Reviews and notes
The Thirty-Nine Steps
and THE LADY VANISHES
remain Hitchcock's most popular films from his British period. Those who consider the latter film the best work of his career (and there are many in America today) are, I think, those who demand little more from any film than cracking good entertainment. For that is what THE LADY VANISHES
offers. It is a first-rate comic suspense thriller, atmospheric and briskly insouciant. Based on Ethel Lina White's novel, "The Wheel Spins," Sidney Gilliatt's and Frank Launder's scenario is a delicious souffle from the first frame to last. The action is mostly restricted to a railroad train en route to London from what appears to be Austria. The dialogue crackles with wit, and, in a clipped British way, balances both idiom and paradox. If I suggest that THE LADY VANISHES
is a film short on substance, it is not meant as a condemnation. Hitchcock knows what he is doing right from the start. There are signs and markers suggesting earlier themes which the director returns to in later, deeper works. But this is a pure divertissement.
Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), on holiday in the Tyrol, meets charming old Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess and music teacher. They depart for London aboard the same train,
but Miss Froy soon mysteriously disappears. In her place is a stony-faced, tweedy woman scarcely resembling Miss Froy. Iris turns for help to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a young musicologist she had met and disliked at the hotel, and to a motley crew of fellow travelers...
THE LADY VANISHES
is a kind of Grand Hotel aboard an express train. Minor characters are introduced, each with a relevant function in the plot. The film marked the first appearances of the prototypes of British gentlemen abroad - Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), who were to appear in several later films. Here, they are grown-up public school boys more interested in the results of a cricket match back home than in spies and a smoldering world situation...
Of all Hitchcock's films, THE LADY VANISHES
is one that may be most fully enjoyed without analysis. The several brilliant directorial touches indicate a filmmaker in careful control of every frame. To name just a few, there are Miss Froy's handwriting on the window, which disappears just when Iris needs to prove the old lady's presence to Gilbert; the eerie appearance of the bandaged "patient"; Gilbert spotting the tea label on the window pane, the catalyst for his belief in Iris' account; and the now legendary nun-with-highheels.
THE LADY VANISHES
corresponds to The Thirty-Nine Steps
in lightness of tone, but the earlier film offered more. Beneath its humor was a more profound statement on the search for identity and the theme of relationship-as-journey. Neither of those themes is particularly strong here. It is a breathing space after Sabotage
and the lyric darkness of Young and Innocent
is, arguably, the densest, tightest, most searching work of the British period. The Thirty-Nine Steps
had been a warm-up, an intellectual caper with deeper comic pretension that paved the way for a view in Sabotage
of a world shot through with inevitable chaos. THE LADY VANISHES
virtually ignores these themes, but offers in its manner a clear indication of its meaning. The audience is now treated to a vacation with Iris and Gilbert - interrupted by a few moments of suspense, but followed by an undiluted happy ending. In this last respect, the film is unusual in the Hitchcock catalog, being all but free of any moral ambiguity. It is a perfect cinematic souffle - meant to be savored, not analyzed...
-Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, W H Allen, 1977.
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