The Lady Vanishes – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#2)

Conspirators all around...

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.

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood

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.

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12 Comments

Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Pictures

12 responses to “The Lady Vanishes – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#2)

  1. Wheew! Finally a new chance to comment on your fabulous blog!
    This is, and I am ashamed to say so, the only movie I’ve seen from 1938, and just because it’s a Hitchcock film, which really doesn’t diminishes the experience.
    I agree with every little detail you mention about this movie, is so much fun and there I realized that Hitchcock wasn’t afraid of being comedic, maybe he had a darker sense of humor, but nevertheless you can always trace some of it in each one of his movies, but in this one it plays such a major part that it actually becomes playful and my favorite from his UK output (from those I’ve seen).
    Besides, this is the only Hitchcock film that has a spin-off, but you already knew that. I’m actually curious about seeing that, to see how it holds up.
    Great writing here! What will Number 1 be? We just have to wait.

    • Thank you for those overly generous words Jaime! Indeed Hitchcock did have a dark sense of humor, but that was one of his strengths. It really comes through in this movie which is also my favorite of his UK movies. You mentioned a “spin-off” and I think you must mean the Charters and Caldicott characters being recycled in other movies. From what I understand, they aren’t the leads in any of the subsequent movies; they played essentially the same comic relief supporting parts they did in “The Lady Vanishes.” The only one I’ve see is “Night Train to Munich” where they play a larger role in the plot, but they are essentially supporting players.

      I have a feeling you have seen my number 1 choice. If not that will have to be rectified very quickly…

  2. This is absolutely one of my favorite Hitchcock films from ANY era, and I’ve always listed it among the five best, along with VERTIGO, REBECCA, REAR WINDOW and NOTORIOUS. It’s the best of his British period, with THE 39 STEPS pushing close. I think you’ve framed it’s very special and unique appeal most persuasively, and have done a great job talking about the deft fusion of humor, mystery, suspense and drama, and have rightly heaped much deserved praise on a distinguished cast. I would also have this near the top for this year, and have enjoyed repeated viewings of this gem over the years.

    • Thanks Sam. Your good taste is eminently visible here. It’s hard to pick top five Hitchcock movies since there were so many great ones. I love “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “The Lady Vanishes,” and either “Shadow of a Doubt” or “Strangers on a Train.” Of course “North by Northwest” chops close at their heels.

  3. I’m with Sam – this is Top Five Hitchcock of All Time stuff right here – and THE BEST of the “Thriller on a Train” genre.

    I especially loved the opening shot over the mountain resort village and those early scenes in the hotel. Great great stuff and great pick here, Jason!

    What are my Top Five Hitchcocks, you ask? Okay, maybe you didn’t ask, but I will tell you anyways –

    Shadow of a Doubt
    Rear Window
    Vertigo
    The Lady Vanishes
    North by Northwest

    • Thank you David! I think you may be right about this being the best of the “train thriller” genre. I like that you highlight the early scenes. They are often overlooked but they are so good at laying the light foundation for the rest of the picture. Your list of Hitchcock’s top five is hard to argue with. You can see from my response to Sam’s comment that my top five differs little from yours. But it’s really unfair to only ask for 5 from such a great director. It’s a little like when someone asks what your favorite movie is. Do we really only have one?

      • Tru dat, homey.

        The great thing about Hitchcock (like Lang, Lumet and Allen, too) is that he was so prolific – he made a number of clunkers, too (The Trouble with Harry, anyone?????)

        It’s awe inspiring to see the breadth of his work. That he was able to just churn stuff out year after year and not be effected by what came before – amazing.

        • While I agree with the body of what you say I absolutely disagree that “The Trouble with Harry” is a clunker, homey. I actually find that to be a pretty funny movie. True Hitchcock clunkers are “Under Capricorn,” “Stage Fright,” “Torn Curtain,” and “Topaze.” Just thinking of those terrible movies makes me shudder.

        • ladcrp1

          I despised TTWH.

    • ladcrp1

      I know it is just me, but I think “Rear Window” just plods. Not a fan of “Vertigo” either.

      I do love “Lady Vanishes” and “NxNW”. The scene in the train dining car with the cigarette is THE SEXIEST SCENE EVER FILMED.

      What’s the name of the British film where the kid gets blown up in the end? I love that one.

      Rounding out: I love “Psycho” & “To Catch A Thief”.

      • You’re probably thinking of Sabotage (1936).

        While I’ll concede that The Trouble with Harry isn’t for everyone, I do beg you to retry Rear Window and Vertigo at some point. Wait four or five years if you have to, but don’t give up on them.

  4. Cynthia Lagasca

    I watched so many great Hitchcock films and had listed Rebecca and The 39 Steps as my top favorite. But discovering and watching The Lady Vanishes really makes a lot of difference — it was entertaining, thrilling, feel good, refreshing that it made me clapped (applaud) in the final scene. Amazing film indeed. Liked very much Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. Hitchcock don’t only make good films but great and entertaining actors in the same way he did for Fontaine, Donat, Hedren.

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