Judge Erich Asperschlager feels sorry for the Tramp.
"You don't suppose there's something in this fellow's story, Caldicott, do you?…after all, people don't go about tying up nuns."
Though Alfred Hitchcock would make his biggest splash after moving to Hollywood, his filmmaking career began in his native England, where the young director made a name for himself with genre mysteries including The Lodger, The 39 Steps, and Blackmail (Britain's first full-length "talkie").
1938's The Lady Vanishes, just two years before Hitchcock's Best Picture-winning American debut Rebecca, is roundly considered one of the best films of his British period. Indeed, in style, subject, and technique, The Lady Vanishes acts as a bridge between Hitchcock's early and later work. By the late '30s, he had already learned how to build suspense through story and camerawork, and how careful sound design could mirror, support, or contrast the action onscreen—techniques used masterfully in this film and all found in his later, more widely known movies. The character types, too—from sinister aristocratic Europeans to innocents getting in over their heads—fit a template he would revisit in films like North By Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
This second Criterion Collection release for The Lady Vanishes improves upon the single-disc release with an all-new digital transfer, and added extras (beyond the original's lone audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder), including excerpts from Truffaut's interviews with the director, the video essay "Mystery Train," a still photo gallery, and Crook's Tour, a feature-length film available for the first time on home video, starring The Lady Vanishes comic-relief duo Charters and Caldicott.
Facts of the Case
Preparing to leave the fictional European country of Bandrika, a group of British rail travelers is forced to spend the night at the station hotel. There, a young woman named Iris meets the charming Miss Froy, an elderly woman headed home after many years abroad. The next morning, while waiting for the train to depart, Iris suffers a blow to the head from a falling flowerpot. The old woman helps her board the train and looks after the grateful girl in her compartment. Later, Iris wakes from a nap to find Miss Froy gone and her fellow passengers denying ever having seen an elderly woman with her.
Confused, Iris leads a search of the train, questioning others she met while having tea with Miss Froy in the dining car, only to find that no one else remembers (or will admit to) seeing the woman either. She reluctantly accepts the help of a handsome free spirit named Gilbert, with whom she had an altercation back at the hotel. They continue in their search—Iris convinced something awful has happened to Miss Froy, and most everyone else in agreement with fellow passenger Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) that the flowerpot accident is responsible for her delusion.
Like Stephen King, Hitchcock's ability to thrill a paying audience put him beneath the upturned noses of many self-serious critics. Like Jerry Lewis, his reputation was saved by the French. If not for the attention of filmmaker-critics like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who knows how long it would have taken Hitchcock to be thought of as more than just a director of (blecch) genre pictures?
Before he was the "The Master of Suspense" in America, he was a "thrill-maker" in Britain—pigeonholed by the many spy movies he directed. While The Lady Vanishes is completely in line with the type of British films that made him famous (many of them classics in their own right), the skill with which the director weaves suspense, humor, and action in this film provides a perfect early example of the marriage between art and popular success that made Hitchcock uniquely impressive.
The film begins unexpectedly, with a 24-minute "prologue" in a cramped railway hotel. We are introduced to the main group of characters almost all at once, with the passengers—told their train cannot leave until the next morning thanks to a pesky avalanche—rushing the desk clerk to claim the limited available rooms. They include the adulterous couple Mr. and "Mrs." Todhunter; elderly governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty, Suspicion); a penniless musicologist named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, Goodbye, Mr. Chips); cricket-loving pals Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, Night Train to Munich); and Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood, The Wicked Lady), headed home to be married off to a wealthy suitor.
The early scenes are pure comedy, revolving mostly around the oh-so-British Charters and Caldicott. When we meet them, they're speaking in hushed tones about trouble back home in England. Their worrying, we learn, is not about political unrest or international espionage, but about the score of a cricket match they're missing. The most memorable sequence, though, is the meeting of Iris and her noisy upstairs neighbor Gilbert—a scene straight out of the most screwball of comedies. The lightness is fun, and disarming—making the murder that ends the first act all the more shocking.
The way tones shift throughout the film gives the story real impact. With the help of a brilliant, fluid script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, Hitchcock juggles seemingly disparate elements—playing the sinister off the silly in ways that heighten each in contrast to the other. When Iris begins to doubt her sanity, it's all the more disturbing because she was in such high spirits earlier in the film. This risky style could easily have failed in less skilled hands, but succeeds in this case by keeping the audience on its toes.
Until his move to the big-budget world of American moviemaking, Hitchcock had to make do with relatively little. In fact, The Lady Vanishes was filmed in an Islington studio a mere 90 feet long, with only one train car—the rest of the train, and the surrounding landscape, had to be added using rear projection and models. Though many of the effects are quite obvious—especially the model shot that opens the film—they are never disruptive. Beyond the effects necessary to create the illusion of train travel, there are more subtle instances of visual trickery: During a scene, for example, in which the audience—but not the characters—knows that poisoned brandy is in play, Hitchcock had ten-inch-high drinking glass models made so he could shoot from a low camera angle and have them fill the foreground (a trick he repeated with the construction of a giant hand holding a gun, in Spellbound).
Though it would be easy to focus on the visual techniques Hitchcock employed to bring the maximum amount of suspense, humor, and action to the screen, appropriate credit should be given to Gilliat and Launder's script—based on Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins. Though the director and his wife, Alma Reville (credited for "continuity"), made a few big changes, most of the dialogue belongs to the screenwriting pair. The basic story is an old one—going back, as Hitchcock tells Truffaut, to an allegedly true story from the 1880s about a daughter whose sick mother goes missing after their arrival in Paris for the Exposition Universelle. The premise has made the rounds on TV and in movies—from Hitchcock's own TV series to The Rockford Files and Flightplan. That this version of the story is most highly regarded is a testament to the writers and their collaboration with Hitchcock on a script that strikes a perfect balance between wicked humor and a mystery layered with clever clues and red herrings. Credit in delivery of that script goes to an amazingly talented cast of British actors, including Dame May Whitty, Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave (in his first film), and Paul Lukas. Redgrave and Lockwood, in particular, carry the film: he with his natural charm; she with her emotionally (and visually) arresting portrayal of a woman in turmoil.
From packaging to presentation, Criterion's The Lady Vanishes is a beautiful set. The cover and menu art, based on one of the film's more stylized movie posters, is a big improvement over the case art of Criterion's original release. A 20-page booklet features—besides cast credits and notes about the transfer—two essays: "All Aboard!" by Geoffrey O'Brien, a critical examination of the film as a whole; and "Treachery and Tea" by Charles Barr, about the film's satirical take on England's pre-War class culture.
It's obvious a great deal of care went into cleaning the film. Though there are stray scratches and dirt, the transfer is mostly blemish-free. There's a good deal of film grain, and a fairly persistent—though subtle—flickering, especially around the edges, but neither are distracting. The black levels aren't as dark as they could be, but considering the richness of the warm mid-tone grays, heightening the contrast would likely have resulted in a loss of detail. It's not perfect (heck, it was made 70 years ago), but the Criterion transfer removes enough evidence of age to let the audience focus on the film, not the flaws.
Though Hitchcock movies would later be famous for their scores—many composed by the great Bernard Herrmann—his early work from Blackmail on relied less on music than on sound. Though it may not be immediately apparent, the lack of orchestrated music in The Lady Vanishes is striking. After the opening title sequence, in fact, the only music is that heard by the characters: a lilting folk tune, a celebratory dance played on clarinet. As becomes clear later in the film, this focused approach to music has a specific purpose. Sound, though, plays an important role in establishing the feel of the film. The recurring train whistle—sharp and shrieking—punctuates, obscures, and melds with dialogue. It represents an undercurrent of suspicion and danger. As with the picture, the soundtrack has been cleaned of hiss, crackles, and pops, and is presented in digital mono with crisp dialogue.
The extras reinforce Criterion's well-deserved reputation for substantive and insightful bonus material. Both the audio commentary (a hold-over from the original release) and the video essay "Mystery Train" are scholarly, full of information and analysis. As with your standard college lecture, though, there is a certain dryness in delivery that feels at odds with the pure fun of the film, so your enjoyment may depend on your tolerance for structured learning.
The still gallery includes not only the obligatory behind-the-scenes photos, but a small collection of lobby cards and international film posters. The longest bonus feature, though, is the full-length Charters and Caldicott film, Crook's Tour (1941), based on a radio serial of the same name. It's a rather standard tale of mistaken identity and comic intrigue (Radford and Wayne, incidentally, made quite a living playing the cricket-centric duo, on film and radio): While touring Europe and the Middle East, the pair find themselves (unknowingly, of course) in possession of top-secret information and on the run from German spies. Despite having its moments, the film is notable primarily for never having been released on home video before. Fans of the characters may find Crook's Tour interesting for its historical significance, but compared to the Disc One feature, it's so light I'm surprised it didn't float away. Where The Lady Vanishes pokes sideways fun at England's foreign policy, Crook's Tour awkwardly tackles it head-on—without anywhere near the cleverness of plot.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only disappointment with the set is in the extras—not the quality, but the quantity. The numerous bullets on the back of the box make it sound like this set's bursting with features, but if you take the audio commentary and fairly niche Crook's Tour away, you're left with less than 45 minutes of bonus content. That's not to say you should ignore the commentary, but it does suggest the only reason this isn't a single-disc release is the additional Charters and Caldicott film.
Criterion stays on top of the DVD heap with the selection and restoration of this classic Hitchcock film. It's important not only for being the culmination of lessons learned from working in the British film industry, but for establishing theme, plot, and character ideas the director would use for the rest of his career. Film snobbery aside, it's also great fun. Unlike most genre mash-ups, the comedy is genuinely funny, the action is genuinely thrilling, and the suspense is genuinely…well…suspenseful. With something for everyone, The Lady Vanishes is essential viewing.
This film is hereby declared Not—wait. Has anybody seen a verdict? It was right here a few seconds ago…
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Bruce Eder
Review content copyright © 2007 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.