The Lady Vanishes (1938) is the film that best exemplifies Alfred Hitchcock’s often-asserted desire to offer audiences not a slice of life but a slice of cake. Even Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, in their pioneering study of Hitchcock, for once abandoned the search for hidden meanings and—though rating it “an excellent English film, an excellent Hitchcock film”—decided it was one that “requires little commentary,” while François Truffaut declared that every time he tried to study the film’s trick shots and camera movements, he became too absorbed in the plot to notice them. Perhaps they were disarmed by pleasure, The Lady Vanishes being as pure a pleasure as the movies have offered; the ever-spirited Miss Froy, not long before she vanishes, remarks that her name “rhymes with joy,” and indeed, the whole film breathes an air of delight like nothing else in Hitchcock. The central situation—the disappearance of a woman whose very existence is subsequently denied by everyone but the protagonist—may seem to provide the perfect matrix for the kind of paranoid melodrama that would proliferate a few years later, in the forties, in films like Phantom Lady, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, but here the dark shadows of conspiracy are countered by a brightness and brilliance of tone almost Mozartean in its equanimity. Most of the time we are too exhilarated to be frightened.
The film arose in a more accidental way than was customary with Hitchcock. In 1937, he was at a turning point in his career. After making his way to the forefront of the British film industry with works like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), he was involved in negotiations with David Selznick that would soon take him to Hollywood. Still under contract to Gaumont British, however, and at loose ends for a script, he reached for a project already developed and in fact nearly filmed a year earlier by the American director Roy William Neill. Though Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, made significant adjustments (notably with regard to the early hotel scenes and the final shoot-out), the script (freely adapted from the novel The Wheel Spins, a rather unthrilling thriller by Ethel Lina White) is very much the work of the brilliant screenwriting team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, to whom especially can be credited the verbal richness of the comedy, whether it’s Miss Froy busying herself with “a most intriguing acrostic in The Needlewoman” or Basil Radford’s Charters expostulating, “After all, people don’t go about tying up nuns!” (With Hitchcock gone to America, it would be left to Gilliat and Launder—as writers, directors, and producers—to keep up something of that mix of wit and thrills on the home front.)
The cozy claustrophobia of the film, as it moves from overcrowded hotel to tightly packed train compartment, reflects the circumstances of the budget-conscious British film industry of the time (constraints under which Hitchcock had honed his skills). It was shot, according to Hitchcock, “on a set ninety feet long. We used one coach; all the rest were transparencies or miniatures.” A reassuring sense of smallness of scale is instilled by the opening panorama of a snowbound toy train station in the remote Balkan enclave of Bandrika, “one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners”; Hitchcock might still be the little boy whose hobby was collecting train schedules from around the world. A hint of giddiness at the harmlessness of it all demonstrates from the start that we are in a world created by movies—the same world explored by Lubitsch comedies and Astaire and Rogers musicals—in which the worst things that can happen are the minor discomforts and embarrassments of travel.
Along with those discomforts comes a muted but pervasive erotic charge, taking a variety of forms: the comic byplay of the blinkered cricket fans Caldicott and Charters (with the wonderful team of Naunton Wayne and Radford unavoidably evoking Laurel and Hardy), forced to stay in the maid’s room and unnerved by the least hint of sexuality; the suggestive exchanges of the adulterous couple Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter (as the titles coyly put it), whose once passionate affair is already cooling; the trio of irresistible young English girls, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her friends, who for a moment seem to have stepped out of the chorus line of a Busby Berkeley musical. It needs only the midnight meeting of Iris and the rugged young folklorist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave)—as, in a scene straight out of Top Hat, she’s kept awake by his reenactment of a Balkan wedding dance on the floor above—to set in motion a robustly amusing comedy of courtship.
The mood is frankly sexy in a way that would never really be matched in Hitchcock’s American films, where even the most impassioned exchanges (Bergman and Grant’s protracted kiss in Notorious, for example) seem too carefully planned to allow much room for spontaneity. Lockwood and Redgrave, by contrast, really do seem like young people who have just met and who, despite their bumpy introduction, can’t wait to run off together. (When they finally find themselves alone in a cab at the end, the relief is palpable.) The film may be not simply a farewell to England but a farewell to youth, by a director about to turn forty. We never forget that these are young people still somewhat on the margins of the grown-up world, with Lockwood rushing too quickly into well-appointed adulthood by way of marrying the wrong man, and Redgrave lingering maybe a bit too long in uncommitted, footloose world roving—a forecast, perhaps, of the Grace Kelly–James Stewart couple in Rear Window, but in a younger and less neurotic mode.
It isn’t until twenty-four minutes into the film that the first dark note of Hitchcockian menace intrudes, in the abrupt strangling of an apparently harmless serenader. Thereafter, the plot takes over in a stunningly swift exposition. From the moment the heroine—concussed by a fallen planter intended for Miss Froy—comes to in her train compartment to confront her oddly assorted fellow passengers, we are in the grip of a narrative rhythm of incomparable assurance. In a very few minutes, we have lived the episode of her tea break with Miss Froy, in which Dame May Whitty reinforces the impression, already created by her scene with the hapless cricket fans the night before, that she is the most perfectly harmless of English ladies, a mildly eccentric governess given to poetic fantasies about snowbound mountains but rigorous when it comes to the preparation of her tea. Since in a moment she is going to vanish, Miss Froy must for a moment dominate everything, and Whitty achieves just that, and even more: she makes us feel an affection for Miss Froy deep enough that her disappearance will seem an unspeakable affront, an assault on Englishness itself in its least threatening form.
The pivotal point is the exchange, back in their compartment, of close-ups of Whitty and Lockwood, as the former hums the haunting melody sung first by the strangled balladeer and the latter drifts off into a sleep whose duration is represented by a montage of wheels, wires, and railroad tracks. She will come to for the second time in a radically altered reality in which nothing can be relied on. The intimacy of that last exchange of glances between the two women has a poignancy that infuses all that follows: the scenes of Lockwood and Redgrave relentlessly searching up and down the train’s corridors; the introduction of the psychiatrist Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), with his suavely enunciated theories of hallucination; the rapidly shifting scenes of denial and concealment and substitution.
Finally, at nearly the exact midpoint of the film, the momentary reemergence of Miss Froy’s name, spelled out on the dusty window of the dining car (an apparition beautifully timed in both its appearances and disappearance), precipitates a crisis for Lockwood, as she realizes that not even Redgrave believes her. It is a moment rich in Hitchcockian resonances. In her despairing outburst—“Why don’t you do something before it’s too late?”—we catch a glimpse of future and more painfully depicted moments: Teresa Wright in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt exploding under the pressure of her secret knowledge of her uncle’s guilt, Doris Day in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much screaming as she is forced to choose between saving a stranger’s life and risking her son’s, Vera Miles in that same year’s The Wrong Man slipping into madness in the wake of her husband’s wrongful incrimination.
But Margaret Lockwood here is the freshest and least damaged of Hitchcock heroines, and what comes through is not so much her despair as her determination to get to the bottom of things despite all opposition. Her insistence on the reality of what she has seen is the only sure guide through a labyrinth of false impressions, even as the insidious Dr. Hartz tries to convince her that the vanished Miss Froy is “merely a vivid subjective image.” The whole train, for that matter, is a congeries of vivid subjective images, from the magician’s rabbits peering up out of a top hat at a violent struggle in the baggage car to the nun in high heels keeping guard over an accident victim wrapped up like a mummy. This Europe of sinister baronesses and grinning conjurers is indeed a runaway train bound for nowhere good.
All along, the film pits England against the world, with the English characters not necessarily getting the best of it. The loathsome adulterer Todhunter (Cecil Parker at his most unctuous) is the very picture of moral indifference, and only Whitty and Redgrave show much interest, however condescending, in the customs of foreigners. Wayne and Radford, as the cricket fans desperate to get back in time for the match, effortlessly steal the film with their running display of blithe bafflement at all things foreign. But a film that mocks British insularity and hypocrisy ends as a celebration of British pluck and solidarity, as every British character (except for the cowardly appeaser Todhunter, shot down waving a white flag) finally reveals a courageous nature: the sinister nun is really just a good English girl gone astray, and the complacent cricket fans turn out when the chips are down to be dead shots with nerves of steel. Even Dr. Hartz—the most genial of villains—is forced in the end to wish them “jolly good luck.” The whole climactic episode is a send-up of Boy’s Own heroics—except that the blood on Radford’s hand is all too real. The dreadful shock on his previously imperturbable face is like a harbinger of the real danger with which the film has finally, unavoidably, made contact.
Back in the days when Hitchcock’s American films were usually regarded as a falling off, The Lady Vanishes was the picture that critics often used as a measuring rod for berating his subsequent output—lamenting the loss of its sharp wit, its free invention, its nimble pace and lighter-than-air frothiness—as if it were a token of the kind of work he might have continued to turn out had he remained in his native land. But given that the year was 1938, it seems unlikely that the mood of The Lady Vanishes could have been easily sustained or repeated. This was a bubble of its moment—the assertion of a fairy-tale triumph of humor and youthful energy over the darkest forces of Central European evil—realized at nearly the last moment such a bubble was possible. We can watch it over and over just as children can hear the same fairy tale again and again, marveling that such serenity and playfulness could flourish even on the brink of an abyss.
Geoffrey O'Brien's books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image, Planet, The Browser's Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, and The Fall of the House of Walworth. He is editor in chief of the Library of America. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection's 2007 DVD edition of The Lady Vanishes.