This is Hitchcock at his pre-U.S. best. The Lady Vanishes is the closest to cinematic bliss there is without being terribly important or deep. Hitchcock doesn’t have anything to say about the diplomatic tensions in Europe, nor does he take the adventures of the protagonists all that seriously. It’s a lark, a lighthearted brush with danger that grips our attention from the beginning and holds on without ever seriously considering deep or resonate themes. It’s what we might call a light masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
Part of the success of the film is Hitchcock’s willingness to take the story to unexpected avenues and jar our expectations. What else could he do with a story so fantastic, a story that tickles our childhood sense of adventure? When an elderly British woman disappears from a train in a fictionally fascist central European state, plucky Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) sets out to find out what happened to her, despite everyone’s insistence that there never was an English lady on the train. Either Iris is crazy or there is a mysterious conspiracy involving almost everyone on the train.
Since this is Hitchcock we know it could only be a deliciously nefarious conspiracy, but to what end? Why would anyone kidnap or murder a harmless old woman and then get a trainload of people to feign ignorance? Even the other British passengers on the train don’t fess up to seeing her, afraid of what will happen if they confirm Iris’ story. Sure, they saw her, but the magistrate traveling with his mistress doesn’t want to be implicated in an official investigation and a pair of chums fear the search will delay the train which would make them miss a crucial cricket match. Only a flirtatiously impertinent folk musicologist named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) believes Iris and joins forces with the determined young woman to solve the mystery.
Like a roller coaster, The Lady Vanishes is an exercise in adrenaline rushes. Each character presents a sinister and often funny obstacle to Iris and Gilbert’s investigation, including a tight-lipped baroness, a grinning Italian magician, a dower imposter, a cheerful doctor, a bandaged burn patient, and a mute nun. And, in Hitchcock’s estimation, a plot this absurd deserves an equally fantastic execution, climaxing in an unlikely but exhilarating stand off between the conspirators and the few British passengers not in on the plot.
The movie has none of the dark motifs and heavy themes of Hitchcock’s later, more finely crafted films, but it is still a ripping good time at the movies. Hitchcock always wanted his audiences to have fun in his pictures, even when he dealt with heavier themes like in Vertigo and Psycho. (OK, maybe not in Vertigo.) It’s action and adventure with a strong undercurrent of humor, satisfying and eminently entertaining.