THE LADY VANISHES
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Margaret Lockwood,
Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: November 20, 2007
“What a dreadful journey!”
The above line was spoken by Miss Froy (Whitty) in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, but it doesn’t apply to the audience. This movie, Hitch’s second to last before leaving his native England for Hollywood, is a pure delight from start to finish, and, along with The 39 Steps, one of the master’s best from his pre-American period.
It was made for a small budget and limited resources, yet Hitchcock has a knack for making the small seem much bigger. With rear projection, models and editing, he crafted a comedy thriller that feels vibrant and alive all the way. We are on the move with these characters, and monetary constraints never make us feel otherwise.
It’s a perfectly British film, and by that, I mean it’s frightfully funny, and that most of the comedy is born out of manners. There’s the proper but plucky Iris Henderson (Lockwood), the dapper Gilbert (Redgrave), the unflappable Miss Froy, and a pair of supporting characters in Caldicott and Charters (Wayne and Radford) who constantly steal the picture. The dialogue that exists between all the characters is lively, witty, and proper, and will keep a smile on your face throughout the journey.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Hitchcock without a little mystery and intrigue in the margins, and as the title suggests, ours gets off to a start when Miss Froy disappears suddenly while en route on the train. Iris met her before boarding, but a little accident (maybe?) left her a little woozy. She drifts off while sitting with Miss Froy. When she comes to, her companion has indeed vanished. And no one in the car or on the train seems to have seen or heard of the woman. Was Iris imagining the whole thing?
Her only solace is in Gilbert, and their relationship had gotten off to a bad start before either got on the train. But he’s the only one willing to believe her, and the two unlikely detectives set off to try and prove the existence of Miss Froy, and in doing so, stumble onto a plot of international dastardly deeds.
Hitch is one of cinema’s true masters of storytelling and in using the medium to spin his tales. A pair of wine glasses set curiously close to the camera during a key conversation has our minds drifting toward the sinister. A nun wearing high heels raises our eyebrows. And a friendly doctor (Lukas) arouses our suspicions as his manners become more and more devious.
But the banter between Iris and Gilbert keeps the whole scenario light despite the hints at intrigue. Lockwood and Redgrave have great chemistry, equaled only perhaps by that of Caldicott and Charters, who obsess over a cricket match despite the world troubles of 1938. They may or may not be gay, but in either case, set against our heroes, or the businessman and his “affair”, they’re arguably the most functional couple on the train.
Though unceremoniously dubbed an auteur of “thrill pictures” early in his career, Hitchcock would master his genre so well as to gain international acclaim, influence generations of young filmmakers, and capture the attention of the United States, where he would soon go and begin crafting some of the movies’ all-time classic and indelible pictures. One can look upon The Lady Vanishes not so much as an artist in transition, but as one completely comfortable with his craft and ready for the rest of the world to catch on to it. This is sublime entertainment, and a journey you’ll want to take time and time again.
Though the restoration demonstration of the original disc is no longer included, Criterion still delivers a quality transfer for a 70 year old picture. Yes, there are unavoidable aging effects here and there…a few blemishes, some grain…but the black and white photography is still quite crisp and clean overall, with good image rendering throughout.
The mono track has held up fairly well…some noise noticeable in quieter moments, but still with clear dialogue and a bed of effects to keep it lively overall.
The first disc includes an excellent commentary from historian Bruce Eder. The remaining extras are on the second disc, and they include one especially delightful one: Crook’s Tour, in which Wayne and Radford reprise their roles as Caldicott and Charters. It’s never been on home video before. There is also a video essay hosted by Leonard Left, a stills gallery, and a real treat for fans, excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s legendary audio interview with Hitchcock that became the basis for his book.
Alfred Hitchcock wove a tale of strangers on a train in The Lady Vanishes and delivered a funny, intriguing and splendid slice of filmed entertainment for his audiences. Hollywood would soon beckon, but the chance to go back and see one of his best British films is a definite treat.