Oh my god, guys! I didn’t think it was possible, but there has been an upset in the coveted position of “Jocelyn’s Favorite Hitchcock”!!! First held by Vertigo, with a quick upset by Rope, then landing firmly with Rebecca for several years, it now passes to The Lady Vanishes! This movie is smart, funny, thrilling, mysterious, sweet, and highly entertaining. Last night my girl Kodi came over for some much needed chill time, Chinese food, and a Hitchcock. She’s actually the one who lent me a multi-disc collection of old Hitchcock movies, without which this little project would be VERY difficult. So I let her pick this week’s movie. She instantly suggested The Lady Vanishes.
It begins when a cast of diverse characters are stuck in a small Inn in central Europe during an avalanche, and, while this part of the movie is rather inconsequential, we’re given a chance to meet our players. We have the beautiful Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), who is on vacation with her girl friends but must travel back to England to get married — something she seems more resigned than excited to do. There is also the duo of Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne respectively), who are just dying to get back to England in time to make the last day of a high-profile cricket match. These guys are incredibly funny and provide most of the comic relief. Then we have the matronly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess who is finally heading back home to England now that all her charges have grown. And lastly, we have Gilbert (a young Sir Michael Redgrave), a charming and attractive young musicologist who is studying the native folk music of the region.
Charters and Caldicott share a hilarious dinner with Miss Froy in the packed Inn. Iris and Gilbert have a tiff that introduces the two characters and sets them up for what’s sure to be adorable bickering and then romance. And by the end of the night, a musician playing a lovely melody out on the balcony is mysteriously murdered, but not before Miss Froy heard and hummed along to his song.
The next day it is declared safe for travel, and our setting moves from the Inn to the train. As everyone is boarding, Iris is hit on the head by what appears to be a brick flower planter that falls from a ledge above. At the time it seems to be an accident, but later we clearly understand that it was meant for Miss Froy, the governess. Witnessing the accident, Miss Froy helps Iris onto the train and looks after her — taking her to the dining car for tea and watching her as she sleeps. But when Iris wakes up from her nap, Miss Froy is gone.
She begins searching the entire train, asking people if they’ve seen the old woman and where she might be, but everyone denies ever seeing a Miss Froy with Iris. Even the people she was sharing a compartment tell her she’s been alone this entire time. By all accounts, Iris must be going crazy! Even the cricket-loving duo deny ever seeing Miss Froy, simply because they can’t have a scandal delaying their arrival to England. Iris runs into Gilbert, whom she despises from their quarrel at the Inn, and oddly he’s the only one willing to help her. They talk to a Dr. Hartz on board (Paul Lukas) who suggests Iris go with him to his facility for some rest. Gilbert realizes that if Iris doesn’t chill out, she could get herself into some trouble. She agrees to try to forget it, but clues keep popping up making it impossible for her to let it go. Finally, Gilbert sees one of the clues for himself and decides that something is suspect about this whole affair.
While stopped off at a station, Gilbert and Iris look out of the windows to see if Miss Froy exits the train, but there is no sign of her. Instead, a burn victim in critical condition is brought on board all wrapped in bandages and accompanied by a nun. Iris notices that the nun is wearing high heels — not standard nun practice. Gilbert has an admittedly idiotic idea (his words, not mine) that happens to lead them down the right path (idiotic…right). They discover that the burn victim is actually a remarkably unburned Miss Froy, disguised by the bandages. The stress Iris was going through was part of an elaborate ruse to kidnap the old governess. But why?
If you think that’s a bit strange, first let me assure you that the connecting plot points are excellent and make complete sense, and now let me tell you that shit gets weirder. There ends up being a ridiculous shootout, a runaway train, and an undercover spy all in the third act. It turns out that the song being played by the ill-fated musician at the Inn was a secret code, one meant for Miss Froy who needed to deliver it to high-ranking officials back in England. Miss Froy decides that the best way to help her friends escape is to take off on her own. She leaps out of the train during the shootout and bolts through the woods. This is an oddly hilarious scene, as it’s very clear that Dame Whitty has been replaced with a man. Before leaving she sings the song for Gilbert. Being training in music, he memorizes it instantly.
Once escaped from Dr. Hartz and his evil crew, Iris and Gilbert return happily to England. She looks around nervously for her fiance, but doesn’t see him. Gilbert takes this opportunity to take her in his arms and kiss her deeply. Like super deeply. Like this was one of the best movie kisses I’ve ever seen. Their entire banter up to this point was so adorable and classic that it really made my heart melt when he took a chance and just kissed her. As a quick aside, I will say that when Michael Redgrave as Gilbert looked and talked to Margaret Lockwood as Iris, I truly felt that he was drawn to her. Even though he was giving her a hard time, it was clear that he cared deeply about her from first glance. Maybe this is a testament to Redgrave’s acting abilities, but I really really felt it was real.
Moving on. The cute new couple decide they need to pass along the message incase Miss Froy didn’t make it back. They rush over to the appropriate offices, but just as they’re about to go in Gilbert forgets the melody! His requited love has caused him to forget everything else… damn. But just then, the sweet melody starts to drift through the air. They walk into the office to see Miss Froy, alive and well, sitting at the piano playing the song for some men. They hug, rejoice, and fade to black.
So the amount of laugh-out-loud funny moments in this film surprised me. The pair of cricket enthusiast, Charters and Caldicott, are HILARIOUS! Their comedic timing is spot on. It turns out this gag is actually a running joke that spans multiple films. Both Wayne and Radford have played these characters before, so their being featured in The Lady Vanishes was like an adorable cameo for viewers at the time. And unlike many other films of the day, the humor is very understated. It’s not slap-sticky or jokey. We’re talking sideways glances and lingering looks. Not to mention our leading man Gilbert was constantly making me crack a smile with his sarcastic comments. But of course they were always followed by him giving Iris the sideways “I want to brush hair off of your face” look, which made my heart melt.
The story does tend to get a bit out of control at times, but it’s a much stronger plot compared to some other Hitchcock’s I’ve recently viewed. I couldn’t help but comment that there’s something in The Lady Vanishes that hints at Hitchcock’s later works, like Vertigo and Rear Window. Unlike the other films of his made around this time, it was really focused on the mystery and story. The others were more interested in the characters journey, either them running away from danger or their interactions with one another. That’s great, especially because strong characters are very compelling, but this film had incredibly developed characters in place yet didn’t feel the need to focus on that. Instead it quickly establish prominent characters (even the peripheral players had full backstories and personalities), and it got out of the way so the story could take over. I appreciated that and found myself more on the edge of my seat as a result.
I’m obviously giving The Lady Vanishes an A+. If you’re looking to be slightly educated on telling a good mystery, quickly establishing character, and integrating humor into your work, this film is a must-see. If you’re looking to have a fun night in with Chinese food, this is a must-see. If you want to watch one of Hitchcock’s most successful films, this is a must-see. Have fun!