[3 January 2008]
During the scene in which we discover the identity of the lady soon to vanish in Hitchcock’s penultimate British film, The Lady Vanishes, the film’s heroine, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), mistakes the name of the doddering governess, who has nursed her back to health following a nasty knock to the head, as “Miss Freud.” The lady (Dame May Whitty) corrects Iris, explaining her name is actually Froy, rhyming with “joy.”
The appearance of this exchange in the film gestures towards the distinction frequently drawn by critics between the enjoyment to be found in Hitch’s light-hearted British films and the seriousness that dominates his output as early as his first American effort, the Oscar winning Rebecca. The British period is supposed to be all “joy, and not the intellectual weight of “Freud”. The Lady Vanishes demands that one ask a naïve question: why do the two need be mutually exclusive?
Many, including one of Hitchcock’s most outspoken advocates, filmmaker Francis Truffaut, have admitted always being so absorbed in the plot of The Lady Vanishes that they cannot fully appreciate the film’s aesthetic innovation and intriguing thematic threads. Indeed, the perception of The Lady Vanishes as a “devilish comic thriller” that requires “no serious commentary” has proven to be little more than the best defense against taking it seriously as a central film in Hitchcock’s development as an artist, collaborator and theorist of cinema.
The new Criterion Collection re-issue of The Lady Vanishes—from its informative commentary to its attention to the historical context in which the film was made—attempts to remedy the reduction of it to merely trivial escapism (even if escapism of the first order) and makes a substantial case for its place among the most interesting of Hitchcock’s films.
The reputation of The Lady Vanishes as a “fun” picture of course holds true today, but much of the success of the film originates in the clever balance of (and shift between) the comic and the sinister, a characteristic Hitchcockian device that can be traced through his entire career. The director opens the film with an extended set of comic sequences which play on the expectations of an audience that has come to see a typical Hitchcock thriller. In a pleasantly frustrating gesture, rather than murder and conspiracy, Hitchcock instead invests 24-minutes in light-hearted introductions that nonetheless establish all of the key characters, relationships and plot points the audience will require to understand the thriller that follows.
The director inherited a complete screenplay for this film by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner, adapted from Ethel Lina White’s book The Wheel Spins, but personally insisted on the extension of the opening sequence, and only in consideration of the comedy and later suspense together do the thematic contours of the film come into relief. Under the guise of simply postponing the “authentic” Hitchcock narrative, the film, set to begin with the departure of the train, actually presents each of its three narrative sections—the stay at the inn, the train trip in which the lady vanishes, and the final shoot-out—as a parallel commentary on a series of symbolic fictions (whether of gender, class or nationality), which have isolated the people of England from the world and each-other. In the context of Europe in the late 1930s, such isolation has potentially disastrous consequences.
The narrative begins as a diverse group of English travelers, making their way through an imaginary Eastern European country during the turbulent years of Hitler’s Germany, must contend for the limited number of rooms in a local mountain inn when snow delays the departure of their train. There is gentle mockery of proper English society at work in the strategic pairings to which the film introduces the audience.
Caldicott (Nauton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) represent the quintessential British tourists, passionately attached to all the proprieties of English society and seemingly obsessed with Europe “on the brink”. Only subsequently does the audience learn that the “brink” with which they are truly concerned is the start of an English cricket match they might miss as a result of the delay.
Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and “Mrs.” Todhunter (Linden Travers) appear to be just another quarrelling honeymoon couple, who instead eventually turn-out to be an adulterous pair in a failing relationship that the reputation-sensitive barrister is determined to keep quiet. These traditional figures of upright British-ness dissolve into a collection of over-grown school-boys, cynics, and adulterers more concerned with isolating themselves in well-defined physical and social spaces than forming a community: after all, the main thrust of the action at this point is securing individual rooms within which the characters can separate themselves from both the abject “foreigners” and their fellow countrymen.
It is then fitting that the next pairing also revolves around a dispute over space. Iris (Margaret Lockwood), set to cement her family’s improved financial standing through the status associated with marrying a man her friends dismiss as a “blue-blooded cheque-chaser”, has Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a music professor who nosily studies the lost folk dances of the region in the room above her, thrown-out. In retaliation, the rascally Gilbert invades Iris’ room, expecting accommodation. Tellingly, the eventual heroes of Hitchcock’s story turn out to be characters that cross accepted boundaries in bold ways: Gilbert, who studies the customs of the local people while the other English mock them; Iris, who, with her friends, prances around her room in her undergarments while the horrified help looks on uncomfortably; finally, Miss Froy, with which Iris forms a quick attachment, who cannot help but praise the people of the country when Caldicott and Charters denounce their backwardness.
The train—itself a figure of traversing (national) boundaries—is ready in the morning and the travelers set-out on their journey. As critic Geoffrey O’Brien points out in his audio commentary, after the first half-hour of the film, the audience is likely rather confused: they do not know what this movie is about, or why so much time has been spent at a second-rate inn and are thus left wondering precisely which lady it will be that vanishes and why. When would the boundary between comedy and suspense finally be drawn?
Indeed, the audience is frequently left as disoriented as Iris, unable to yet comprehend the significance of narrative details. The denial of such easy knowledge sustains that infamous Hitchcock “suspense”. In one sequence, the use of subjective camera positioning (putting the audience in the place of Iris) enhances the sense of disorientation. The adept double-exposure photography of cinematographer Jon Cox allows the audience to share in her most serious moment of doubt in her own sanity. In a rather strange reversal, the reality of Miss Froy’s disappearance is transformed into a fantasy of which the audience can not be entirely sure represents the “truth”.
Little could they have known that Hitchcock frequently dropped clues to his plots in the form of seemingly meaningless incidents that will only retroactively assume their proper symbolic place in the narrative. Returning to the scene described in the beginning of this review, the governess nurses her new friend back to health as they begin their train trip. Miss Froy, in a seemingly incidental gesture, writes her name across the dusty pane of a window in the dining car. Iris falls asleep and when she awakes she discovers that Miss Froy has disappeared into thin air—worse yet, the other passengers deny ever having seen her (although the fact that all of these passengers are masters of artifice, whether it be a magician or minister of propaganda, should tip the audience off that something is wrong) .
Due to her having hit her head, one cannot be sure that Iris is of right mind, a doubt reinforced by the diagnosis of Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), a neurosurgeon with significant international credentials. While Iris, with the help of Gilbert, desperately searches the train for her lost friend she concludes that she had imagined the whole thing—until, at the last possible moment, the trace of Miss Froy’s name on the window reappears, a return of the repressed (see Froy does mean Freud!) into Iris’ consciousness. The name now assumes its proper symbolic place in the narrative: “joy”, like the sharp comedy of the inn scenes, persistently returns in the more “serious” events that follow and thus retroactively illuminates the whole.
As Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff explains in a video essay titled Mystery Train (included on the second disc of the package), the scene is only one example of the many underappreciated aesthetic achievements to be found in The Lady Vanishes. Leff frames the production of the film in terms of a poor British film industry that necessitated the revenue generating genre films like those found in a sextet of notable “Hitchcocks” such as the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and Sabotage. Thus, Hitchcock shot The Lady Vanishes on a shoe-string budget and under the pressure of generating huge dividends.
Such pressures meant invention—whether using transparencies and miniatures to (not always) convincingly render an entire moving train in a 90-foot-long sound stage or omitting time-consuming oblique or bizarre angles in favor of more standard framing—if the film had any hopes of completion, let alone financial success.
Luckily, Hitch and his entire crew managed to produce a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, breaking the director decisively into the lucrative American market. The success of The Lady Vanishes, however, cannot be attributed entirely to humour and imaginative editing. “[W]hile the English-foreign opposition is a structure that runs through the film,” explains Charles Barr in an attempt to delineate the film’s resonance in Britain, “there are equally strong oppositions and clashes between the English” (Tea and Treachery, Barr’s essay found in the DVD liner notes). Indeed, as Iris persists in her quest to find the vanished Miss Froy, every comic pair mentioned earlier refuses to help her, choosing self-preservation over altruism.
These class positions eventually realign themselves once the third, more action-oriented act of the film kicks-in, and the British passengers of the train are placed together in mortal danger, trapped and helpless as gunmen descend on the train. Barr convincingly argues that the intention in this stand-off scenario against the vaguely Eastern European opponents is to comment critically on the various, largely class-determined reactions to the open aggression of Hitler’s Germany.
Filmed a mere months before Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous appeasement of Hitler’s territorial ambitions set the stage for the Second World War, the denouement of The Lady Vanishes would surely have struck a resonant chord with British anxieties regarding the looming threat against which they would need a total solidarity across national, class and gender boundaries. Uncovering the conspiracy that threatens the safety of the British, both on the train and in Europe “on the brink”, is a matter of banding together to fight the enemy.
Criterion does justice to this example of Hitchcock at the height of his British period, cleaning up the original film and providing a variety of supplementary material to sate Hitchcock enthusiasts, including essays, interviews and promotional art (also, not to be missed: Wayne and Radford return in their affable 1941 full-length feature reprisal of these characters in a tale of mistaken identity, titled Crook’s Tour, included on the bonus disc of this set). Ultimately this reevaluation and historical situating of a classic film’s legacy once again proves that, in this case, significance does indeed go hand-in-hand with joy, after all.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-lady-vanishes/