Saturday, June 23, 2012
"THE LADY VANISHES" (1938) Review
"THE LADY VANISHES" (1938) Review
During a seventeen year period between 1922 and 1939, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock became one of the more prolific directors during the early years of British cinema. Films such as 1934's "THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH" and 1935's "THE 39 STEPS" caught the attention of film critics and Hollywood producers. But it was 1938's "THE LADY VANISHES" that paved the way for Hitchcock to achieve Hollywood fame and fortune.
Based upon Ethel Lina White's 1936 novel, "The Wheel Spins", "THE LADY VANISHES" is about a young English woman named Iris Henderson, who stumbles across a mystery surrounding the disappearance of an elderly woman and fellow Briton from a train traveling westward, across Europe. In the fictional country of Bandrika, a group of travelers eager to resume their journey west is delayed by an avalanche that has blocked the railway tracks. Most of the travelers bunk at a local hotel, where Iris and her two friends had been staying for their holiday. Later that night, a folk singer plays a tune that catches the attention of the elderly Miss Froy (May Whitty), who has been working abroad for several years as a governess. Before the singer can finish his tune, he is silenced . . . murdered.
The following morning, the rail tracks are cleared and the passengers are able to resume their journeys. Iris, who plans to marry a wealthy man upon her return to England, becomes one of the train's passengers. While waiting to board the train, a flower pot meant for Miss Foy, hits Iris on the head. Other passengers include a young English musicologist named Gilbert; Miss Froy; a adulterous couple named "Mr. and Mrs. Todhunter", who are returning home to their respective spouses; Caldicott and Charters, two friends eager to return to England for a cricket match; and a Central European surgeon named Dr. Egon Hartz, who is accompanying a patient to his clinic. Iris and Miss Froy become acquainted, first in their compartment and later, in the dining car for some tea. Upon their return to their compartment, Iris falls asleep. When she awakens, the the governess has vanished, and Iris is shocked to learn that the other passengers in her compartment claim that Miss Froy had never existed.
Many film critics have claimed that "THE LADY VANISHES" was Hitchcock's best film during his English period as a director. I cannot agree or disagree, since the only other Hitchcock film made in Britain that I have seen was "THE 39 STEPS". Unfortunately, I have not seen that particular movie since I was a teenager. However, I cannot deny that "THE LADY VANISHES" was a first-rate, yet slightly flawed movie. I also cannot deny that I consider it to be one of his better movies during the first half of his career as a director.
"THE LADY VANISHES" possessed several aspects that made it very enjoyable for me. One, the movie is set during a journey - in this case, a train journey across Europe. I am a big sucker for "road" movies, especially when it is well made. Two, Hitchcock and the movie's two screenwriters, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, made several changes to White's novel - the most important that changed the Miss Foy character from an innocent who had stumbled across a secret to a genuine spy with some vital information for the British government. This particular change injected an air of necessity into the movie that allowed its story to be more suspenseful and urgent. The movie also benefited from some first-class photography by cinematographer Jack E. Cox. He did a solid job of conveying the illusion of travel. But I was especially impressed by two scenes featuring Cox's use of a train window - a moment in which Iris sees Miss Foy's name on a dining car window, and Gilbert's discovery of Miss Foy's existence by his glimpse of a tea box wrapping pressed briefly pressed against another window.
Hitchcock originally considered Lilli Palmer as his leading lady. But he changed his mind and went with unknown actress Margaret Lockwood, who was a fan of Ethel Lina White's literary heroines. Personally, he made the right choice. I have nothing against Lilli Palmer, who was a talented actress in her own right. But Lockwood really made Iris her own with a passionate and intelligent performance. Iris could have easily become one of those beautiful, yet slightly bland damsels that solely depended upon men to help her. But Lockwood infused the character with a strong will and an intelligence that allowed her to be a major participant in the deduction of Miss Foy's whereabouts. A successful stage actor, Michael Redgrave did not want to be a part of the "THE LADY VANISHES", being reluctant to leave the stage to be in a film. John Gielgud convinced him to accept the role of Gilbert and Redgrave became an international star, following the movie's release. And it is easy to see why. The man had a natural talent for the screen. And that is not something I can say about many other stage actors who have been lured into movies. Not only did he have a natural grace and charm, his portrayal of Gilbert struck me as both subtle and very funny. He and Lockwood projected a strong screen presence together. And I am surprised that "THE LADY VANISHES" proved to be the first of only two movies they made together. Pity.
"THE LADY VANISHES" was also blessed by a first-rate supporting cast. Paul Lukas gave a very subtle role as the European doctor that proved to be the main villain. Although her character proved to be the story's main catalyst, Dame May Whitty had very few scenes in this movie. Yet, her warm and intelligent performance as the mysterious Miss Foy proved to have a strong presence throughout the story. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford had worked on both the stage and in films throughout the 1930s before they worked together for the first time in "THE LADY VANISHES" as the two cricket-loving passengers, Caldicott and Charters. The pair created screen magic and would end up working together as a first-rate comic team for years to come. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers provided some subtle melodrama as a pair of adulterous lovers returning home to their spouses in Britain. Parker's character, the pretentious "Mr. Todhunter", ended up serving as an allegory of the appeasement supporters who preferred caving in to Adolf Hitler's demands, instead of war. Mind you, the use of the "Mr. Todhunter" character seemed a bit heavy-handed, but effective.
As much as I enjoyed "THE LADY VANISHES", I cannot deny that I found it somewhat flawed. All right, I found it flawed . . . period. The movie's first twenty minutes at the Bandrika inn struck me as a little boring. Only Iris and Gilbert's first meeting kept me from falling asleep. And if I must be frank, I found that scene a little hard to accept. After getting kicked out of his room for disturbing Iris' sleep, Gilbert barged his way into her room and threatened to sleep there if she did not retract her complaint. Why was Iris' room unlocked? What woman (or man) would leave his hotel room unlocked in a strange country, far from home? Even in 1938?
My biggest problem with "THE LADY VANISHES" turned out to be the British xenophobia that marred the movie's last half hour. Now, a part of me realizes the movie may have been a propaganda piece against fascism. But in "THE LADY VANISHES", I believe that Hitchcock, Gilliat and Launder went too far. One, the English-born "nun" (read actress) whom Dr. Hartz hired to guard the unconscious Miss Foy became outraged when she learned that her prisoner was also English. Let me see if I understand this. "The Nun" had no problems helping Dr. Hartz maintain a prisoner, as long as the latter was not a fellow Briton? Really? Even more incredulous was the shoot-out scene in which all of the English passengers found themselves inside the dining car and engaged in a shoot-out with Hartz and his fellow countrymen, after the train is diverted to a side track. Why not allow passengers from nations such as France, Belgium, Holland or the Scandinavian countries participate in the shootout? Why was it so important to Hitchcock and the screenwriters to allow only Britons to duke it out with Hartz and his men? This scene was one of the most blatant forms of xenophobia I had ever come across.
But you know what? Despite the xenophobia and the movie's dull beginning, "THE LADY VANISHES" remains a big favorite of mine. It is still a first-rate political thriller that is infused with sharp humor and a very believable romance, thanks to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. I am not surprised that in the end, "THE LADY VANISHES" ended up serving as the catalyst for Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood career.