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).
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.
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.
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.
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.