COMEDY! CHILLS! CHUCKLES! IN A MYSTERY EXPRESS!
Alfred Hitchcock was contractually bound to do one more film for producer Edward Black, but he was out of ideas. That’s when Black suggested “The Lost Lady”, an adaptation of a novel by Ethel Lina White. The project had begun a year earlier with a crew journeying to Yugoslavia for background shots. They were abruptly interrupted by Yugoslav police who had read the script and didn’t like how they were portrayed in it; the crew was kicked out and the film was shelved.
Hitchcock read the script and was happy with it, ordering only a few changes. The final result is a true classic, one that François Truffaut has called the best representation of Hitchcock’s work.
In the small country of Bandrika, several tourists gather at an inn as they wait for an England-bound train to depart. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is about to marry what seems like an ideal man; Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a former governess, is enjoying the local flavors; Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is a musician documenting the local folk music; and Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne) are desperately waiting to get back home to witness an all-important cricket game. When the train finally leaves, Iris and Miss Froy share a compartment. After a nap, Iris realizes that the elderly woman is gone. When she asks the other passengers around her, no one recalls ever having seen Miss Froy. Iris is initially dumbstruck, but knows that she hasn’t gone insane – people are lying and she intends to find out why… and the whereabouts of the vanishing lady.
Comedy and romance are deftly established
One of Hitchcock’s grandest thrillers of the 1930s was The 39 Steps (1935) and this one is similar in tone and ambition – a romantic, thrilling and humorous adventure involving spies. The comedy and promises of a romance are deftly established in the first twenty minutes as the characters are getting to know each other, for better or worse, while they’re staying at that inn in the fictional East European country of Bandrika.
Once the train departs, the adventure begins. The mystery of what has happened to Miss Froy, and why anyone would want her to disappear, is engaging, and becomes increasingly exciting as Iris finds a partner in Gilbert who ends up believing in her in spite of their initial altercation at the inn. Their investigation reveals the bad guys, but Hitchcock makes sure that we never lose a sense of humor in the process – not even when the train is ambushed later on and bullets start flying. That’s when international politics and comedy meet on the verge of World War II. Hitchcock is having fun with the British stereotypes in the film, most obviously Cecil Parker’s character, an English gentleman who doesn’t want to get involved in anything that requires standing up for what’s right, a decision for which he pays the ultimate price. Hitchcock couldn’t have devised a a more political message for his audience.
A more benign parody of Englishmen can be seen in Charters and Caldicott, who became so popular thanks to the hilarious efforts of Radford and Wayne that they returned in several films. Lockwood makes it easy for us to sympathize in her quest to find Miss Froy; Redgrave (in his first film role) and she make a terrifically entertaining (and attractive) couple.
The last scene plays to the strength of the film, combining tension with boatloads of charm and cleverness. This was Hitchcock’s last film in Britain before his Hollywood adventure and it’s a superb send-off, one that reportedly convinced David O. Selznick that enlisting this British filmmaker would pay off in spades. It certainly did.
The Lady Vanishes 1938-Britain. 97 min. B/W. Produced by Edward Black. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder. Novel: Ethel Lina White (“The Wheel Spins”). Cinematography: Jack E. Cox. Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert), Paul Lukas (Dr. Hartz), Dame May Whitty, Googie Withers, Cecil Parker.
Trivia: Charters and Caldicott next appeared in Night Train to Munich (1940). Remade as The Lady Vanishes (1979) and the TV movie The Lady Vanishes (2013).
Last word: “When we started, we rehearsed a scene and then I told [Redgrave] we were ready to shoot it. He said he wasn’t ready. ‘In the theatre, we’d have three weeks to rehearse this scene,’ I’m sorry, I said, in this medium, we have three minutes.” (Hitchcock, “Alfred Hitchcock, A Life in Darkness and Light”)