Flightplan: Inspired by Hitchcock’s Lady Vanishes

This essay contains details about Flightplan that may disclose too much about the thriller. You may want to read it after watching the movie.

Though Flightplan claims to be based on an original screenplay by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray, Robert Schwentke’s thriller bears striking similarities to two British thrillers: Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and to Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950). Hence, my inclination to label all three pictures as part of “The Disappearance” sub-genre, not to be confused with the more political brand of movies like the Argentinean Oscar-winner, The Official Story (1985), about the disappearance of citizens who opposed to Argentine’s junta in the 1970s.

That should not detract from the joys of watching a wonderful piece of technical, if utterly implausible filmmaking, such as Flightplan. Nonetheless, in the name of fairness and historical accuracy, I think the originality credit should go to those who really deserve it.

The Lady Vanishes was made in 1938, on one of the smaller Islington stages, a set that was 90-feet-long. There was only one coach on the movie’s main set, the train. All the other sets were transparencies and miniatures, as was the norm back then, decades before the CGI technology.

In The Lady Vanishes, Iris (Margaret Lockwood) tries to convince Michael Redgrave of the existence of an elderly woman who has vanished, Miss Froy, played by the wonderful character actress, Dame May Whitty. One proof exists: The old lady has written her name on the window. However, just as Iris remembers and starts to show it to an artist she meets on the train (Michael Redgrave), the train goes through a tunnel and the writing is mysteriously erased a typical Hitchcockian touch.

It turns out the old lady was delivering a counter-spy message that consists of the first few bars of a little song that she’s memorized, an absurd but delightful idea that serves the plot well.

Addressing issues of implausbility, Hitchcock was the first to raise such questions about his own movie: Why a message was entrusted to an old lady so helpless that anybody might knock her over Why the counter-spies simply don’t send that message by carrier pigeon Why they had to go through so much trouble to get that old lady on the train, with another woman standing by to change clothes, not to speak of shunting the whole coach away in the woods.

After The Lady Vanishes, the same basic idea was done in different forms. Hitchcock himself made an half a hour TV show, and in 1950, the Rank Company used the idea for a film starring Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde, So Long at the Fair, directed by Terence Fisher (better known for his horror flicks).

All of these films and TV shows are based on an old yarn about an old lady who travels to Paris with her daughter in 1880. They go to hotel, and the mother is taken ill. They call a doctor, and after examining her, he has a talk with the hotel manager. Then he tells girl her mom needs medicine and send her to the other end of Paris in a horse-drawn cab. Four hours later, she gets back and asks, how is my mom, and the manager says, “What mother We don’t know you. Who are you” The room previously occupied by her mother is now occupied by new lodgers, and everything is different, including the furniture and wallpaper.

Hitchcock told Truffaut that the central idea was supposed to be a true story, and the key to the whole puzzle is that it took place during the great Paris exposition, in the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. The women had come from India, and the doctor discovered that the mom had bubonic plague. If the news got around, it would drive the crowds, who had come for the exposition away from Paris. This is also the basic premise of Spielberg’s Jaws, in which the mayor of the resort town is at first reluctant to announce the sharks attack in his beach for fear of losing potential tourism.

Based on Ethel Lima White’s book, The Wheel Spins, the script for Lady Vanishes was written by Sidney Gillian and Frank Launder. Hitchcock made some changes, adding, among other things, the whole last episode. When The Lady Vanishes came out, it was labeled as a quintessentially Hitchcock picture. The scripters were offended, and as a result, decided to produce and direct their movies.

Often classified (and dismissed) as espionage-political intrigue type of story, Lady Vanishes has been underestimated by the more serious critics. Hence, Hitchcock expert Robin Wood writes: “A delightful little comedy thriller like Lady Vanishes gives us the characteristic Hitchcock tone in a primitive state, with its interweaving of tension and light humor.” And Hitchcock biographer, Donald Spoto, describes it as an “entertaining divertissement, a cinematic souffl, free of mortal ambiguity.”

In Terence Fisher’s UK film, So Long at the Fair, from a script by Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne, a visitor to the Paris World Fair of 1889 vanishes overnight, along with his hotel room and all traces of his existence. The film is marred by the insipid romance between Jean Simmons, as the disappearing man’s distraught daughter, and Dirk Bogarde, as the English artist who believes her story. Simmons is too sweet and self-assured to inspire concern fro her predicament, and Bogarde’s potential for debonair caddiness remains unfulfilled in the face of his partner’s innocence.

Nonetheless, good period details, a clever score by Benjamin Frankel, and excellent supporting players, such as Cathleen Nesbitt, Honor Blackman, and Marcel Poncin, elevate this little-known film that’s barely mentioned in dictionaries, including Leonard Maltin’s extensive Guide.

Please do not read beyond this point if you’re concerned about knowing too much about Flightplan before watching the thriller. The last thing I want is to spoil your fun.

Comparison between Lady Vanishes and Flightplan

Genre

Both films use the narrative structure of what could be described as “Grand Hotel on Wheels,” with their colorful gallery of assorted characters. The same structure was used by John Ford in his 1939 Western, Stagecoach. The 1938 film is a comedy-suspense-thriller, whereas the 2005 is a combo of taut psychological thriller with an emotional mother-daughter melodrama.

Locale

In both films, the locale is constrained to a single confined space: Train in 1938, and airplane in 2005. Differences between these spaces in terms of size and technology allow for various plot points and for the manipulation of audiences expectations.

Main Characters

In both films, the two main protagonists are women. In 1938, they’re British, one old, the other young, and in 2005, they’re American, a mother and her six-year-old daughter.

Female Heroine

In 1938, the young woman, Iris Margaret Lockwood) is engaged to be married, but during the train ride, fall for a young artist (Michael Red grave). In 2005, the young woman, Kyle (Jodie Foster) is a young widow, whose husband died in mysterious circumstances in Germany. The coffin with Kyle’s dead husband is on the aircraft with her.

Originally, the character was written fro a man and when it was changed into a female, Foster insisted on keeping the portage’s name, Kyle. Reflecting the changes of the times, Kyle is a career woman, an engineer, a typically male profession, and her expert knowledge will come handy during the flight.

Disappeared Person

In 1938, she’s an old, seemingly innocent and harmless lady. In 2005, it’s Kyle’s young, alert girl, Julie, who’s sad and distraught by her father’s death.

Central Premise

In 1938, Iris claim is not believed and her story is dismissed as a figment of her imagination. In 2005, the young widow is also not believed, though she’s charged with being paranoid and not in control, a result of mourning her husband and being sedated by drugs, sleeping pills she took during the flight. Kyle’s daughter disappears while she falls asleep at the back of the airplane for a couple of hours.

Other Characters

In both films, the crew and passengers represented a mixed crowd, which is composed of members that collaborate with the official story and whose function is to discredit and incriminate the heroine, and also help execute a scary plan (that can’t be revealed here).

Villains

In 1938, the villain seems to be a suspicious nun, who substitutes for the disappeared, when she is placed in the same compartment where Mrs. Fray sat. In 2005, there is no substitute for the disappeared daughter, but a number of passengers are suspected, including an Arab man, which allows the filmmakers to explore stereotypes and profiling in the post September 11 era. The villain(s) in Flightplan can’t be identified here for obvious reasons.

Action

Most of the action (but not all) in 1938 is restricted to a railroad route to London, from what appears to be Austria. In 2005, with the exception of the first 10 minutes, all the action takes place 37,000 feet above ground, on a flight from Berlin to New York, thus increasing the tension level considerably.

Dialogue

This being a Hitchcock comedy-thriller, the dialogue is witty, particularly in the film’s first chapters. In 2005, the dialogue is straight and functional and there are no comedic overtones.

Secondary Characters

In both films, there are half a dozen secondary characters that serve relevant functions to the plot. In 2005, though, there are fewer characters, and most of which are crewmembers, such as the plane’s pilot (Sean Bean) and two or three flying attendants.

In sharp contrast to The Lady Vanishes and its colorful persona, there is only one fully-fleshed character in Flightplan, Kyle. The other are undernourished and underdeveloped. Flightplan is a star vehicle par excellence, like a one-woman show, displaying Jodie Foster’s skills as an actress to an advantage.

Resolution and Ending

Both films havea reassuring denouements with the villains defeated. In 1938, there is a romantic subplot, and at the end, Iris dumps her fiancnd goes with Michael Redgrave. There’s no romance in the 2005 film, though Kyle plays a far more important role in defeating the villain and the scheme.

Climax

Usually, that type of story starts excitingly but weakens as it unfolds. The 1938 film benefits from a neat built-up and exciting climax. In contrast, in Flightplan, the climax arrives so late (in the last five minutes) and is so routine that it’s an anti-climax. The first hour of the 2005 film is impressive, but then the movie gradually loses its momentum and grasp on the audience with a plot that’s implausibe even by the genre’s standards.

Context

Both films reflect the zeitgeist of the times they were made. Hitchcock’s Lady Vanishes was made in 1938, in the wake of Nazism and a major war in Europe, and its plot deals with espionage and counter-spying.

What imbues Flightplan with added relevance, if not plausibility, is its political paranoia and personal anxieties involved in the flying experience, a direct result to 9/11 terrorist attacks. Like Red Eye, Flightplan, would not have been made and could not be understood without the surrounding political climate and its impact on the very act of flying.