“Trains,” wrote Scottish poet and scholar Alastair Reid, “are for meditation, for playing out long thought-processes, over and over…”
In The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is on her way via train from a mountain retreat with girlfriends to London, where she is to marry a man one companion calls a “blue-blooded check-chaser.” After being struck on the head by a falling flower box just before boarding the coach, Iris spends much of the journey playing out her thought-processes over the mysterious disappearance of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an eccentric governess whom Iris believes assisted her onto the train and shared tea with her, although Iris’ fellow passengers insist the old woman never existed.
The Lady Vanishes is neither Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known film (even people who haven’t seen Psycho are familiar with the piercing strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score and such lines as “A boy’s best friend is his mother”) nor his most esteemed (Vertigo, which met mixed reviews and audience indifference upon release in 1958, now ranks among the greatest movies of all time among polls of critics and filmmakers). It is, however, his most thoroughly enjoyable and broadly appealing, a breezy mystery-romance carried by crackling dialogue, fine performances and Hitchcock’s visual inventiveness.
Although the film, which was released in 1938, takes place at the peak of Germany’s rearmament and growing concern over the spread of fascism through Europe, and features as its MacGuffin a coded message bound for the Foreign Office in London, The Lady Vanishes retains a playful tone throughout.
That tone is set in the opening scene, as the camera glides over a model enthusiast’s wet dream of a toy train station—where the locomotive is blocked by a snowslide—through the fictional mountain village of Bandrika (“One of Europe’s few undiscovered corners,” as Miss Froy explains) and into the bustling lobby of a hotel.
Stranded by the avalanche, some of the train’s passengers are introduced as they struggle for accommodations and food in the packed lodge. Most indelible among these characters are Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), droll, upper-crust, cricket-obsessed Englishmen.
“Americans, I should think,” observes Caldicott as Iris and her friends are escorted immediately to their rooms while the other snowbound guests wait. “Almighty dollar…” Forced to share a bed in the maid’s room (which leads to some delightfully staged innuendo), the men scour a New York Herald Tribune for cricket updates. “Nothing but baseball—you know, we used to call it rounders,” Caldicott laments. “Children play it with a rubber ball and a stick.” Americans, he adds, have “no sense of proportion.”
We also meet Mr. Todhunter (played haughtily by Cecil Parker), an adulterous lawyer with his sights set on a judgeship, and his companion, who is teasingly billed in the opening credits as “Mrs.” Todhunter (Linden Travers).
As the bustle subsides and the characters settle in for the night, Hitchcock sounds the first note of the puzzlement and peril to come when he shows the shadow of clenching hands approach the neck of a serenading guitarist on the sidewalk outside the inn. But even the musician’s strangulation is punctuated with comedy, as Miss Froy, who has been listening intently from her room above, drops a coin out her window in gratuity after the song is silenced.
And what of Miss Froy? We see her board the train with Iris, and the two share tea in the dining car. But when Iris wakes from a nap, Miss Froy is gone. Iris’ cabin mates, who include a severe-looking German baroness and the magician Signor Doppo (whose act just happens to revolve around “the vanishing lady”), contend Iris has been alone the entire time.
Charters and Caldicott, whom we glimpse helping Miss Froy with the hotel’s wind-blown door as the movie begins and later see twice in the company of Miss Froy, don’t want to risk being late to a cricket match and maintain to have noticed a woman only in passing. Mr. Todhunter, wishing to shield his marital indiscretion as the stakes rise, says he and “Mrs.” Todhunter have not seen Miss Froy, despite the seemingly doddering old lady having accidentally stumbled into their cabin on the way to tea (“You can always tell a honeymoon couple,” Miss Froy says with unflappable cheer after Mr. Todhunter slams the door in her face and pulls down the blind).
Likewise the dining car steward, who avows that he served tea to Iris alone and even offers to show her the receipt.
Doubt is further cast on Iris’ post planter-concussed memory by the kaleidoscopic visual effects Hitchcock employs from the Iris’ point of view and the intervention of the traveling brain specialist Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), who theorizes that Miss Froy was “merely a vivid subjective image.”
Unlike many Hitchcock heroines, however, Iris is plucky and determined, and she sets out to find Miss Froy—even if it means, much to the dismay of Charters and Caldicott, stopping the train. She is aided by Gilbert, a folk music scholar played with charm and wit by Michael Redgrave in his film debut.
Initially, the two characters spar (Gilbert interrupts Iris’ sleep in a twist on a famous scene from the musical Top Hat). But Gilbert is the only person who believes Iris, and he sticks with her because, “My father always taught me to never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying mother.”
The movie speeds along with a sense of verbal and visual humor unique in Hitchcock’s works, and although fun is had at the expense of Americans’ bloated self-importance, the distinctly class-bound English characters take most of the shots (both figuratively and, at the film’s climax, when a perceived threat becomes a real one, literally: “They can’t possibly do anything to us,” exclaims Mr. Todhunter when the train is stopped by a car full of gun-toting Germans. “We’re British subjects.”).
The Lady Vanishes was Hitchcock’s last film for Gaumont British, where he made some of his finest early movies including the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and Sabotage. In addition to its comedic sensibilities and its strong female characters, The Lady Vanishes is noteworthy in Hitchcock’s career in his lack of involvement with the story’s development.
Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder—who would go on to create such similarly mirthful mysteries as Night Train to Munich and Green for Danger—The Lady Vanishes had not only been given the go-ahead long before Hitchcock signed on, it was, in fact, nearly filmed a year earlier by the American Roy William Neill (Neill later directed a series of Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone).
Hitchcock, who at the time was being courted by David O. Selznick to move to Hollywood, still owed Gaumont a film. The Lady Vanishes, as Patrick McGilligan points out in his biography Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, had “all the Hitchcock ingredients: a missing body, a speeding train, a young man and woman linked by distrust and danger.” The director did conceive a different opening and climax than originally scripted, but the verbal opulence of Gilliat and Launder stayed intact and is perfectly complemented by Hitchcock’s energetic pacing and cinematic flourishes (Gilbert’s escape through the window of a locked cabin as another train roars by is still breathtaking in this era of anything-goes CGI, and suspense in the scene where Iris and Gilbert are served potentially poisoned drinks is heightened by the simple visual trick of filming oversized glasses in the foreground).
A great film all around, The Lady Vanishes remains the finest example of the train movie, which is practically a genre unto itself dating back to cinema’s early days. Like the Bates house in Psycho and the courtyard in Rear Window, Hitchcock makes the train in The Lady Vanishes almost as much a character as a setting, as Iris and Gilbert search for Miss Froy in every nook and cranny—from the stately dining cabin to the cramped passenger compartments to the clutter-filled luggage car (all filmed in a single coach).
In his 1987 collection of essays Notes on Being a Foreigner, Alastair Reid wrote of trains that, “Nowadays … they smack of dying gentility” (it should be pointed out that Reid is even less keen on traveling by car).
Regardless of how one—gentry or not—feels about taking the train, The Lady Vanishes is a ride that should not be missed.