In ‘The Lady Vanishes’, Hitchcock Mines Plenty of Tension from the Fairly Simple Premise

Appearing near the end of his British period, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes takes a simple premise and delivers a surprisingly thrilling ride. The deceptive 1938 film begins slowly with an extended prologue at a hotel. An eccentric group of travelers are stranded by an avalanche that keeps the train from leaving. The scenes introduce the major characters, but it’s not clear who the leads will be.

Hitchcock takes his time and lets us slowly grow accustomed to this world before kicking the story in gear. It could be challenging for modern audiences conditioned to believe that each scene will connect to a later moment. Instead, he’s creating a class structure without clearly pointing out his goals.

Loosely adapted from a novel by Ethel Lina White, the story takes a while to get moving, but that only makes the final hour more unpredictable. The plot involves the disappearance of the elderly governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) right in front of a trainload of passengers. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is the only person who seems to remember Froy or care about her existence. The others are too locked up in their own issues and don’t want to be bothered. One exception is Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a sharp-witted guy with eyes for Iris who seems to believe her story. The evidence doesn’t support her theories, but there are a few strange things that bear investigating.

Iris and Gilbert’s investigation leads them down a stunning path towards spies, secret codes, and murder. Characters that seem to be helpful are actually much different, while standoffish characters become their allies. Most of the action takes place on the train in a claustrophobic environment that has Iris questioning her sanity. There’s a brutal hand-to-hand battle with one enemy that’s a lot rougher than you might expect from a ’30s film. Hitchcock mines plenty of tension from the fairly simple premise, especially during a climactic shootout with little hope of escape. He presents a sharp contrast between the early comic scenes at the hotel and the violent finalé. The stakes rise slowly and deliberately, which increases the ultimate effect by the end.

This Criterion Blu-ray includes an audio commentary from film historian Bruce Eder, a fairly common participant in their releases. Recorded for Criterion’s original release of this movie, it provides a wealth of information about the production. Another fun extra is the feature film Crook’s Tour, a 1941 adventure starring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as their characters Charters and Caldicott from this film. These guys provide great comedy in The Lady Vanishes as self-absorbed bachelors who care more about catching the cricket match than finding Miss Froy.

Film scholar Leonard Leff presents the video essay “Mystery Train”, which talks about this movie in terms of its politics and British context. The half-hour feature should interest Hitchcock fans and cinephiles in general, though it is a bit dry. Another interesting piece is an audio excerpt from Hitchcock’s 1962 interview with Francois Trauffaut. Film clips and photos accompany the conversation, which was part of the French director’s famous 1967 book that covered his entire career. It’s a bit awkward with all the translations happening, but there’s still great material during the ten-minute clip. The best part has Hitchcock describing the silly complexities in both the heroes’ and villains’ plans. There’s also a Stills Gallery with both promotional materials and behind-the-scenes photos.

The insert booklet follows Criterion’s typical high quality and includes essays from experts Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr. In “All Aboard”, O’Brien gives an enjoyable overview of the movie and some of its highlights. He describes The Lady Vanishes as “as pure a pleasure as the movies have offered”, and it’s hard to deny his assertions. Barr’s essay “Tea & Treachery” focuses on the Englishness of this story and how it relates to British class structure. He accurately describes Hitchcock’s general disdain for the upper-class characters based on his own life experiences. He describes the final scene as the characters fighting their way out of the “morass of snobbery”, an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered. The booklet also provides information on the cast and transfer, along with some nice pictures.

When The Lady Vanishes was released, Hitchcock’s popularity was starting to wane, and his budget was limited. Working under these restrictions forces him to use cleverness to craft a highly entertaining movie. A simple scene with three wine glasses on the table is a lesson in suspense because we’re aware that the drinks are poisoned. When the characters start reaching for their drinks, it’s a tense moment that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Excellent moments like these lift this story well beyond its genre framework and help to create a classic film.

RATING 8 / 10