The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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*. I like how Geoffrey O’Brien begins his Criterion essay on this film by making reference to Hitchcock’s desire to present the audience with a piece of cake. This movie is a confection; not a pure confection, but a treat.
*. The thing is, there’s something for everyone here. It’s a rom-com. It’s a political thriller. There’s action. There’s sex.
*. Or at least as much sex as you could get away with. Which may have been more in England than in the U.S. at the time. The business with Anna the maid undressing for Charters and Caldicott is pure fantasy, as are the three young women we see hanging about their hotel room in their underwear while the poor fellow delivering room service tries to observe the proprieties.
*. It’s that tension between the flagrantly sexual and moral rectitude that provides not only the charm, but an extra bit of thrill. In his commentary Brude Eder refers to such sequences (and others, like the scene where Redgrave crawls over top of Lockwood in bed) as “erotic and chaste,” “very sexual and non-threatening,” but I wonder. They really aren’t very chaste, are they? And aren’t they just a little threatening? It all seems very flirty to me, and flirtation is always a dance on a volcano (an image I’ll come back to).

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*. The plot had been used before in a French novel, and would be used again (most notably in Bunny Lake Is Missing). But the business of writing the name on the window is a brilliant touch. My only problem with it is figuring out why it disappears when they enter the tunnel. I understand the lack of light means they wouldn’t be able to see it any more, but wouldn’t it still be there, and visible when they left the tunnel?
*. This is often cited as the last of Hitchcock’s British films (because no one wants to remember Jamaica Inn), and it may be the most British of them all. But again there’s a tension. The Brits we meet are eccentric types, but also snobs and, in the case of Mr. Todhunter, not very likeable. They believe a little too much in keeping up appearances and getting along.

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*. Another thing that makes it so successful is that it’s one of Hitch’s most fluid films. As he went on he tended to jerk from set-piece scene to set-piece scene, with very little of interest in-between. Here we’re swept along smoothly, even before we get on board the train.
*. It helps that the cast are so likeable. Apparently Hitch didn’t much care for Michael Redgrave, but he’s the equal of Margaret Lockwood in the charm department. Dame May Whitty manages to stay just this side of being irritating as Mrs. Froy. And then there’s Charters and Caldicott, a perfect two-shot every time who manage to steal the show with nothing more than inane badinage. A total invention (they aren’t in the novel), they’re a couple made for the movies, and would go on to appear in several more. Next up would be Night Train to Munich.

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*. When I watch Charters and Caldicott I can’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s Falstaff: another comic character, not in the original source material, who went on to take over the first play he appeared in and so went on to be featured in a couple of sequels due to audience demand. Figures like this just seem to be happy accidents.
*. There are things I don’t like, though they tend to be the kinds of things Hithcock didn’t care about. Why, for example, does Dr. Harz keep his gun in his pocket when he’s alone in the compartment with Redgrave and Lockwood? Does he even have a gun in his pocket? How do they get Mrs. Froy’s double into the exact same outfit, when Mrs. Froy is still wearing hers? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have just taken Froy’s clothes? How does Signor Doppo get out of the carriage after escaping from the trunk with the false bottom? These are all the sorts of objections that Hitchcock derided as “the plausibles.”
*. Personally, I don’t much care for Hitch’s derision. I don’t see why any script should be filled with implausibilities. It’s not enough to say “nobody cares” about these matters. I care. I think a good movie should have at least a surface plausibility. This one is cheesecloth.
*. There are other issues. I find the character of the British “nun” to be entirely unconvincing and unnecessary, and I wish they’d left her out. Why does the fact that Mrs. Froy is English mean so much to her? She’s willing to go along with a scam involving the disappearance of Eastern Europeans then? And couldn’t Dr. Harz have found more reliable help? I mean, she’s only stage dressing as it is.

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*. Hitchcock didn’t like how the fight scene played, but when you think about it, fights weren’t his thing. Did he have any great ones? They all seem a bit stiff and staged.
*. I’m not very musical, so is it just me or is that musical cue not very clear? The first time I saw the movie I didn’t understand why the singer beneath Mrs. Froy’s window was being strangled, or that he was passing information. I then didn’t recognize the tune when she later hummed it to Redgrave, or when she was playing it on the piano at the end.
*. I initially thought Paul Lukas was deliberately trying to sound like Bela Lugosi as Dr. Hartz. But they were both from Hungary (or what was then Hungary) so it was probably just a coincidence.
*. I mentioned the effect of feeling like we’re dancing on a volcano here. This is how Jean Renoir described Rules of the Game, but it seems more directly applicable to a film like this. I say this not because of the obvious political message: that conflict is coming and England can’t afford to hide its head in the sand. It’s more like the troubling sense that John Buchan spoke of, that civilization is “a very thin crust.”
*. The people we meet are well off, educated, and refined, but also secretive and repressed. Even Redgrave and Lockwood have to keep their feelings on a tight leash. And let’s face it, anytime you’re spending much time on a train in a movie you’re waiting for it to crash. That’s how train movies are supposed to end.
*. But not here. Instead we are saved by the train going into reverse. Dr. Hartz is even resigned and upbeat, wishing “jolly good luck” to the plucky English. But isn’t that a bit disconcerting? He’s not too worried about losing this battle. He knows there’s going to be a re-match.

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