The Lady Vanishes Revisited

If I had not seen The Lady Vanishes at the age of seven, I might never have become a film critic.

I was the fifth child of parents well into middle age: clearly an “accident,” as I was ten-years-plus younger than the other four. My siblings were decent enough to me, but they had their own lives to muddle through, with a father often away in the United States selling the antiques my mother shipped out to him. The two girls fought all the time, usually over clothes, the two boys bonded. I wasn’t sent to day school until I was six and seldom met other children. This background ensured that I was (a) a loner and (b) extremely precocious.

I’m not sure just when I started going to the cinema. I suspect it began as a way of keeping me occupied and out of mischief. The series of young, inexpensive maidservants hired by my mother for housework also had the task of keeping me entertained whenever there was a movie my mother considered “suitable” for me at the local theater—suitable meaning no crime or sex. But in the early years of this activity, I can’t recall a single film that had any lasting effect on me. They were not children’s films, and my grasp of their plots was very weak. I think the maids enjoyed them more than I did, but I always wanted to see them out of curiosity, struggling with the intrigue as best I could.

I recall vividly only one occasion. My father must have been in America, my mother scouring the countryside after antiques, because I was left to the mercies of my elder siblings, who decided one evening that they wanted to see a film. It was entitled Murder by an Aristocrat, and I was sworn to the deepest secrecy: Mother must never know! I had no idea what an aristocrat was. The nearest I could get was “oystercrat”: the film would be about someone dropping a large crate of oysters onto someone’s head. However, it was late at night, and I slept through most of it. I woke up briefly, though, just in time to see a person in a black hood climbing into a house through an upstairs window at night, and I was thrilled.

But The Lady Vanishes was different. For one thing, I would have seen it in the afternoon, wide awake. And its combination of very British humor (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s bed scene sending me into mild hysterics long before I knew anything about sexual innocence or denial) and the tension of the train held up by landslides in a foreign country, plus a mysterious nocturnal murder, had me hooked long before the lady vanished. The film was very popular, repeatedly revived, and I saw it again and again, never missing an opportunity. It is certainly among Hitchcock’s most perfect films (though not the most profound). If it has a dull or dead moment, I have still not found it. And somehow the name Hitchcock became embedded in my mind: it hadn’t occurred to me before that films had directors, and that these directors were somehow important. I trace my career back to that film, which I still love.

If there is no chapter on The Lady Vanishes in my book on Hitchcock, this is purely because it is too perfect, so transparent that there is little to say. The labyrinthine complexities of Vertigo were far away.

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