Double Take: ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1938)

Now you see her; now you don't: Double Take #21 admits to seeing The Lady Vanishes and tries to find its political undercurrent.

Steve Leftridge: For the 21st installment of our Double Take series, the big randomizer landed on our first Hitchcock film. With The Lady Vanishes, we find the director at the tail end of his run of early British films, just before embarking on his American career, when he would soon be making far more opulent movies and would establish himself as, arguably, the most influential filmmaker of the 21st century.

I want to try to identify some cinematic characteristics in this film that would later become Hitchcockian staples. While we’re at it, I also want to see if we can find any political undertones or evaluate some social codes in the film. But first, I’m going to cut right to the chase: Do you like this movie?

Steve Pick: What’s not to love? It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s suspenseful, it’s subversive. From the opening cool use of miniatures to the sweet final scene, I was spellbound by this flick. I hadn’t seen it before, so I was as fresh as the Brits in 1938 trying to figure out what was going to turn out to be important in the opening 20 minutes, and for that matter, which lady was going to vanish. That became clear once the train ride began, but I sure didn’t know where it was going for a long time.

I was enjoying things quite a bit, and then I fell in love once they got into that delightfully haphazard storage car full of magicians props, including adorable bunnies and crazy-quilt pigeons. You could practically see the pinwheels going off in Hitchcock’s head as he kept coming up with new ideas in that long scene, right up to the most entertaining fight scene/sexual threesome I think I’ve ever watched. Also, it’s been a very long time since I read The Celluloid Closet, but surely that scene with the two English cricket fans in bed together had to be included, right?

As for Hitchockian staples — there were birds, there were multiple images, there was a train, and there was a walk-on by Hitch himself (though definitely in the don’t blink or you’ll miss it mode). What else did you note?

Leftridge: Like you, I noticed those two dudes lying in bed together, for starters. Hanged if I know why they’re even in the film. Not only are Charters and Caldicott wholly uninterested in the maid coming into their room to “remove her wardrobe”, they seem to exist in the film solely so that Hitchcock can have a little elbow-in-the-ribs fun with homosexuality — a sign of the times and a peculiar motif of Hitchcock’s films. Everyone knows, however, that Hitch couldn’t get enough of young ladies, and the director’s trademark bawdy humor shows up here, and not just in the symbolism of the train going into the tunnel. That scene when Rudolph the butler walks into the girls’ hotel room to find them in various states of undress — showing 100 percent leg — must’ve been highly provocative in 1938.

Beyond that, the most obvious Hitchcockian characteristic here is his patented black comedy, of which there’s plenty, especially that screwball fight scene with the magician. There are also the plot twists and reverses that we would expect, when people aren’t what they seem. Miss Froy is a kindly old woman, until she’s an intrepid spy. Dr. Hartz is a renowned and helpful physician, until he’s a dastardly murderer. The heels-wearing nun is a cold assassin, until she isn’t. Plus, there’s the presence of the MacGuffin — the thing that everybody wants — in the form of Miss Froy. And the film comes with plenty of suspense from the Master, until he supplies the dramatic irony –l etting the audience in on things that some of the characters don’t know — another Hitchcock staple. Despite all this, it sounds as though I don’t like this film as much as you do.

Pick: Seriously, you weren’t entranced? Charmed? Enthusiastic? I mentioned the opening sequence with the miniatures, but what really pulled me in was that first scene in the inn, with a couple minutes of silence setting us up for a whirlwind of exotic languages and chaotic desperation. At first glance, we assume Charters and Caldicott are to be the film’s heroes, as they are the only English speakers in the scene. And, since it’s 1938 — the year Chamberlain proclaimed “Peace in our time” as he gave Hitler half of Czechoslovakia — we assume their concern for their country is about matters of state, not the results of a cricket match. So Hitchcock sets us up with MacGuffins within MacGuffins, constantly redirecting our attention as he introduces new characters.

Iris and her friends enter the scene, and now we think maybe these three will prove to include the soon to be vanished lady. We see their sense of privilege in automatically getting a room and food when there are clearly shortages of both, and yet we side with them when the noise comes from upstairs. Then we meet Gilbert in the comical bit of his folklore studies. My head is swirling, and Miss Froy seems to be a very minor character at this point, who isn’t likely to advance the plot so much as give people someone to talk to about it.

I will grant that the last bit, with the standoff in the train car, while exciting and occasionally funny, seemed to arrive whole hog out of a completely separate movie. That movie, I think, wanted to be about possible war on the horizon with Germany, although I think Hitchcock pulled his punches by inventing a nonsensical language for those bad people to speak. Even then, however, I was still hurtling down the tracks of Hitchcock’s story train and didn’t pause to consider much while I was waiting to see who would survive this encounter.

So, what bothers you about The Lady Vanishes? Why didn’t you love it, too?

Leftridge: I was somewhat charmed and sometimes amused, but I wasn’t entranced. I appreciate all the moving parts you mention at the beginning — the simultaneous layering of characters and motivations. However, the presence of Charters and Caldicoot seems largely irrelevant to the plot. Same with Mr. Todhunter and his mistress. These are all characters placed in the film, along with the Italian weirdos and the train’s wait staff, only to pretend they never saw Miss Froy, so whatever character development we’re privy to here feels slight and contrived to me.

So I saw The Lady Vanishes as a slight romantic bauble with quite a lot of silliness. I’m not opposed to silly — see our earlier Double Take on Raising Arizona, for instance. It’s just that “silly” primarily defines the film, which contained neither the well-constructed plot nor the smoldering sense of menace found in the best of Hitchcock.

I don’t ask for Hitchcock to be plausible exactly, but the switcheroo at the end and the unexplained easy-submission-by-face-bandaging were a tinge too much for me. By the end, I was rolling pleasantly along with the snappy dialogue and the rinky-dink shootout, but I wasn’t much tempted to mistake it for greatness.

Pick: Maybe it’s just me, but I always enjoy side-trips from major plotlines. That’s one of the reasons I love serialized TV so much, because it’s harder to put that sort of thing in a two-hour movie. I like to imagine the possibilities of a completely separate film based entirely on Charters and Caldicott, for example, or maybe one that follows those friends of Iris as they traipse around Switzerland looking for liquor and men. So, for me, the fact that almost one-third of the film takes place before we have even a glimmer of plot development is a feature, not a bug.

Granted, there are some ludicrous implausibilities, not least being the speed with which people can be wrapped in bandages. And the gunfight may be rinky-dink, but if you squint, you might see an occasional shot John Ford borrowed for Stagecoach. (Maybe that’s a stretch, since I haven’t seen that film in a long time, but the tension there did remind me of it a little.) You can definitely squint harder and imagine the Marx Brothers in Go West dealing with some of the issues in the engine.

Maybe The Lady Vanishes doesn’t match the more intricate and carefully developed plots and character of other Hitchcock films, but I actually enjoyed this one more than some later films such as The Birds. In some respects, this is a screwball thriller, and there just aren’t enough of those sitting around cinematic history.

So, let’s talk politics for a minute. What was your take on Hitchcock’s take on spies, Nazis, war, and peace?

Leftridge: Well, why the deuce didn’t you say so? I think one could have some fun with a sociological or realpolitik reading of the film. We know that Hitchcock was enamored with spies in the ’30s, as a glance at his filmography from the decade makes clear, and given the political climate of the era in Europe at the time, these characters’ behaviors allow for the possibility of an intriguing allegory.

The most obvious support for a political parable — you mention Nazis — is that the bad guy here has a German accent. Once Iris starts sounding the alarm that Miss Froy has gone missing, everyone turns a blind eye to that reality, for a variety of personal, and perhaps political, reasons. For Charters and Caldicott, getting delayed by the missing lady is a matter of disrupting their lives of leisure and pastime. For Mr. Todhunter and his mistress, acknowledging seeing Miss Froy is to risk exposing themselves to a messy extramarital scandal. And then there are Dr. Hartz’s various accomplices who are held under his sway. So, there’s a collective ignorance among a population that refuses to take action against evil out of self-interest — very 1938 Europe. Eventually, however, these Brits can ignore the truth no more. After realizing that their own safety is also a stake, they band together to fight the encroaching menace.

You buy any of this crap?

Pick: Sounds too much like a post-war analogy than one likely to have been conceived in 1938 by a filmmaker who doesn’t strike me as a rah-rah patriotic gung-ho sort in the first place. I do think Hitchcock was aware of the tensions in Europe at the time, and he decided, in his usual manner, to have some playful fun with the situation. Hence, we have an urgent secret for the sake of England’s security delivered, in an era of telegraph communication, recordings, mail, airplanes, and telephones, for gosh sake, via the melodic code entrusted to one seemingly innocent older woman.

And how about the creation of that code? It’s hard enough for musicians to come up with a decent melody under any circumstances, let alone when the notes, rhythms, and/or harmonies have to stand for specific information. Of course, when the good guys get their train across the Swiss border, the bad guys just shrug their soldiers and give up; hardly the methodology of Nazis even prior to the outbreak of war. Nope, I don’t think The Lady Vanishes is meant to make any specific comments regarding the necessity to stand up to tyranny.

The more I think about The Lady Vanishes, the more I view it as three separate but connected mini-movies that may not add up to any socio-political theme, but which work together to keep things moving in a highly entertaining manner. The first part, set at the inn, is almost a comedy of manners, a cross between Grand Hotel and Rules of the Game, perhaps. Here we are introduced to many characters, some of whom seem more important at the time than they turn out to be, and ultimately, we see that somebody out there doesn’t like Miss Froy.

The second part, set on the train, is a comedic mystery, as Miss Froy vanishes and Iris and Gilbert become a team alternately arguing and learning clues to the secret. Finally, we have the great shootout/showdown in which Hitchcock pays homage to westerns, but does the future Sergio Leone one better by actually setting a European western in Europe. Throw in a closing shot straight from a romantic comedy, and you’ve got a delightful smorgasbord of genres put together with Hitchcock’s trademark skill, verve, and wit. I’d say I’ll take that sort of thing any day, but there aren’t enough days when I can find something like The Lady Vanishes.