Alfred Hitchcock may be best known for the films he created once he landed on American shores. Mention his name and most people will associate him with Psycho or Vertigo. But the master of suspense produced a plethora of films in the UK system between 1922 and 1939, including the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). However, none of his British films is as delightful or fun as The Lady Vanishes, released in 1938, just months before David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract and whisked him off to Hollywood.
Made while Hitchcock was negotiating his move to California and still under contract with Gaumont Britain, he directed The Lady Vanishes, a film that is both comedic and thrilling. It begins in a crowded hotel in Bandrika, a fictional country in Central Europe. Just as whispers of war stirred on the continent during its filming, the The Lady Vanishes is also fraught with imminent conflict. The movie doesn’t start off like a thriller, however, as its first quarter plays like a comedy of manners. A group of travelers (many British) are delayed by an avalanche and jostle for food and board at that beleaguered hotel. Similar to some of the set pieces Jacques Tati would film 15 years later in M. Hulot’s Holiday, Hitchcock introduces us to his principals via numerous comedic entanglements.
Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is traveling with two friends before returning home to England to get married. She is kept awake by the midnight clarinet practice of Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), an attractive musicologist with whom she shares an instant attraction. We also meet the bumbling pair of Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) who want nothing more than to make it back in time for a cricket match. Dressed to the nines and blithe in manner, the two end up in the maid’s room for the night but are horrified when she begins to undress in front of them. Ciphers for Britain’s stiff upper lip, the two shuffle out of the room to allow the lady the space to change.
With all its early shenanigans, The Lady Vanishes takes nearly 30 minutes before any form of menace enters its frames. While dowdy Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), the film’s title character, listens to a folk musician from her window, a pair of hands grips the seemingly innocent troubadour around the neck and strangles him. The next morning, as the characters board the train, a falling flowerpot meant for Miss Froy hits Iris instead. Someone is out to kill Miss Froy. But why?
According to critic Geoffrey O’Brien, The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock’s farewell to Old Blighty. Miss Froy represents 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.” She is so British that no one on the train notices that she has vanished except Iris, sending her into a frantic search where no one, except possibly Gilbert, believes her.
Hitchcock made a career out of wrongly accused characters on the run. The Lady Vanishes is almost the inverse of that device, where its leading character simply cannot convince anyone that something is awry. Rather than running for her life, Iris wants to invigorate the other passengers to join her in the hunt for the missing madam. Her search does attract the attention of the psychiatrist Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), who believes she is suffering from a form of hallucination and attempts to convince her that Miss Froy is nothing more than “a vivid subjective image.”
Since the plot is so gripping, it is easy to overlook Hitchcock at the top of his technical game here. Much of the film takes place in the narrow passageways of the train, and he makes the most of the claustrophobic space. Just as Iris attempts to navigate the intricate lies and misinformation behind Miss Froy’s disappearance, Hitchcock’s camera steers us through the train’s corridors, dining car, baggage car and even clinging to its sides as another train approaches with deft precision.
The film culminates in a gun battle where the British characters must prevent the forces of evil from infiltrating the train and, by doing so, taking control of a secret that will undermine their homeland’s military advantage in a world crumbling towards war. It is up to the outgunned and outnumbered Britons to find a way to save Miss Froy and her secret. Although Hitchcock would move onto darker and more sinister films, The Lady Vanishes is his valentine to his birthplace, a film where he both scolds the country for its insular nature and applauds its ingenuity to counter the dark forces rumbling in the Mordor of Central Europe of the time. It’s almost as if Hitchcock is taking one last look at the United Kingdom and, to echo a character in the film, wishing them “jolly good luck” before skipping off to palm trees and movie stars.