The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

by Douglas Buck December 24, 2017 3 minutes (649 words) 16mm Cinémathèque québécoise, part of the Films noirs, films d’angoisse series

An English tourist (Margaret Lockwood) travelling by train through pre-war Europe (though storm clouds are ominously brewing) finds herself, with the help of the preciously amused musician she initially shared an antagonistic moment with (Michael Redgrave), trying to find how the older woman she had been speaking with for hours on the train… has suddenly disappeared – and why everyone on the train is denying ever having seen her.

Hitchcock’s last film in England before succumbing to the temptations of America, studio head David O. Selznick and Rebecca (which would win him his only Best Picture statue, securing him the beginnings of his brilliant and prolific Hollywood career, even if it was due to a film he would disown due to his deep frustrations over the meddling of madman dictator Selznick), The Lady Vanishes is a fun romp, cleverly constructed (Hitch certainly boldly backs himself into a corner as far as figuring out how to resolve the narrative puzzle), but I certainly can’t call it his best. And while there is some inherent paranoid darkness in the characters (with those not in on the abduction plot simply denying knowing the woman so as not to get involved) and Hitchcock’s oft-present underlying skewering of marriage and fidelity is there (even if, in this case, it’s mostly playful, nowhere near as dark and nasty as in a lot of his other work) by having our female lead ducking out in the end on her milquetoast fiancée for the new man she’s just had an adventure with, it still doesn’t really manage the bleak worldview (or the twisted psychology, or the radical high contrast lighting to reinforce that perversity) for me to really be sure it belongs in a film noir program, but, hey, it’s a Hitchcock film, so I’m not complaining.

Hitchcock, to me, is almost his own genre – even if he would eventually create some of the greatest bridging films between noir and 70’s neo-noir ever created, including Vertigo, The Birds, Marnie and, you could argue, his most in-your-face sleazy effort (and the one that threw the British critics into an outraged hissy fit) Frenzy. While The Lady Vanishes and “Suspicion(the other Hitchcock film shown in the program, that I’m also iffy about its inclusion) may not be his greatest efforts (certainly neither has any of those quintessential set-pieces that define much of his work), still, when your greatest are as high-level great as Hitch’s, that’s not much of a grievance. You could argue, if not noir, they’re only a stone’s throw away (all they needed was a Robert Siodmak directing and a Nicholas Musuraca lighting – but then it wouldn’t have been Hitch!) and they’re definitely a treat to see.

Some of the more pro-war stance of the film’s ending (with all the British folk ultimately banding together to fight off the foreign spies and soldiers, with the only one shot and killed being the lawyer character who waves the white flag in defeat —no room for cowards during war-time!) might be a bit too propagandist, but the actors are fun, the directing and camera movements are sophisticated (and feel like Hitch even without the one or two usual amazing set-pieces) and the two bemused cricket enthusiasts who deny any knowledge of having seen the missing women because they want to make sure to make it back to England in time for a championship match, are astonishingly coded as so gay (including having them jump up in bed together when our female lead barges in on them, with one having his shirt off in a moment that’s clearly meant to elicit a laugh) that, well, it seems pretty clear that they are gay (it left me wondering —could this have gone over most of the British audiences’ heads at the time?).

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review alfred hitchcickcinémathèque québécoisefilm noirhitchcock's final british filmmakes its way into buck a review columnthe lady vanis