***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Lukas, Cecil Parkerscreenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw There's something ephemeral about Ms. Froy (Dame May Whitty), from her sudden appearance at a hotel desk to her first words obscured by ambient noise, to her initial exit facilitated by an invisible hand. She seems from the start a metaphor, the first of Hitchcock's women-as-metaphor, leading up to his gaggle of Birds and an unlikely companion in that way to the seagulls-into-women who discover a body at the beginning of the previous year's Young and Innocent. She occupies a space as well with the unnamed second Mrs. De Winter in Hitch's American debut, Rebecca: a cipher, without an identity of her own, the MacGuffin made flesh and the embodiment, in The Lady Vanishes, of perhaps the director's desire to pursue his career across the pond, with only a contractual obligation to Jamaica Inn standing in his way. (The Lady Vanishes starts in a way station, yes? Gateway to greater adventure.) Indeed, the picture cemented David O. Selznick's interest in Hitchcock, the irony being that unlike the majority of his work before and after, The Lady Vanishes' production was already well under way before he hopped onto the saddle. On second thought, maybe it was the idea that Hitchcock could be a hired gun that attracted Selznick--a belief that holds countless ironies of its own.
Whatever the covert attraction, the obvious pleasures of The Lady Vanishes begin with its amiability and the attractiveness of its central romantic pairing and continue for the Hitchcock scholar through emergent themes of not just the sign/signifier complexity of its titular heroine, but also gender mistrust, trains, glasses and perception, and theatre/magic/misdirection. If these themes take a quick holiday after this film to reappear--and persist--with a vengeance six movies later (with his first American masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt), blame Hitchcock's battle with Selznick for his voice--though, irony again, it's likely that the conflict and frustration of this period (from Rebecca through Saboteur), along with the death of Hitchcock's mother during the making of Shadow of a Doubt, snowballed what must have been the director's already-nascent misanthropy into full-blown nihilism by the end of the fifties. Not a lot of that bile is here in 1938 and The Lady Vanishes. While it's easy to point to the fact that the screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, adapted from Ethel Lina White's not-good novel The Wheel Spins, is the source of the film's general sunniness (also point to British censorship that made overt criticism of the festering German state illegal), Young and Innocent and even The 39 Steps and The Lodger are more easily temporally patronized as edgeless than anything Hitch produced after Shadow of a Doubt.
Let's also say that The Lady Vanishes, despite all the Freudian complications of Hitchcock's late output, all the champagne bottles un-popped, the knives penetrating flesh (and trains penetrating tunnels), the insatiable declarations of appetite, the mothers in their beds, is Hitchcock's last, and most openly, sensual work. It's actually sexy. When Hitch attempts "light" again in a few years with his marital comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it's not only not funny whatsoever, it's not remotely identifiable as having anything like a relationship to human behaviour, either. The hotel drama of the early going plays in roundelay with our Brits abroad Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) trying to learn the Cricket scores and exchanging a politely flirty glance with the buxom, non-English-speaking maid (Kathleen Tremaine) until it becomes clear, once the veddy proper English gentlemen are forced to share a room with her due to overbooking, that she might be open to more than flirtation. Our introduction to love interest Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is of her standing on a table in a slip, her two blonde traveling companions in similar states of undress, and an initially uncomfortable (but quickly quite pleased) porter entering with a bottle of wine. Hitchcock lingers on bare legs and the porter's discomfort; connoisseurs of pornography are familiar with this set-up. Later, our angry hero Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musicologist (like the mysterious Ms. Froy), invades Iris's bedchamber, threatens to join her under the covers, and departs with the promise of continued, maybe aggressive, relations. Really, it's kind of hot.
On the train platform the next morning, Iris finds a pair of eyeglasses, goes to return them to Ms. Froy, and is promptly beaned by a falling flower pot. Hitchcock presents her point-of-view during departure as blurring, fragmenting, a precursor to the director's dream sequences (blurring in Spellbound, fragmenting in Vertigo) and a dual framing of his ideas that glasses represent knowledge and power and that sleep/unconsciousness represents an entry into the irrational. Consider, too, that if we chase this rabbit hole, the repeated cutaways in The Lady Vanishes to two churning train wheels look very much like another pair of giant, steel glasses. The whistle screams upon the eyeglasses' discovery, and screams again when Ms. Froy tries to say her name in the dining car with Iris. "Freud?" Iris asks. "Froy," says Ms. Froy, writing her name in condensation on the car window. Iris falls asleep1 watching Italian magician Doppo (meaning "double"? He does look a great deal like a young, Italian Hitchcock2), and from here until almost the end we're pulled into the uncanny. When Iris awakes, she sees--like Tatiana in Shakespeare's/Mendelssohn's dream--her true love in initially-antagonistic Gilbert, sure, but also that Ms. Froy is missing. Everyone, for various personal reasons, protests that there never was a Ms. Froy, and so poor Iris must be either imagining things, insane, or suffering from the after-effects of a good blow to the head. Armchair Freuds may have by now diagnosed this wilful, gorgeous, comfortable-with-her-sexuality young woman, on her way home to marry some limp-dick she doesn't love, as suffering from all of the above hallmarks of individuality as a result of possibly those same three things. She knows that she's right. She fights on the side of rightness. She pulls the emergency brake on the train to demand answers, and promptly passes out.
Iris (her name could refer to a component of both eyeballs and cameras) is a wonderful, delightful product of our fantasies. If we characterize The Lady Vanishes as a Female Gothic (like Rebecca--like Rear Window, really) with a woman solver of mysteries, Iris is more Sherlock than Watson, thanks to a moment of playacting in the train's baggage car where Gilbert casts himself, Meerschaum and deerstalker and all, as the Great Detective and Iris as his sidekick. The sequence--one of the best in Hitchcock's British years--begins with a lot of fooling around in Doppo's disappearing cabinets and stage menagerie (including, in one moment, the transformation of Iris into a rabbit) and ends with a battle, but not before Iris discovers Ms. Froy's glasses a second time, thus assuring her of the righteous gaze for the rest of the picture. It's Iris, too, who delivers the finishing blow on both Doppos--the one they stick in the trunk and the cardboard standee that subsequently falls over on her. Iris is the one who "cottons to" the fake nun (Catherine Lacey) attending a mysterious, bandaged patient traveling on the train (the nun's wearing high heels, another sexual fetish--later, she'll be bound and gagged); she's the brave one, the sensible one, the one in total adherence to the impossible despite the rational objections of everyone else. She's drugged for her knowledge with a toast of "may our enemies, if they exist, be unconscious to our purpose"--the baddie not knowing, of course, that her unconscious is her superpower3. The evil doctor (Paul Lukas) has a wonderful monologue later on in which he informs that the drug he's administered, if given in too large a dose, can cause madness. It's fun to think that the rest of the film from this point forward is a product of Iris and Gilbert's dementia.
More a comedy of manners than a thriller (in addition to the discovery of the nun through her footwear, there's the gathering of the English in the dining car during teatime), The Lady Vanishes is also more a romance involving the partial domestication of a strong woman (like Hitch does tirelessly and more completely to Tippi Hedren in a few decades' time) than a political allegory, with its mythical, fascist Bandrika standing in for the Fatherland in ascendance. Its central conceit--the gag of a secret musical phrase--one Hitchcock had already used in The Man Who Knew Too Much (and would use again in his own remake of the same), its central action sequence a shootout on a stopped train that unfolds with the same character dynamics George Romero (a production assistant on Hitch's North by Northwest), of all people, would employ in his closed-room Night of the Living Dead, The Lady Vanishes is finally best understood as Hitchcock's audition for Hollywood and, moreover, as his mission statement of his favourite themes and key concerns. The extreme regard of a glass of poisoned liquid is, along with its black-veiled dragon mother (Selma Vaz Dias) chewing on a cigarette in clouds of bile, like Notorious; its cellular set is like the linear capsule misdirections of North by Northwest; and its murder of the train's conductors is like the accidental assassination of the merry-go-round operator in Strangers on a Train. That Hitchcock is able to include so much is a testament to his genius as much as to his madness, his helplessness to the concerns that would drive him, uncorrupted as of yet by war, the politics of his profession, the compromise at times of his art, or the flowering of his dark sexual peculiarities and appetites. Featuring perhaps Hitchcock's first fully-integrated use of a specific score, The Lady Vanishes is easily his most complex work in terms of all manner of technical trickery and illusions (learned at the feet of the German Expressionists), and arguably the last example of Hitchcock in a restful aspect. It's in this way also a little sad. Hitchcock's legacy is built largely on the obliteration of this director at this moment in his career, back when he was still more clever than cruel.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion provides that the 1.33:1, 1080p presentation on their much-welcome Blu-ray release of The Lady Vanishes "was created on a Spirit Datacine from 35mm composite fine-grain master positive," which means to me, essentially, that it looks amazing. It will occasionally flicker and twinkle with dust, but the image is remarkably stable and the fine detail at times breathtaking despite a persistent softness. Notice early on an extreme close-up of "Mrs." Todhunter's (Linden Travers) mink shawl that manages, in an eighty-year old print, to display every single hair. Holy crap, right? The patterned wallpaper in the hotel is suddenly legible, and the contrast is so rich that the disputed writing of "Froy" on the dining-car window shows up with such clarity that Gilbert's disavowal of having seen it strikes as more unlikely than ever. More surprising still, the matte effects and rear-projection, though obviously such, are artful instead of clumsy under the eye of this transfer. To borrow a phrase, see it again for the first time. Sourced from a 35mm optical track, the LPCM 1.0 audio sounds impressively crisp and might ultimately exhibit fewer artifacts than the video. Nicely done, Criterion, nicely done.
Historian Bruce Eder records a well-informed and passionate commentary for the film that strikes an amiable balance between history, production, and explication of a few hot-button issues (are Charters and Caldicott gay? Eder doesn't think so). If it's a little broad, I wonder whether it isn't ultimately appropriate in a track more interested in giving a detailed overview for the neophyte than in a scholarly essay for the small, sad assemblage that would be interested in something like that. "Hitchcock/Truffaut" (11 mins., 1080i) juxtaposes clips from The Lady Vanishes with audio from the marathon interview session between the two filmmakers in which Hitchcock is evasive and Truffaut is pompous. Invaluable just the same. A "Stills Gallery" is exactly that (in HD!), while the inset booklet features nice and lengthy if surface-y essays by Geoggrey O'Brien and Hitchcockian Charles Barr.
Running 81 minutes and gratuitously but gratifyingly exhibited in 1080p, an entire second feature film, the 1941 Crook's Tour (*/****), is also included on the BD-50, resurrecting the not-gay traveling companions in the Middle East (Baghdad to Saudi Arabia and back) to riff in a Limey version of the Hope/Crosby travelogues. They meet a dancing girl, encounter exotics, engage in malapropism-based humour, golf-cart over to the Budapest section of the studio lot...lather, rinse, repeat. It would be terrible if it weren't so forgettably affable. Oddly enough, there's a musical theme to this one as well, though its lingering claim to fame for me is the idea that the good old days weren't always good--and that for all the rhapsodizing about the past, let's not forget that in the very year Citizen Kane came out, there were probably four-hundred other films just like Crook's Tour. Last and maybe best, Leonard Leff's "Mystery Train" (34 mins., 1080i)--which has the good taste to be named after Elvis Presley's best song--offers an always-entertaining, sometimes-trenchant video essay on The Lady Vanishes. Capital stuff. History, scene analysis, and, along with the film itself, a vital bit of Hitchcockia.
1. What with its elements of sleep, fantasy, and carnality, The Lady Vanishes reminds me a lot of a passage from Act II of Mendelssohn's score for A Midsummer's Night Dream, in which fairies sing "Hence away, hence away" just prior to Oberon squeezing a flower over Titiana and proscribing "what thou seeist when thou dost wake." In the hotel tavern, Ms. Froy tells the Brit Boys that she's a governess and music teacher before declaring, "Good night, good night." The film can be read as a very particular Sylvan melodrama. return
2. And speaking of the "Italian Hitchcock," Dario Argento steals this writing-on-glass gag for his Deep Red. return
3. Later, someone will say, "I'm half-inclined to believe there's some rational explanation for all this." There isn't. As fine a definition for the MacGuffin as any. return