Posted on

The Lady Vanishes [1938)

Sigmund Froy.  Was it all just a dream?  The word conspiracy comes from a Latin root meaning, “to breathe together.”  A quick Google search might uncover a Warhol print from 1969 with essentially the same message (over a lithographed photo of the electric chair from Sing Sing).  The poster is a relic from an art auction and sale held Dec. 11th of that year in Chicago at the LoGuidice Gallery “for the Conspiracy Defense.”

This would refer to the Chicago Seven (including Abbie Hoffman).  [N.B.  They were otherwise known as the Chicago Eight until Bobby Seale’s trial was made separate.]  Charged with conspiracy, they were found not guilty of this crime.

Alfred Hitchcock was an expert in conspiracies at least as early as 1938.  If he had made no other films than The Lady Vanishes, he should have been remembered as fondly as Murnau, Lang and Dreyer.  This film is that good!

I didn’t think it so the first time I saw it.  I found it rather dull in fact.  But the talent is there.  This was Hitchcock’s last British film before moving to the U.S.

Margaret Lockwood really is lovely and talented in this strange tale.  The Gasthof Petrus which more or less serves as our beginning locale is filmed with such warmth.  It is really a nimble touch which conveyed this coziness in the fictional locale of Bandrika.  It must be somewhere near the Republic of Zubrowka.

Charters and Caldicott are an amazing caricature of British society.  The two cricket enthusiasts avoid getting involved in anything that would delay their return to the Test match in Manchester until they absolutely are forced to face the facts.

Dame May Whitty is really amazing as Miss Froy.  She was 73 when this movie was made.  What a remarkable achievement!

Michael Redgrave goes from being an obnoxious, seemingly-spoiled musicologist to the saving grace for Lockwood’s dizzied character.

The first death in the film seems rather comical.  A serenader’s song is cut short by strangulation.  We assume from the comic tone of the film that perhaps a Gasthof guest had had enough and went Herbert Lom on the poor fellow.  What we don’t find out till later is that the song was a code…and dear, sweet, innocent old Miss Froy a bona fide spy.

Hitchcock uses some interesting effects in a lovingly magical way reminiscent of the spirit which grew from Méliès’ earliest experimentations.  The effects come as Lockwood’s concussion takes effect aboard the train.  A flower pot intended to knock out Miss Froy instead had landed on Lockwood’s unsuspecting head.  She boards the train anyway, but soon passes out.

Froy.  It is a moment when silent film returns to have its vengeance.  The train whistle is piercing and Lockwood cannot understand the name of her new companion who has so sweetly looked after her since boarding.  The clever spy nonchalantly spells her name in the dust on the train’s window.  Froy.  It will remain till later in the film when it appears just long enough to refortify Lockwood’s belief that the dear old lady had indeed existed.  When the train, at that point, passes into a tunnel…we assume that a waiter in on the conspiracy hurriedly erases the trace.

Once tea is done, the two ladies retire to their cabin (which they share with a rogues gallery of ugly mugs).  Lockwood slips off to sleep.  When she awakens, her grandmotherly friend is gone.  All in the cabin maintain that there never was a little old English lady there.  Lockwood begins to think she’s going mad.  In fact, nearly the whole train is in on the conspiracy.

Human nature is explored in fascinating detail as we see the few people who could help instead choose not to.  They might, none of them, ever end a sentence with a preposition, but far be it from any to venture outside their cozy little selfish worlds to bear witness to someone’s mere existence.  And so Lockwood must go it alone until Redgrave takes up her cause and one becomes two.

A fake Miss Froy is boarded at the only stop.  She is not at all the type…more like a Yugoslavian weightlifter than the dainty Froy we’d known.  Lockwood doesn’t buy it.  As Lockwood and Redgrave dig for clues, they get a little too close to the truth when then find the old lady’s broken glasses in the baggage car.  A fight ensues with the supremely spooky magician (one of Lockwood’s car mates) Signor Doppo.  Dispensing with him after some trouble (a knife fight), they gradually become haggled by a certain Dr. Hartz.  Hartz, a truly ghoulish figure, doesn’t arouse the suspicion of the pair until it is too late.

Leave it to a nun in high heels to give away the game.  By the way, whatever happened to those nuns on the police scanner at Sandy Hook?

The nun turns out to be an indispensable help to the sleuthing couple by dint that she has patriotic reservations about killing a fellow English woman (Miss Froy).  She turns out to be saintly in spite of not being a nun.  On this train she is darn near a literal whistleblower.  She even refuses to spike the brandies which were to be Lockwood and Redgrave’s essential demise (immobilization).

Such great character actors all around…  Philip Leaver as the magician and the cricket chaps:  Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford.  The latter two (Charters and Caldicott) went on to appear together (as the same characters) in three more non-Hitchcock films including Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940).

In conclusion, this film is highly recommended…not just by me, but by the million Mexicans in the hall!

 

-PD

 

3 responses to “The Lady Vanishes [1938)

  1. I recently saw this film and was enthralled throughout. Please refer to my blog itstartswithastory.wordpress.com.
    I agree Lovkwood is lovely. It’s funny that Dame May Whitty is described as “a middle-aged woman in tweed” throughout the film–at age 73!
    I love old films on trains and this is a great one!

  2. I’ve seen this film a couple of times. That’s a great observation: “She turns out to be saintly in spite of not being a nun.” Miss Froy reminds me of Arnold’s great line in Terminator Genisys: “Old but not obsolete.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s