The Lady Vanishes (1938)
March 2, 2024 3:46 PM - Subscribe

While travelling in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train.

On a train headed for England a group of travelers is delayed by an avalanche. Holed up in a hotel in a fictional European country, young Iris (Margaret Lockwood) befriends elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). When the train resumes, Iris suffers a bout of unconsciousness and wakes to find the old woman has disappeared. The other passengers ominously deny Miss Froy ever existed, so Iris begins to investigate with another traveler (Michael Redgrave) and, as the pair sleuth, romantic sparks fly.

Otis Ferguson: “The Lady Vanishes” is a typical work of that genius in the art of motion pictures, Alfred Hitchcock, the overstuffed and delightful gentleman from London. But Hitchcock chooses to use his genius where it will do the least harm to the most effect, and so while everything he does has such speed and clarity it’s a pleasure to sit there over and over and watch him work, he works frankly in surface motion. There is human interest and sympathy because his people are always right; but the action is violent, the need for it somehow unreal, and emotion does not mature.

Mattie Lucas: The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock at his most effortlessly entertaining. But like the master's best work, there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. As light and as breezy as it may feel, The Lady Vanishes was a film very much of its time, representing a kind of last minute, quintessentially British stiff upper lip attitude while standing on the precipice of a looming world war. The undertones are unmistakable. "We're British citizens, they can't do anything to us" a passenger quips, before being shot in a climactic shootout. A Chamberlain-esque would-be diplomat attempts to negotiate with foriegn assassins under a white flag, and is mercilessly gunned down. The Lady Vanishes represents a kind of end of British innocence, in much the same way that Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game was a much more grim representation of a French society lurching toward ruin. The can-do British charm remains intact throughout the film, but the undercurrent of unease and apprehention at an uncertain future is readily apparent.

The film may seem slight when compared with other films in Hitchcock's ouevre like Psycho and Vertigo, but it's every bit as masterful as his more well known works. It's so precisely crafted, so endlessly clever, and just so much fun that it can't be ignored. Francois Truffaut cited it as his favorite Hitchcock film, and an excerpt from his landmark interview with Hitchcock is included on the blu-ray. It's fascinating hearing Hitch recount the making of The Lady Vanishes, which was shot on a tiny set that was just 90 feet long, with another great director who was also a huge fan.

Geoffrey O’Brien: The Lady Vanishes (1938) is the film that best exemplifies Alfred Htchcock’s often-asserted desire to offer audiences not a slice of life but a slice of cake. Even Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, in their pioneering study of Hitchcock, for once abandoned the search for hidden meanings and—though rating it “an excellent English film, an excellent Hitchcock film”—decided it was one that “requires little commentary,” while François Truffaut declared that every time he tried to study the film’s trick shots and camera movements, he became too absorbed in the plot to notice them. Perhaps they were disarmed by pleasure, The Lady Vanishes being as pure a pleasure as the movies have offered; the ever-spirited Miss Froy, not long before she vanishes, remarks that her name “rhymes with joy,” and indeed, the whole film breathes an air of delight like nothing else in Hitchcock. The central situation—the disappearance of a woman whose very existence is subsequently denied by everyone but the protagonist—may seem to provide the perfect matrix for the kind of paranoid melodrama that would proliferate a few years later, in the forties, in films like Phantom Lady, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, but here the dark shadows of conspiracy are countered by a brightness and brilliance of tone almost Mozartean in its equanimity. Most of the time we are too exhilarated to be frightened.

posted by Carillon (7 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Such a fun movie. The first 2/3rd are really top notch. I think the air is a bit let out when the shooting starts, but just such a fun movie. Intrigue, but it's very funny!
posted by Carillon at 3:46 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]

We watched a few different adaptions of The Lady Vanishes a while back, and this was our favorite. As you said, it's a load of fun!
posted by mrphancy at 10:18 PM on March 2

I watched it this morning after reading the Fanfare and it was a lot of fun, thanks for the rec.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:12 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]

It's such a good movie and so full of Hitchcockian tropes -
  • the ordinary person swept up in extraordinary events
  • "is everybody but me crazy or lying or what?"
  • initially hostile young people thrust together by fate who find themselves falling for each other
  • and many others..
It's not in any way technically his best film (you can plainly see the budget constraints in many places, especially the train and village shots at the beginning of the film) but it uses what resources it has where they count and it's a great example to use to introduce people to his work because it contains so many elements that are repeated elsewhere in his body of work.

And while I'm sure it wasn't even close to the first "mystery on a train (or plane, or other transport)" movie, it left its stamp on that genre as well as the "protagonist can't figure out why everybody is denying what they plainly remember" suspense thriller such that many subsequent films owe it some credit for its pioneering work establishing those classic plot devices.

The "secondary characters in the drama stand in for whole segments of society" trope is also re-used by Hitchcock (see, for example, "Lifeboat") but gets perhaps its best treatment here.

Most of Hitchcock's films have aged pretty well but one thing that hasn't aged gracefully in some of Hitchcock's films is the shortcut of coding a few of the villain characters as homosexual in order to add extra creepiness (e.g. Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca or Leonard in North by Northwest.) Happily, here the all-but-explicitly gay Charters and Caldicott are not creepy in any way, just goofily cricket-obsessed. They proved so popular that the characters were used in several other (non-Hitchcock) films, the most notable of which was probably Night Train to Munich
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:11 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]

As much as this sounds like a blasphemy, I'm not a huge fan of Hitchcock (I think a lot of his films, while watchable, have not aged all that gracefully particularly the ones that lean overly on "Freudian" character motivations) but I am really fond of this one. Lot of the secondary characters really work well - Charters and Caldicott as notable examples - and tonally it is a fun and the mystery mostly works.
posted by Ashwagandha at 3:20 PM on March 4

As much as this sounds like a blasphemy, I'm not a huge fan of Hitchcock (I think a lot of his films, while watchable, have not aged all that gracefully particularly the ones that lean overly on "Freudian" character motivations)
Oof. Spellbound.. What a waste of Hitchcock, Bergman, Peck, and Carroll's efforts, not to mention Dalí. Or Marnie, which time has been kinder to than I think it deserves..

Yeah, some of the films haven't aged well and some of the early ones weren't that great to start - one of the joys of watching Hitchcock is seeing him realize over time what works and what doesn't - but his best films still sizzle.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:16 PM on March 11

Just saw this on Amazon Prime, and am happy they have decided I want to watch thriller/mystery movies with a sense of style and humor, because I do! I loved this, especially the deadpan humor that relies on the viewer to get it, rather than having the characters react. There’s a line like “My father said you should always help a woman in trouble … he took it so far as to marry my mother”. Classic.

I’m now in the middle of Charade, which is a blast. Before that I did Anatomy of a Murder and The Man Who Knew Too Much, both also great.
posted by caviar2d2 at 9:12 AM on July 8

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