FILM FLASHBACK: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)

This review first appeared on the web more than 10 years ago on The site is gone, but I’m pulling this from the archives for your enjoyment. Dig it:

The Lady Vanishes 01When it comes to Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest work, it would be difficult to find a title more worthy of the Criterion Collection treatment than The Lady Vanishes. Hitch’s spy thriller The 39 Steps certainly deserves its place among the collection, and this reviewer believes The Lodger is in dire need of restoration, commentary and otherwise deluxe treatment … but I am an unabashed fan of The Lady Vanishes, the last good film Hitchcock would make as a British director, and hence I am glad it received Criterion’s loving treatment.

In The Lady Vanishes, Hitch brings together three genres to create one classic that displays some of the best filmmaking that the post-silent era Hitchcock has to offer. Here we have the story of Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a train passenger who befriends an older woman named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) after taking a bump on the head. When Miss Froy goes missing, Iris becomes obsessed with finding her, first to prove that she isn’t crazy – none of the other passengers believe Miss Froy exists, you see – and then because she finds herself pulled into a much larger mystery.

Hitchcock manages to open with a highly comedic first act, pulls the audience into a slow-burning suspense story for the second act, and catapults us into an action-filled third act, all in just under 100 minutes. Through it all, Hitch populates his train with a cast of varied and interesting characters, all of them quite memorable. From playful humor to witty banter to mounting suspense to thrilling action, The Lady Vanishes is in many ways a showcase of all that made Hitchcock’s British period so entertaining.

The Lady Vanishes 02The three-act structure is really enjoyable here, in part because it gives you so many “flavors” of Hitchcock filmmaking in one film. Because the tone is so different between them the three acts should clash, but don’t, largely because Hitch knows exactly which elements to carry over from the previous act.

In act one, Hitchcock’s playful side is on display. The humor is abundant, both in the kind of witty wordplay Hitch does so well and in the slapstick physical humor little recognized as one of his strengths (but which he actually did quite well). He uses that humor to ease the audience into a sense of comfort. All is well with the world. But at the end of the first act we’re reminded that we’re watching a Hitchcock film when, with no warning, a street singer is mysteriously strangled.

This is when the true suspense comes into play. It is also the real start of a damn excellent piece of filmmaking that ranks among the best of Hitchcock’s career. Through a series of subtle clues and clever setups, in the second act we’re handed a mystery that is as baffling to us as it is for Iris when her friend appears to simply vanish. What happened to Ms. Froy? The Master Of Suspense teases us with the question over and over throughout this stretch of the film, and to great effect. This is one of the very best sustained stretches of suspense in Hitch’s career. It’s a real treat watching as one after another he trots out the clues he so carefully planted earlier on. A stumble into a cabin on the train. Miss Froy asking for sugar. A packet of tea. A name written on a window. All seemed so innocent a short while ago. Now they are nothing short of vital.

The Lady Vanishes 03But naturally, this is an Alfred Hitchcock film – and that means wrapping things up with a rousing climax: Guns, spies, trains, and all the good stuff Hitchcock fans know and love. It’s a great capper to what is a suspenseful, enjoyable train ride with a group of memorable and charismatic characters.

The Lady Vanishes is one of only two films still in print from Criterion’s fantastic Hitchcock set, Wrong Men & Notorious Women (the other being The 39 Steps). It’s also fun from start to finish. In this reviewer’s eyes, The Lady Vanishes is the best of Hitchcock’s British era, encapsulating all that made him a great director in one neat, clean and highly entertaining package. But when you get it – and you should – settle for nothing but the Criterion Collection release.


For more on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, take a look at A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, and Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs and Mother Issues.

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