Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Hitchcock surrounding himself with beauty on the set of The Lady Vanishes, 1938

Hitchcock on the set with Dame May Whitty and Emile Boreo

Hitchcock on the set with Margaret Lockwood

Hitchcock with Margaret Lockwood

Hitchcock cameo

THE LADY VANISHES            A-                
Great Britain  (97 mi)  1938  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

I don’t see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people.
—Charters (Basil Radford)

When one thinks of Hitchcock’s greatest films, they usually revolve around Shadow of a Doubt (1943), NOTORIOUS (1946), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), REAR WINDOW (1954), Vertigo (1958), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and Psycho (1960), where his British films rarely enter into the discussion.  British film critic David Thomson, for instance, acknowledges that “Hitchcock in England is a career unto itself,” but does not include any of the British films on his list of the director's greatest works.  David Denby writing for The New Yorker wrote, “In recent decades, critical consensus has settled on the American movies from the fifties.”  That means Dial M for Murder (1954), The Trouble With Harry (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), The Birds (1960), and even Rebecca (1940) are often mentioned before his British classics The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929), THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), and what is arguably his most definitively British film, THE LADY VANISHES (1938).  Ironically the film originated with an American director, Roy William Neill, for a film called The Lost Lady, produced by Edward Black, where a crew was sent to former Yugoslavia for initial background shots, but the police interfered, thinking Yugoslavs were not being well-portrayed in the film, so they were booted out of the country.  A year later, Black offered the film to Hitchcock, which features an exquisite screenplay enhanced by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who turned it into one of his best British films. Hitchcock actually received a cable in the middle of shooting this film from producer David O. Selznick in America asking him to come to Hollywood to direct a picture and the rest is history.  Unlike Fritz Lang’s master criminal in his thrillers who has the capability to cloud other men’s minds through hypnosis and disguise, creating hallucinogenic qualities, Hitchcock often uses a luring spirit from beyond the grave, such as the ghostly presence of Rebecca (1940), or Madeleine/Carlotta in Vertigo (1958), Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960), not to mention the lingering presence of the cadavers in ROPE (1948), REAR WINDOW (1954), and The Trouble With Harry (1955).  Meeting Hitchcock in Hollywood a few years after THE LADY VANISHES, British-American actor and film producer John Houseman found him to be “a man of exaggeratedly delicate sensibilities, marked by…the scars from a social system against which he was in perpetual revolt and which had left him suspicious and vulnerable, alternately docile and defiant.”  Hitchcock was born and raised in London, where according to author and academic Charles Barr in his Criterion essay, The Lady Vanishes: Tea and Treachery: 

The son of a tradesman, Hitchcock was exposed to the subtle brutalities of the English class system from an early age, both in his own education and as a precocious London theatergoer fascinated by the work of such anatomists of English society as Shaw and John Galsworthy.  Like any British filmmaker of the period, he could hardly have avoided class issues when he began as a director in 1926, and his films show a consistent sharpness in handling them, in particular the tensions created by relationships across a class divide, as in the silent films The Lodger (1927) and The Manxman (1929) and the early sound films Murder! (1930) and The Skin Game (1931).

While Hitchcock was a Londoner at heart, he was also European and cosmopolitan, traveling frequently whenever possible, influenced both by key elements within his national culture as well as formative cinematic influences from elsewhere, such as German expressionism, Hollywood cinema, and Soviet montage.  So it should perhaps come as no surprise that this film is a beautiful composite of these various cultural influences, adapted from the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, where the film is a romantic espionage thriller that was largely a metaphor for the peace that was about to vanish in Europe.  The film was made in the same year as Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement to Nazi Germany in the Munich Agreement, symbolizing the failure of the West to prevent the annexation and eventual occupation of Czechoslovakia which would be doomed to seven years of Nazi domination, but also Poland’s subsequent invasion in 1939, conditions that lead to the outbreak of World War II.  The film is set in the fictional mountains of an unnamed European country, where the trains have stopped running as an avalanche has stranded the mostly British characters in a picturesque mountain resort, introduced in near storybook fashion where the mountainous backdrop has obviously been artfully painted, while the initial shots zooming into the snowbound village, “one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners,” is clearly a miniature set, featuring toy trains, powdered snow, and frozen figurines, all adding a touch of playfulness.  While the early hotel scenes play out as a comedy of manners, a British comic farce with Hitchcock deriving pleasure at the misfortunes of the British travelers having to put up with the discomforts and confusions of life abroad, as the hotel is besieged by panicked customers who will need another night’s accommodations, the film is essentially a train journey of British passengers anxious to get home who form a microcosm of English society, all filmed in one train car (the rest were miniatures or artificially realized), where the audience becomes absorbed by the characters and the story.  Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), are an amusing gay couple who represent the idle rich, the same ruling classes that are working to appease Hitler, where they are more worried about a cricket match than the concerns of others.  Stalled at the desk waiting for a room, they are appalled at the attention given to several spoiled and attractive young girls whose idea of wealth is marrying into it, somehow detesting this idea, as represented by the young and beautiful heroine, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), an heiress returning home to marry some fabulously wealthy, father-approved Lord who comes with a title and his own coat-of-arms, celebrating her last night with champagne.   

Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) is the elderly, but surprisingly spry governess enthralled by the local music, and if you blink you’ll miss that the musician she is listening to on the streets below is snuffed out in an instant, unseen by anyone, adding a gripping element of terror to the nonstop comedy, where in this film Hitchcock cleverly disguises and prolongs the sense of urgency from an existing, though largely unseen danger that could threaten all their lives, yet the rising tension is balanced by breezy, lighthearted British comedy throughout.  Musicologist Gilbert, Michael Redgrave in his first starring role, rudely refuses to stop making plenty of racket in his room above Iris, where the two begin as arch enemies, bickering incessantly, though in that delightfully cultivated British sense of humor. Both Gilbert and Miss Froy are coy about their class status, neither one mentioning their past, though both are cultured and well educated.  Finally there is Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker), perhaps a lawyer of some sort and his attractive female companion, aka Mrs. Todhunter (Linden Travers), where both are probably cheating on their respective spouses and more concerned about not being detected.  Just before they board the train, Iris has just been hit over the head by a second story window planter that appears to have been intentionally dropped, though likely targeting someone else.  Miss Froy takes her under her wing and looks after her on the train, offering her some tea, the British cure for everything.  Falling asleep afterwards, by the time she awakes, Miss Froy has vanished.  Iris searches the train, but all the other passengers deny ever having seen her, while documents have apparently been forged by the wait staff to suggest Iris earlier had tea alone.  All of this is a growing mystery, where the only person to come to her aid is Gilbert, who feels it’s the only right and honorable thing to do, to help a lady in distress.  They  run into a brick wall, however, where some people have their own private reasons not to get involved, while others are secret collaborators in a Nazi spy ring, but Iris grows more hysterical by the minute, eventually pulling the lever to stop the train.  This draws the ire of most passengers, who begin to think of her as that crazy lady, where Paul Lukas, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor for WATCH ON THE RHINE (1943), beating out Humphrey Bogart from CASABLANCA (1942), plays a seemingly compassionate brain surgeon Dr. Hartz who attributes the problem to the bump on her head, claiming it’s a very common Freudian symptom for those suffering from concussion-related hallucinations and offers to treat her at his clinic later that same evening. 

The viewer has every reason to believe Iris is going out of her mind, even though evidence seen with our own eyes suggests otherwise, where something sinister hangs in the air.  To unravel the mystery, they search every car and every compartment, where they even discover another woman dressed exactly like Miss Froy, which only adds to the intrigue.  It has the macabre underground atmosphere of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet who specialize in the art of the double-cross, always meeting in secrecy while conducting shady business transactions, as there’s a cloud of suspicion hanging over everyone’s head.  By a process of elimination, they have only to confirm the identity of Dr. Hartz’s patient, whose face is wrapped in bandages, guarded by a Catholic nun (Catherine Lacy), reportedly deaf and dumb, though later we hear her speaking perfectly, actually changing sides and helping the British couple, a similar theme initiated earlier in Number Seventeen (1932).  A key clue gives the nun away, opening the door to new possibilities, actually saving their lives when the doctor, who turns out to be a cold-blooded Nazi agent, thinks the snooping team is getting too close, miraculously finding Miss Froy underneath all those bandages, while exchanging patients with the woman wearing her identical clothes, replacing the bandages over her face.  As the doctor gets off with his patient at his intended stop, however, he discovers something is amiss, where we see him speaking to various military officials.  While for a moment Miss Froy is free to breathe again, Gilbert makes an announcement to the British passengers in the train’s dining car just as they are having tea (of course) explaining the nefarious activities of the good doctor who attempted to kidnap Miss Froy, suggesting they all may be in trouble.  With this announcement, the dining car has been separated from the train and shifted to a side track, where it rolls to a stop in the middle of a forest.  Cars can be seen through the trees, along with Dr. Hartz and several military men, where the reaction of the group mimics the standard European reaction to the growing Nazi threat, suggesting things like this don’t happen, they seem like reasonable sorts, perhaps we could reason with them, where Todhunter proclaims with the same assurance as Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies), the bird expert in The Birds (1960), “They can’t possibly do anything to us.  We’re British subjects.”  Leave it to the gayest character on the train, Caldicott, to retort, “Pacifist?  Won’t work.  Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions.”  But as the soldiers quickly advance with guns pointed, Gilbert fires at them before allowing armed men to take over the train.  Disregarding the warnings of others, Todhunter takes the appeasement route and declares, “This is madness, I’ll go out and speak to them,” but he’s shot on the spot, despite carrying a white handkerchief. 

There on that train, in the middle of some nameless forest, a firefight breaks out.  It’s only then that Miss Froy reminds them all, “You shouldn’t judge any country by its politics.  We English are quite honest by nature,” revealing she is carrying government secrets, which have been coded into a musical melody that she heard out her window that night, quickly teaching it to Gilbert before she escapes out the back way.  Leave it to the oldest among them to show her true colors, reminding the embattled group that it will take all of them to stand up to this fascist scourge.  Only by banding together, instead of meekly minding their own business, are they able to change the dark tide, but only through the self-sacrifice of the only working class Brit aboard, where no one in this group even recognizes a lower-class London accent, disguised earlier as the foreign nun, as she turns out to be a civilian Englishwoman that helps save the day.  This is a different kind of espionage film, unlike the gun-toting, misogynistic, martini-drinking James Bond films, as this represents a far more accurate portrayal of the enormous contribution made by female intelligence agents.  Bletchley Park where the Allies decrypted the Nazi codes during WW II was largely run by women, where Churchill referred to these invaluable women as being “the geese who laid the golden eggs, but did not cackle.”  American chef and television personality Julia Child worked for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the war, working directly for the head of OSS, General William J. Donovan.  In much the same way, Charters and Caldicott, the cricket obsessed gay Brits who are the most jovial couple in the film, rise to the occasion and prove to be patriotic Englishmen who do not hesitate to use force to defend themselves.  They clearly foreshadow the role of the great British mathematician Alan Turing, the subject of THE IMITATION GAME (2014), a brilliantly educated gay man who devised a number of groundbreaking techniques for breaking German codes.  Winston Churchill said Turing made the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.  Nonetheless, showing the depths of how depraved and empty-headed government cabinet ministers can be (a view likely shared by Hitchcock), Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952.  In something out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), as an alternative to prison, he accepted what amounts to chemical castration by taking female hormone injections, dying two years later from cyanide poisoning.  It took until 2009 for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to make an official government apology for “the appalling way he was treated.” The Queen also granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.  Like Renoir’s RULES OF THE GAME (1939) made a year later, there’s a special significance for these films coming on the dawn of World War II, as they are, among other things, a prophetic commentary on the troubled times, anticipating the cataclysmic events to come, while also serving as a clarion call to arms against the forces of fascism. 

Note – The Hitchcock cameo comes at the 92-minute mark where Hitchcock, wearing a black coat and puffing on a cigarette, is seen walking on the platform of London’s Victoria Station as Iris and Gilbert are returning to the city.

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