Set in the fictitious European country of Bandrika, this 1938 British comedy-mystery remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder is truly funny, even the suspenseful parts. Enhanced by Hitchcock’s own wit, it emerges as a truly entertaining popular film that reaches well beyond his normal confines of mystery and suspense.
A group of English tourists and businessmen is trapped at an inn in Bandrika by an avalanche that has covered the railroad tracks. Young, beautiful Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) has been visiting her friends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart) before returning to England to marry a blueblood with lots of money. She isn’t terribly excited about the prospect, but at the same time she can’t really find anything to get excited about. Two apparently gay British businessmen, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are desperately trying to get back to England to see a cricket match.
Upstairs from Iris, a young English folk music enthusiast, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) has several Bandrikans clogging a folk dance. Along with her neighbor, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess also returning to England, Iris complains about the noise and has Gilbert evicted from his room. In retaliation, he comes to her room with his things and announces he’s moving in. Forced to capitulate, she calls the manager and gets his room back. In the meantime, Charters and Caldicott can’t get a regular room, so the manager has to put them up in the maid’s room, with the lewd suggestion that the maid will have to change her clothes there. The two men are appalled and go out of their way to avoid seeing the young woman naked.
The next day on the train, Miss Froy befriends Iris who has been hit on the head by an object falling from a window. The coach they are sitting in includes a Baroness and a magician. After Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to discover that Miss Froy has disappeared. The others seated in the coach deny having ever seen Miss Froy at all, so Iris begins to canvas the train trying to find anyone who remembers seeing the woman. Along the way, she meets back up with Gilbert, who is determined to help her, even if he isn’t convinced that such a woman existed. She meets Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), a Bandrikan neurosurgeon who tries to convince her that she’s been hallucinating, but she can’t let herself believe that Miss Froy wasn’t real. When Gilbert sees a porter throwing out the trash and notices the brand of tea that Iris told him Miss Froy gave to them, he becomes convinced and helps her to turn the train upside down looking for her friend. The trains stops to pick up a special patient for Dr. Hartz and Gilbert begins to suspect that Miss Froy has been substituted for the patient.
Part of what makes the movie special is the terrific chemistry between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. A noted actor on the British stage, this was Redgrave’s first starring role and he definitely made the most of it. His offbeat humor teamed so well with Lockwood that the two are completely engaging throughout the movie. The rest of the cast is also quite good, but Radford and Wayne as Charters and Caldicott practically steal the show. Their stiff British correctness, combined with their obviously gay relationship and obsession with cricket, despite the hijinks going on around them is hilarious. In fact, the two went on to reprise their characters in other British movies after The Lady Vanishes.
Coming as it did, after several unsuccessful films, this major box office hit was what convinced American producer David O. Selzni,k to sign Hitchcock to a contract that would bring him to America and lead him to become one of the most respected directors in film history.
The Lady Vanishes contains many of the elements that were staples of Hitchcock’s movies: the uncertainty of relationships, a long train ride, slanted camera angles to emphasize important objects in the frame, long takes contrasted with fast montage, his fascination with spies, his fear of the police, and, of course, the humor that colored many of his later American films. This film also carries more political weight than most of his movies, as it was made during the period of time that Chamberlain was capitulating Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the situation is alluded to obliquely throughout the film, but especially near the end when the English on board the train must make a decision to either capitulate to the Bandrikian government or to make a stand. The one man who decides to capitulate is shot dead holding his white flag, while those who hold fast persevere.
The film showcases many of the great filmmaking techniques that Hitchcock had learned and mastered. It was given a low budget and restricted to a very small studio at Islington. No matter. Hitchcock built one train car in the studio and shot virtually the entire train footage, which takes up most of the film, on his one set, using superb rear projection, camera angles, and masterful dissolves to keep the film moving and make it realistic.
With its great humor, charismatic cast, fine script, and showcasing most of the plot elements and camera techniques that were Hitchcock staples, this stands out among the best of his British films and one of his best films over all.
I highly recommend this movie for all audiences!