Criterion // 1938 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 19th, 2011
Spies! Playing the game of love -- and sudden death!
Iris: "You're the most contemptible person I've met in all my
Gilbert: "Confidentially, I think you're a bit of a stinker, too."
In the fictional country of Bandrika, a handful of individuals is eager to get back to good old England. Alas, an avalanche has delayed their train, so they're forced to hole up in a local hotel for a while. During this time, we're introduced to cricket enthusiasts Caldicott (Naunton Wayne, Night Train to Munich) and Charters (Basil Radford, The Winslow Boy), an independent young woman named Iris (Margaret Lockwood, The Wicked Lady), the impish musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, The Browning Version), the esteemed Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), the kindly old Miss Froy (May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver) and others.
Once the journey back to England finally gets underway, something mysterious happens: Miss Froy disappears without a trace. When Iris attempts to figure out what happened to her new friend, many act is if they had never even seen the old woman. Iris is certain that several people are lying, but why? Who could have absconded with the innocent old lady? Is it possible that Iris might be suffering a mental breakdown?
The Lady Vanishes represents a rather interesting, brief moment in the career of director Alfred Hitchcock. It was one of the last British films he made before he was swept up by Hollywood, and it serves as a compelling segue between his ambitious yet spotty early days and his illustrious work in the American film industry. The film has the reckless energy of a young director and is generally a good deal more ramshackle than the majority of Hitchcock films, and yet it also demonstrates a level of technical deftness that surpasses most of his early efforts. It falls a notch or two short of being truly great Hitchcock (the director's first masterpiece would arrive a couple of years later in the form of Rebecca), but it's tremendous fun.
For a while, it seems as if The Lady Vanishes is going absolutely nowhere in particular. It spends a solid half-hour simply hanging out with the characters, dropping in on their gently comic exchanges and moving casually forward in the way that an amiably forgettable romantic comedy might. We chuckle at the cutesy exchanges of Caldicott and Charters (characters so popular that they were later featured in quite a few additional films and radio productions), smile at the playful love/hate relationship between Iris and Gilbert, and enjoy the general ambiance of the hotel and the train. However, once the film lives up to its title and makes a lady vanish, the story begins gathering steam at an entertainingly frantic rate.
I won't spoil the details of how the mystery unfolds, but suffice it to say that Hitchcock (working from a smart, funny screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who in turn are working from a novel by Ethel Lina White) has a good deal of fun toying with the audience. Every reveal of information gives way to a host of new questions, and the question of whether Iris has simply imagined the entire thing lingers over the proceedings in compelling fashion. The whole thing builds up to one of the most amusingly staged shootouts I've ever seen; a proper English exchange of gunfire aided by pithy asides and raised eyebrows rather than screams and looks of terror. Caldicott and Charters really shine in this segment, fretting over whether the deadly showdown will make them late for a cricket match they've been hoping to get to.
It was reported that Hitchcock issued his famous declaration of, "actors are cattle" while filming The Lady Vanishes, but the players generally seem a bit looser and more improvisational than many Hitchcock casts. There's a good deal of witty banter throughout along with some understated physical comedy; Hitchcock's gift for dry, low-key humor is a frequently overlooked quality. The strongest performances come from Redgrave and Lockwood as the duo at the center of the proceedings, but the flavorful supporting players are strong across the board. Quite a few of the cast members (particularly Paul Lukas' slightly ominous doctor) project an air of ambiguity; we're left hanging for quite some time as we wait to see whether certain characters will be revealed as heroes, villains or something else entirely.
The Lady Vanishes (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a reasonably impressive 1.34:1/1080p transfer. I honestly wasn't expecting too much given the film's age and the generally worn-out quality of most films from this period of Hitchcock's career, but the image really is sharp and clean overall. Detail is quite excellent throughout, which only becomes a liability during scenes which clearly reveal the limitations of the budget (the rear-projection stuff looks particularly laughable in HD). Blacks are reasonably deep and the image is mostly free of scratches and flecks. The LPCM 1.0 Mono audio track gets the job done well enough, though there are a few moments of dialogue which seem faded or muffled. Even so, the rather busy sound design has been impressively well-preserved and the few instances of music in the film sound sharp. Supplements have been ported over from Criterion's 2-Disc DVD release: a commentary with historian Bruce Eder, the 1941 feature film Crook's Tour (a very slight 81-minute affair which reunites Charter and Caldicott), a video essay on the film from scholar Leonard Leff (34 minutes), an excerpt of the famous interview with Hitchcock conducted by Francois Truffaut (11 minutes), a stills gallery and a booklet featuring essays by Geoffrey O'Brien and Charles Barr.
There's entirely too little Hitchcock on Blu-ray at this point, so I'm quite pleased that Criterion decided to give their stellar release of The Lady Vanishes an upgrade. It's a fun little flick which offers strong premonitions of even greater things to come.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film
* Video Essay
* Audio Interview
* Image Gallery
* IMDb: The Lady Vanishes
* IMDb: Crook's Tour