Lady Vanishes, The (1938): Hitchcock’s Train-Set Thriller, Starring Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Dame May Whitty

A thriller dDealing with espionage and counter-spying, The Lady Vanishes, one of Hitchcock’s best British films, was made in 1938 in the wake of Nazism and a major war in Europe. 

Loosely based on Ethel Lina White’s book, “The Wheel Spins,” the script was co-written by Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife), Sidney Gillian and Frank Launder.  Hitchcock and his team of writers made some changes to the source material, adding the whole last episode.

When “The Lady Vanishes” came out, it was labeled a quintessentially Hitchcock picture. The scripters were so offended that they decided to produce and direct their movies.

A young, attractive woman named Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) tries to convince an artist, Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), whom she meets on a train, that an elderly woman, Miss Froy (played by the wonderful character actress Dame May Whitty), had vanished. 

 One proof exists: The old lady has written her last name on the window. However, just as Iris remembers and starts to show it to Gilbert, the train goes through a tunnel and the writing is mysteriously erased in 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 she had memorized, an absurd but delightful idea that serves the plot well.

The villain seems to be a nun, who substitutes for the disappeared, when she is placed in the same compartment where Mrs. Fray was sitting. 

Hitchcock told Truffaut that the central idea was supposed to be a true story, and that 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. 

Often described (and dismissed) as espionage-political intrigue type of story, “The Lady Vanishes” has been underestimated by the more serious critics. 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.” Hitchcock biographer, Donald Spoto, describes it as an “entertaining divertissement, a cinematic souffle, free of moral ambiguity.”

“The Lady Vanishes” was shot on one of the smaller Islington stages, on 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, long before the CGI technology.

Addressing issues of implausibility, Hitchcock himself raised questions about the basic plot, such as why was a message 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.

The film’s central idea was done in different forms. Hitchcock himself made a TV show, and in 1950, the Rank Company used it 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 works are based on an old yarn about an old lady who travels to Paris with her daughter. 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.

Extremely popular in the U.S., “The Lady Vanishes” elevated Hitchcock’s international stature. Two years later, producer David O. Selznick brought the director to Hollywood, where he made his first American film, “Rebecca,” won the 1940 Best Picture Oscar.  Hitchcock went back to England three decades later to make the thriller “Frenzy.”

Like other Hitchcock comedy-thrillers, the film has a witty dialogue and benefits from a neat built-up and exciting climax. The first reel, which takes place in an Austrian hotel, where all the main characters stay, is rather slow and verbose. However, once the action moves to the train en route to London, the pacing picks up and the movie becomes more suspenseful.

Critical Status:
The Lady Vanishes was named Best Picture of 1938 by The New York Times. In 1939, Hitchcock received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director, the only time in his career he received an award for directing.

The film marks the first appearance of the comedy double-act Charters and Caldicott (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford).

Hitchcock’s Cameo
Hitchcock is seen at Victoria Station, wearing a black coat and smoking a cigarette, near the end (about 90 minutes into the film).

Objects and Elements:

Hands:

The man who strangles the singer in the first reel (we only see his hands)

Keys:

Birds:

 

Cast

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood)

Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave)

Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas)

Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty)

Eric Todhunter (Cecil Parker)

Margaret Todhunter (Linden Travers)

Baroness (Mary Clare)

Caldicott (Naunton Wayne)

Charters (Basil Radford)

Hotel manager (Emile Boreo)

Credits

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Edward Black
Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder; Story by Alma Reville (continuity)
Based on The Wheel Spins
by Ethel Lina White
Music by Louis Levy and Charles Williams (uncredited)
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Edited by R.E. Dearing
Production company: Gaumont British, Gainsborough Pictures
Distributed by MGM (UK)l 20th Century Fox (U.S.)
Release date: 7 October 1938 (London)
Running time: 97 minutes