The Lady Vanishes might be the most fun Hitchcock ever lets an audience have with one of his films. Vanishes maintains a comedic sensibility throughout and for the most part, that sensibility overtakes the mystery element. Even the mystery element gives way to an action element–besides North by Northwest (which only barely qualifies) and Foreign Correspondent, The Lady Vanishes has the most action of any Hitchcock film. It’s also jingoistic in a good way, something Hitchcock couldn’t pull off when he was doing 1940s American propaganda. The British really look good at the end of The Lady Vanishes and he pulls it off beautifully.
The film opens with a miniature of a Central European mountain village. The camera moves slowly in on the village, across the train platform, behind some buildings, to the inn where the film begins. It’s a fantastical shot, impossible to duplicate with a location (the logistics of a helicopter), though CG might “work.” It also establishes Hitchcock’s approach to the filmmaking in Vanishes. Whatever he can use to facilitate storytelling, he uses. It’s a different approach to filmic storytelling and it would be gone from Hitchcock by 1941 and popular film in the late 1940s. Once “realism” became so important–the film being “real” (absurd) as compared to reality, instead of being authentic to itself–films stopped being technically invigorating on the content-level. Skillful camera work is one thing, but getting excited about seeing it is another. While it does happen, it happened a lot in the 1920s and 1930s.
The film also has one of Hitchcock’s best cast ensembles. Besides Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as the cricket-obsessed comedy relief, there’s also the adulterous couple (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers) who some comedy, but more drama, for the viewer to engage with. The early scenes at the inn are played entirely for laughs, so when the mysterious elements of The Lady Vanishes start, Hitchcock has to change tone quickly. To do so, he switches (just for a moment) perspective–instead of the English commanding the room of Europeans, it’s the British subject at the mercy of the strange, quiet Europeans on the train. Margaret Lockwood’s character starts out in Lady Vanishes as an entitled jerk, but her concerned for the titular disappeared lady, along with her great chemistry with Michael Redgrave, really warm her character. She doesn’t actually have a character arc–nothing changes except the need for her to be different–but she and Redgrave are so good together, suspension of disbelief holds he can be doing it (really, really quickly). Redgrave is a good leading man, funnier than most, but just as stoic when he needs to be. Their relationship is so good, I know I’m slighting it, but I have to get on to Paul Lukas, who plays the best villain in any Hitchcock film. Lukas is particularly fantastic in the film.
I remember the first time I watched The Lady Vanishes, on the Criterion DVD, I had seen some British Hitchcock already and knew it would be technically different. But from the opening shot, to the comedy in the inn, it was clear from the start Vanishes was going to be excellent, an exciting film to experience.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on a novel by Ethel Lina White; director of photography, Jack E. Cox; edited by R.E. Dearing; music by Louis Levy and Charles Williams; produced by Edward Black; released by Gainsborough Pictures.
Starring Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert), Paul Lukas (Dr. Hartz), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy), Cecil Parker (Mr. Todhunter), Linden Travers (‘Mrs.’ Todhunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford (Charters), Mary Clare (Baroness Nisatona) and Emile Boreo (Boris the Hotel Manager).