The Lady Vanishes (1938) Alfred Hitchcock

Lady Vanishes - Title2

    The “Lady Vanishes” takes place in a fictitious European country, though it seems suspiciously similar to pre-World War 2 Germany. Possibly, in an attempt to pacify the Germans, the filmmakers did not want to mention the country by name as this was just year or so prior the start of the war. Whatever the reason, the villains act very much as if they are affiliated with the Third Reich. A group of passengers are delayed from boarding their train due a recent avalanche.  Among the passengers are Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) an attractive young woman, apparently financially well off, traveling with some female friends, who is on her way back to England to get married. Also on board is Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musicologist, Miss Froy (Dame Mae Whitty), an elderly governess who is returning to England after spending some time abroad, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Nauton Wayne), two Englishmen whose only concern is to rush back to England in time for a cricket tournament. Finally, there is the philandering Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and his mistress listed coyly as “Mrs” Todhunter (Linden Travers).   

Lady Vanishes- Still    The following day, the tracks have been cleared and all board the train heading for England. Just before boarding, Iris becomes acquainted with the elderly Miss Froy. As they talk, a flowerpot is purposely dropped from a second story window. Meant for Miss Froy the flowerpot hits Iris on the head.  On aboard, the still dazed Iris and the elderly governess share the same compartment along with three other people. Settled in Iris takes a nap hoping to relieve her headache. When she awakens, Miss Froy has disappeared. What’s more, no one seems to remember seeing her. Dr. Hatz (Paul Lukas), a fellow passenger suggest that Iris’ meeting Miss Froy is all an illusion, a result of her bump on the head. Iris meets up with Gilbert, who she previously encountered back at the inn. Though skeptical, he offers to help find the older woman. 

    Each of the passengers for their own reasons denies the existence of Miss Froy. Dr. Hatz and just about every other non-English passenger seem to be mixed up in a conspiracy to cover up the existence of the older woman (even the conductor and stewards are involved). The English passengers all seem to have their own personal reasons for denying Miss Froy’s existence. Charters and Caldicott are only concerned about getting back to England for the cricket finals and do not want the train delayed any longer than it already has been. Todhunter, and his mistress, want to avoid any attention being drawn to illicit affair. As a result,  they are unconsciously aiding the enemy in Miss Froy’s disappearance.

Lady Vanishes-LC    The young couple eventually discovers Miss Froy is being held prisoner by Dr. Hatz in a private compartment guarded by a “nun” wearing high heels. They free her and eventually find out she is a British spy carrying important information (the maguffin) back to London. As the Brits attempt to escape, a shootout entails with the enemy and ironically, the only Englishman to die in the battle is the pacifist adulterer Mr. Todhunter who is shot in the back as he waves a white handkerchief surrendering to the enemy.  

Lady Vanishes-insert    With a screenplay written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder based on a novel by called “The Wheel Spins”, the script is a devilishly funny suspenseful filled work brought to life by Hitchcock’s camera and his cast. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are a charming couple and both became stars as a result of this film. In many ways, they are a typical Hitchcock couple; at first, they do not like each other though eventually they fall in love. If made Twenty years later it is easy to picture Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in these roles. Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford as Caldicott and Charters provide many of the laughs as the cricket obsessed twosome whose only concern is “How’s England doing.”  There is a wonderful humorous scene at the beginning where the pair are forced stay in the maid’s room at the inn due to a full capacity. The room is small and the men have to share a single bed. When the maid enters to change her clothes, the men in bed together are unsettled by her openness changing right in front of them.  The two men look on somewhat bewildered, a scene very reminiscent of a Laurel and Hardy short (Geoffrey O’Brien in his excellent essay that accompanies the Criterion DVD also points this out). Overall, “The Lady Vanishes” though a thriller, contains a lot more humor than most of Hitchcock’s other works.  Basil Radford and Nauton Wayne would go on to portray Charters and Caldicott in three more motion pictures (Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour and Millions Like Us). In 1985, the characters of Charters and Caldicott would reappear in a British TV series appropriately named “Charters and Caldicott” portrayed by Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge.

 Lady Vanishes-Hitch abd Lockwood   Hitchcock was already in negotiations with David O’Selznick to come to America when he began work on “The Lady Vanishes.” The original director was going to be Roy William Neill best known for the terrific series of Sherlock Holmes movies he directed with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. When filming was delayed, Neill left the project and Hitchcock looking for a film to help complete his contract so he could move on to America took over the direction. A few changes were made to the script, mostly in the beginning and the end. Hitchcock would go on to make one more film in England,  “Jamaica Inn” before coming to America.    

    Critics on both sides of the Atlantic greeted the film with rave reviews. The New York Times called it the best film of the year. Today, it is still considered one of Hitchcock’s great films from his English period and actually one of his great films overall. “The Lady Vanishes” is also one of the outstanding “train” films, which Hitchcock seems to favor himself having made “The 39 Steps”, “Strangers on a Train” and “North by Northwest”, all with significant scenes on a train.

10 comments on “The Lady Vanishes (1938) Alfred Hitchcock

  1. Judy says:

    This sounds great, John – it’s a film I’ve often heard of but not seen. I will watch out for it in the TV listings and hope to catch it.


  2. Dave says:

    Excellent treatment of what is for me, without any question, the best film of Hitchcock’s career in England. I won’t quite so far as to say it’s his best “train” film — I like Strangers on a Train far too much — but it’s very close to that one as well. I would place this around 5-6 in ranking favorite Hitchcock, which is pretty impressive considering the films its up against in such a list.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dave. Like most people I believe this film and The 39 Steps are AH’s best from his English period, though I prefer The 39 Steps by a step.
      Strangers on a Train is a great film and certainly a great train film as is North by Northwest.


  3. Sebina C. says:

    Great review of a great film.

    I love the work Hitchcock did in Europe and this is among them – I remember I saw it last December for the first time.

    My favourite scene is when Gilbert climbs out of one window and climbs over to next window. While doing this, a train on the opposite side of the tracks swooshes by. He thereby is knocked a little backward, but still hanging on to the train.


    • John Greco says:

      Sebina, definitely one of his best and as I mentioned to Dave so is The 39 Steps. I am also a big fan of Sabotage, a film he made a few years earlier.


  4. Sam Juliano says:

    Well, of the “train” films, this could be #1, although as Dave notes STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, with that electrifying performance by Robert Walker as a psychopath, is not to be denied. As far as his “British output” the only film that matches it is THE 39 STEPS, but that’s no revelation on my part. I absolutely loved Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, as that “devilishly funny script” that sets this apart from 39 STEPS and any other Hitchcock from its period. Wayne and Charters of course are given the lines that provide all the fun. Perhaps this could be the film named when one is ask to identify the one film that best encapsulates Hitch’s true sensibilities, but apart from that its deliriously entertaining. Never knew Neil was scheduled to be the original director. It would have been a far different film though.

    In scope and enthusiasm yet another diamond here at Twenty-Four Frames.


    • John Greco says:

      Sam -Robert Walker is magnificent as the psychopath in SOAT, a wonderful performance in a great film. As I mentioned to the others I favor The 39 Steps slightly over this film. If I could only watch one film and my choice was these two, The 39 Steps would be the one. You are right in accessing that this film has much more humor than mors of AH’s other work. Not sure if that is due to him coming in late into the film as compared to most of his others.


  5. This is definitely one of my favorites of Hitchcock…topped only by Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window and Vertigo perhaps.

    I think it has one of his best opening shots as well…thought it’s so clear that the ski-resort town he pans in on is in model form only — oh, imagine had he a larger budget what the shot may have looked like! It’s a bit of a prototype of the type of opening shot he would later perfect and iconicize (is that word?) with the opening pan in of the hotel in Psycho…which would later be lifted in full by Christopher Nolan with his opening shot of the roof of the bank in The Dark Knight.


    • John Greco says:

      David – Agree – the opening shot is excellent in spite of its artificiality. It is also one of Hitchcock’s more humorous films much of it provided by the two cricket obsessed gentlemen. Thanks!!


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