used to Hitchcock's more traditional suspense productions scratching their heads, wondering if indeed this is a Hitchcock film.

Hitchcock, like another director he admired, John Ford, often infused comedy into his films, however serious they might be. The Lady Vanishes has more than usual. The dialog during the inn sequence and throughout the film, co-written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, is wonderfully witty and shows off the personality of the characters. Because it is so entertaining, we don't mind waiting for the suspense payoff, sure to come later. Among the passengers will be two friends, Caldicott and Chalmers. They are worried they won't get back to England in time for an important cricket match. Delightfully droll and intensely focused on their task, they'll feign ignorance of Mrs. Froy's existence for fear that the train will be stopped for a search, delaying their journey. In one funny moment, they use sugar cubes to replicate the players on a cricket field.

Caldicott and Chalmers: two cricket enthusiasts. 
Here's a snippet of dialog between the two earlier:

Caldicott: [because the hotel is full, Charters and Caldicott have been forced to share the maid's room] They might at least have given us one each?
Charters: What?
Caldicott: The room at least.

We are also introduced to Iris, Gilbert and Mrs. Froy at the inn. Iris and Gilbert have an immediate dislike for one another. Gilbert sizes Iris up as a spoiled rich girl, while she finds him a contemptible bore. (Somehow we know these two are destined to fall in love). The tone of the film turns abruptly as Mrs. Froy stands at a second story window listening intently to a man serenading her from below. Just as he completes the tune, and unseen by Mrs. Froy, the shadow of hands reach out and he is strangled. More violence follows the next morning as everyone gathers outside to board the train. Iris stands next to Mrs. Froy and an unknown hand pushes a flowerpot out a window. It falls, just missing Mrs. Froy, but striking Iris on the head. Seemingly a freak accident, nothing more. Iris is woozy as Mrs. Froy helps her aboard.

The lovely Margaret Lockwood

Later, Froy has disappeared and Iris grows frantic, wondering what happened to her new friend. No-one appears to believe her story. The audience knows she is telling the truth, and true to director Hitchcock, we identify with the main character, sharing Iris' confusion. She suspects (we know) that everyone is lying. Our attraction to Iris is enhanced by Lockwood's fine performance and beauty. Hitchcock would famously move on to blond actresses in the fifties and sixties, but Lockwood is a stunning brunette.

Redgrave, Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Froy), and Lockwood.

Hitchcock used a successful formula for his male protagonist. Redgrave as Gilbert gets most of the funny lines. He's reminiscent of Robert Donat's character, Hannay, in the superior The 39 Steps, filmed three years earlier. It's easy to believe that Iris would eventually find him charming, and one of the film's endearing aspect is how the characters grow in fondness for one another.

Gilbert: Can I help?
Iris: Only by going away.
Gilbert: No, no, no, no. My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.

Gilbert: What was she wearing? Scotch tweeds wasn't it?
Iris: Oatmeal tweeds.
Gilbert: I knew it had something to do with porridge.

Dr. Hartz: And I am Dr. Egon Hartz; you may have heard of me.
Gilbert: Not the brain surgeon?
Hartz: Yes, the same.
Gilbert: Yes, you flew over to England the other day and operated on one of our cabinet ministers.
Hartz: Oh, yes.
Gilbert: Tell me, did you find anything?

While on the train they meet a psychiatrist, Dr. Hartz. While suave and clearly intelligent, Hartz seems too dismissive of Iris's story. The discovery of a tea package wrapper, convinces Gilbert that Iris is telling the truth and something is indeed awry. They conduct a more thorough search of the train. A funny fight scene takes place in the baggage compartment between Gilbert, Iris, and a swarthy Italian magician, who we later learn is in cahoots with Hartz.

A mysterious patient. 
Hitchcock devised a clever "hiding place" for Mrs. FroyHartz is trying to stop her. Like a lot of the director's set pieces, it has since been copied by others. 

The mystery is quickly cleared up with some bright deducing by Gilbert. A somewhat silly shootout takes place in the woods, the train momentarily stopped and beset by soldiers/police in uniform, and Mrs. Froy makes an implausible escape out a window while the others fend off the enemy. It is not a particularly exciting action sequence, but may have been considered so seventy years ago. The tune Mrs. Froy heard at the beginning of the film is reintroduced as Hitchcock ties up the loose ends.

If not on par with his later American films, The Lady Vanishes is a fine film, whose charms include an anachronistic model sequence for the opening scene, some quirky characters, and a terrific blend of suspense and  humor. The director makes his trademark cameo near the end, walking through Victoria Station.

The Hitchcock cameo in The Lady Vanishes.

1 comment:

  1. When election time comes around I like to recall Miss Froy's line "I think it's wrong to judge a country by its politics. After all, we British are quite honest by nature."