The political dilettantism that characterized Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) had, by 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, bloomed into a facility with multivalent allegory distinguished by no little cosmopolitan subtlety and historical literacy. Indeed, the film remains among his finest, truest comedies, as well as one of the era’s more chilling cinematic pieces of geopolitical stock-staking: the specter of war, so long held off, would consume Britain for the six years following its premiere.
Nothing about The Lady Vanishes is cannily vatic (as if the worst atrocities could be foreseen – as if a pan-European conflict hadn’t been tipped for the better part of that decade), but it suggests that the heart of the matter lies somewhere other than in satire while still letting some blood along the usual English comic vein. Put plainly, the film depicts a variety of cultural deaths as they were happening, no small feat for a light comedy with sex-farce undertones.
Death on Stage and Screen
The first such death is of one lively art amid the rise of another. All the verities of the comic, even the romantic comedy, are present in The Lady Vanishes; it is not a self-conscious or anxiously message-laden film. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a pert, popular, and appealingly hard-to-get foil for Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), her mildly raffish ethnomusicologist beau. The two meet and, as they must (shades of Much Ado About Nothing), do not enjoy meeting; Iris warms to Gilbert slowly, with regressions, only following the inauguration of the film’s central crisis.
The scene in the luggage car, despite involving the cudgeling of the suspicious Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver)—whose escape represents the turning of the plot from something trippingly comedic to (relative) menace—is a chance for the pair to bond through mutual commitment in their search for Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), and to perform mild pratfalls. This last represents a pseudo-music hall or pseudo-vaudeville which, by remaining funny while not presuming upon the performers’ dignity, itself performs a negating critique on the British music hall tradition, which was by that time being rapidly supplanted by the ravening and international art of cinema.
The angst involved in watching one art form swallow another puts one in mind of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s stated reason for opposing his daughter Oona’s marriage to Charlie Chaplin—that is, that a man of the evanescent stage could hardly countenance a union that would serve to justify the paragon of its replacement. Chaplin’s Jewishness was a factor, too, perhaps reflecting O’Neill’s contempt for the less high-artistic Yiddish melodramatic theatre that, in some quarters, outsold his own dour tragedies. O’Neill was commercially and critically successful, sure, but as a cruel man with a totalizing mind, he couldn’t abide a theatrical world in which he was not the center and prime mover. Such is a reasonable, if euphemistic, depiction of the Chaplin-mustachioed Hun who nearly ruined Europe in 1939’s The Great Dictator.
Her Self and the Others
Iris’ self-centeredness and the odd way she seems insensate to the joy, or even the novelty, of foreign travel despite having been everywhere is not an admission of acedia. She is not insensate to travel because she’s been everywhere; there’s too much light in her for that. Rather, it’s the result of naïvete meeting parochialism at just that season of youth when one sees oneself as the world’s great hope. In her dismissal of The Lady Vanishes‘ invented country of Bandrika is a contemporaneous English policy of appeasement which, sounded most earnestly by Neville Chamberlain, was echoed by upper-class Britons, imperial officers abroad, and the members of the British Board of Film Censors.
An historically-conscious contemporary audience forgives Iris her cravenness in response to her courageous, initially individual, rescue of Miss Froy; assisted by Gilbert—a man who, despite being initially skeptical of Iris’ claim about Miss Froy and her disappearance, is nonetheless truly cosmopolitan and vastly compassionate, which here in any case are the same thing—she is able to spare the superannuated operative all manner of torment at the hands of Nazi stand-ins. Her private, imagined kingdom, a Ruritania of the self, cannot be penetrated by the knowledge of evil. She is buffered against it by dint of her youth and beauty.
In philosopher Charles Taylor’s sense, Iris is, of course, culturally “buffered”, too, against the enchanted world of ages past. This enchantment, of course, refers to that cultural and psychological lens through which people—all of them—endowed the sun with personhood and the Son with an active place in the world. Let us cede for the moment that what we know as the Renaissance was, indeed, per art historian Johan Huizinga, a sort of vulgarization of the late medieval mind that eventually led to the spiritually degraded materialism-positivism still dominant in our own time (and to the point, long since established by the time of The Lady Vanishes). If we pair Taylor and Huizinga we may then say that long modernity is both, as a matter of fact, un- or dis-enchanted (Taylor) and the process by which it got that way was unfortunate, even immoral (Huizinga, although this is stretching his argument rather far).
In this light, any attempt to recapture non-buffered, enchanted humanity is as positively ethical as futile. It is, in other words, heroic, as are all campaigns against despair which, necessarily being fated to failure, result in no improvement of circumambient material conditions. Iris, being a typical young person, is enchanted by herself—a contradiction in terms which yet gives her the naïve virtue to make a sortie into a psychological space in which the world and everything in it is alive to her, non-metaphorically—thus, her willingness to stymie evil; thus, her incapacity to understand evil.
Sleep As a Safe Sickness
Biographer and theologian Donald Spoto mentions The Lady Vanishes‘ twin linking motifs of sleep and music, saying of the former, “This motif is not the bearer of a theme—The Lady Vanishes doesn’t go quite that deeply with its own devices—but it is a linking technique in the various parts of the whole” (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976). The “sleep” into which Iris falls is never natural. It is never sleep per se: it is always an altered state that she conscripts to avoid unpleasantness or which is foisted upon her by illness. In the instance of her near-poisoning, sleep is to be resisted at the cost of her life and her friends’. This is an effective, if perhaps ham-handed, metaphor for political fence-sitting.
Iris finally “wakes up” (or remains awake) to the dangers of European intrigue and misfortune when her life is endangered. Sleep, then, is the bearer of the theme of complicity through ignorance or silence, although the film’s thesis supports – with the dining car shoot-out scene – attributing it to the former more than the latter. That scene, which is initially as hilariously absurd and then nearly as terrifying in its presentation of its characters’ inertia as anything in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), suggests that, awakened from ignorance, a natural reservoir of humanity will impel a person toward decency, which prescribes saving more than just one’s own skin. The conniving, battle-orthodoxy-bound barrister Todhunter—from the German, Death Hunter—(played by Cecil Parker) is the exception that proves the rule. His death indicates that the old-world rules for which he’d stood are now, indeed, obsolete.
Even Catherine Lacey’s “nun” makes a stand for self-sacrificial virtue, albeit out of at least some degree of blowsy British patriotism. The comedy inherent in seeing a woman in a full-length habit (well, nearly – less the inches of her stilettos) perform the most physical acts of resistance of any of her confreres does nothing to undercut the seriousness of what is not simply cooperative self-defense but a reassertion of moral rectitude. As in, the right-thinking lion-like Britain has risen from slumber and is getting things in the European scene back on track.
The Lady Vanishes‘ Song and Soul
“It’s entirely appropriate, first of all, that a peace clause be conveyed in music, which always represents harmony and the opposite of chaos” —so writes Spoto, who is in the spirit of being correct without being quite correct. What he means (or intends to mean) is that most Western music resolves euphonically; his metaphor for the romantic comedy practically makes itself while lighting fleetly on one aspect of the film’s music motif.
However, music’s role as something other than a sentimentalized “universal language” speaks to the disintegrating condition in Europe at the end of the ‘30s. Gilbert’s vocation is the documentation of the rapidly evanescent folk musics of central Europe. Many of these utilize scales and melodies (not to mention instruments) modulated out of Arabic or Balkan music rather than the Germanic modes, with their focus on equal temperament, which have presented to the world a hegemonic view of “Western music” for at least four centuries.
His work doesn’t touch on conspicuously non-Western traditions with which Britain had been in contact for some time and which would be dragged from their decades of internecine war into a larger sphere of conflict with the uncomprehending United States. Western descriptions of melody, harmony, and rhythm (as well as dance and vocalization) pertain minimally with regard to the vast and varied musical traditions of Japan, China, India, and the smaller Southeastern Pacific nations that would fight the West in the new Great War. European composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, reflecting arch-modernist views and in an attempt to move their respective musical traditions forward, developed new and upsetting tonal patterns. This harrowed audiences who had long since come to think of Beethoven as the paragon of acceptable, high-culture family entertainment (as opposed to the noisy, romantic radical critics thought he was in his own day).
So few of the rules people had agreed to live by seemed tenable by 1939, the year after the film was released. The most touching images of The Lady Vanishes may be Gilbert’s stymied attempts to document—catching them at their most off-hand and joyful—the death-throes of doomed peoples whose doom came via voluntary entry into modernity rather than by the barrel of a gun or beneath the treads of tanks. Gilbert witnesses innocent doom, human destruction bereft of evil. Much of what he studies would once have been called “gypsy” music, the music of a people without a nation. How oddly, chillingly clairvoyant Hitchcock is here: the Roma in the film are both Roma qua Roma and stand-ins for European Jewry, both destined for the gas chambers.
The British-made The Lady Vanishes is, finally, a recognition of international peril rather than the kind of careful dissection of evil itself that provided the engine of Hitchcock’s best American films. Understood in the linear context of his career, it’s clear that Hitchcock’s understanding of evil is neither theoretical nor theological. By 1940, he was in Hollywood making Rebecca; he avoided The Blitz and had no part in the England that came out of it. But he knew—and the world learned, then forgot—that evil isn’t an unbodied pneumatic thing but actions advocated for by men. This grants solidity to the chillingly atheistic theodicy of Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds, each of which is its own disquisition on the destruction of various human and social values, filmed just after the knife tears the flesh but before the blood drains away for good.
Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought & Art in France & Netherlands in the XIVth & XVth Centuries. January 1948.
Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. 2nd Ed. Anchor Books. 1992.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press. September 2018.