Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Lady Vanishes: Right Into My Heart


While I've seen varying touches of subtle humor in some of his films, I have never watched any of director Alfred Hitchcock's flat out comedies. I never really thought about seeking one out either, but it would turn out that the sip I took from 1938's, The Lady Vanishes, tasted a whole lot more like a comedy than it did the thriller that the Netflix description was trying to sell me. Sometimes when you think you're taking a drink of one thing, not knowing it's actually something completely different, the taste can be almost souring. Even if the drink is something you really like, it doesn't matter. You expected something else and your taste bud's equilibrium is simply thrown off, leaving you with a "who farted?" face.


This was not the case with The Lady Vanishes, in fact, I found that my first sip turned into a full fledged chug-chug-chug, and before I knew it, I was drunk with glee. The structure of the movie (based on the 1936 novel, The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White.) does work as that of a thriller, with a group of travelers that find themselves spending the night in a hotel as they wait out the terrible storm that has halted their train for the time being. While spending the night, the many characters are introduced with the main character being that of Iris (Margaret Lockwood), a young women who becomes acquainted with an elderly governess named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty).

During the overnight hotel stay is where a bulk of characters are introduced, with many of them playing minute yet important parts that work almost as red herrings in a way. All of the characters are interesting and many have a quirkiness about them that adds an air of eccentric fun to the film as a whole (most notably and for a number of reasons are the characters of Charters and Caldicott). It's not even clear as to who the film will focus on until the travellers are all back on the train and Miss Froy goes missing. The only person who notices this is Iris, but when she begins to investigate, no one on the train seems to know - or wants to admit knowing, for whatever reasons - who Iris is talking about.


That's really the basic idea of the film, and while there are many little twists, turns and mysteries to be discovered with many of the individuals on board, The Lady Vanishes uses this plot of suspense and intrigue to do so much more than what it would seem to be at face value. As I said, the movie is very much a comedy, one that is driven by an ensemble cast for the first act. However, the film changes its focus after the incident happens and that is when most of the time is spent with Iris and, another acquaintance she made while at the hotel, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), whom helps her try to unlock the mystery of the missing women.

Doing a little backtracking to give some background on Gilbert and Iris, their first encounter is not the most positive one as Iris tries to have Gilbert kicked out of his hotel room for making too much noise playing music in the room above hers (in an oddly hysterical scene), thus keeping her from a good night's rest. After the hotel manager asks him to leave his room, Gilbert promptly comes down to Iris' room and informs her that since she had him removed from his room, then he will be staying with her for the evening. His brashness and overconfidence in the situation only infuriates Iris, but it does so to the point to where Gilbert gets what he wants, which is his own room back.


Even as initial adversaries, the minute both Iris and Gilbert are on screen together, it is clear that there is an incredible connection between the two, whether or not Iris would knowingly want to acknowledge it at first. This is a relationship that builds and becomes stronger when an obviously smitten Gilbert helps out a distraught (and equally enamored) Iris in her search for Miss Froy. Redgrave and Lockwood are simply delightful on screen together, and watching them fall for one another is truly where The Lady Vanishes succeeds the most. There are many scenes where the two play sleuth, and their interactions make for a handful of nice, genuine moments that also work as a solid way to break up the tension and the seriousness of core the story.


For a film that does come off as a comedy with the structure of a thriller, it is a little on the ridiculous side as far as the story goes, as well as where it ends up towards the movie's back end. Things get a little too serious for the contrasting moments of humor, and for that the movie is slightly conflicted, but none of that is as important as it should be due to the film's other strengths. One of them being the brilliant techniques that Hitchcock uses from time-to-time. Now, this is a movie from way back in 1938 (dude, shit's in black and white, even), and was one of the final films that the director made before making the big move to Hollywood, but it is clear that he had an incredible eye for cinema even way back then. There are some brilliant shots and a great use of perspective spread throughout, but most impressive is a quick action shot with Gilbert outside of the moving train, that is simply quite awesome.


Nevertheless, even with these fine cinematic aspects, there is a lot of sloppiness in the movie on a technical level, and it's hard to say if it's the fault of Hitchcock or the film's editor, R.E. Dearing. There are times where the confinement of a train is well portrayed, but that also leads to a handful of moments that feel very confused and a lack of flow between shots become very present. One scene that immediately comes to mind is when Gilbert and Iris are in the cargo hold, where they run into a magician that seems to be up to no good, and a fight between the three ensues. It's extremely poor in how cohesive it is visually, but what's kind of funny about this lamely filmed moment is it's one of my favorite portions of the film due to Redgrave, Lockwood and their interactions up to, during, and after the fight (as well as the comicality of the scene). That's truly a testament as to how fantastic the two are together.  


Love this photo!

Hitchcock has successfully used touches of humor to break up the tension in many of his films but The Lady Vanishes is really where I found myself chuckling throughout much of the runtime. The mystery and suspense are a second thought when I think about why I enjoyed this film so much, and it is that pure comedy that can really only be found in classic cinema that won me over. More so, the pairing of Lockwood and Redgrave will prove to be one of my favorites as far as a romantic storyline goes, and for a movie to give me characters that I can fall in love with as they fall in love with each other, is truly a surprise that I never expected when I sat down with this cold glass of mystery.  


  1. The nun's wearing high heels!
    I love this movie and I'm glad you do too.
    Have you seen The 39 Steps? I think you would like that one too. It has my favorite Hitchcock couple.
    (sorry I deleted the other comment)

  2. I haven't seen 39 Steps, but that was actually the film I was going to review for my Hitch on the Hump piece, until Rear Window fell into my lap, of course. One thing he does so well, you know, amongst everything else, is he really knows how to capture chemistry and can create couples that are enjoyable to watch.

    Also, you comment will forever be removed. No one will ever know of your previous words!

  3. Actually this wasn't his last pre-Hollywood film, that was 1939's Jamaica Inn. Mind you, I think that one's generally regarded as easy to forget...

  4. Great stuff! I agree with you on this one, it plays as much like a comedy as is possible from his stuff. Even though I consider Carole Lombard the greatest comedienne ever, his straight comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith never really won me over. I have a fuzzy memory of most of his British comedies too, but this one sticks out.

    And I also deeply recommend The 39 Steps, which sets the template for many of his classics and features what I think is the funniest scene of his career.

  5. I l-o-v-e The Lady Vanishes! One of my favorites of Hitch's. I love that it's a romantic comedy, a mystery, and an espionage thriller at the same time and though it's 70 years old, it's just as enjoyable today as it probably was back then.

  6. James: Good looking out…I misread my source material. Thanks for dropping by!

    Mike: Carole Lombard?! What about Anna Faris?! Just kidding!

    I'm not sure, but The 39 Steps was on Netflix instant not too long ago, and if it still is, I shall check it out sooner rather than later. Thanks Mike!

    Zombie: Love the classic dames, mostly because they are too old to fight me off!

    GWLH: I love how well he mixes genres and even if I think The Lady Vanishes is a little messy with its genre mash-up, I completely love all of its aspects, especially the romance and comedy. Such a great film.


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