The Lady Vanishes

Year: 1938
Production Co: Gainsborough Pictures
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Sidney Gilliat/Frank Launder
Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, May Whitty

Back in the mid 2000s there was a Jodie Foster thriller called Flightplan that was described as 'Hitchcockian' at the time, but not having seen this film I didn't realise what a direct lift it was, the Macguffin the entire plot turns on a circle drawn with a finger on the window of a plane (in The Lady Vanishes it's a discarded packet of tea). If I'd been familiar with Hitchcock's classic I might not have been as impressed, but if you're a fan of his styles of plotty twists this is Hitchcock at the top of his pre-Hollywood game.

It's prewar Europe and a disparate collection of people are gathering in a small township somewhere in Europe, preparing to return home to the UK by train. Two genteel cricket tragics just want to get to Manchester for the big game. Three society ladies including heroine Iris (Margaret Lockwood), have enjoyed a final fling before Iris goes home to a marriage she won't admit to herself she doesn't want.

Sarcastic, lanky musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is sitting in his room all night playing and recording music with two locals. There's also a high profile lawyer with his mistress in tow, paranoid at being discovered and with her increasingly irritated at his subterfuge, the elderly governess Miss Froy who's in love with the local music drifting up from the street and many more.

They all clash in the only hotel left in town because there are too many of them to fit, the harried manager trying to accommodate them all. The two cricket fans are sent to the maid's quarters (with the party-loving girl coming and going at all hours). Iris, in a decent room of her own, can't sleep with the racket from Gilbert's playing and dancing and when she complains, he gleefully invades her room instead after the manager kicks him out.

But they all get through the night and are milling around the station the next morning preparing to leave when a planter from a high window falls on Iris' head. Miss Froy is nearby, tending to the young woman and getting her safely aboard, and they're off.

Iris wakes up in a train compartment where Miss Froy, who's been watching over her, suggests some tea in the dining car. The pair enjoy a quiet and rejuvenating chat before returning to their compartment and Iris falling asleep again. When she wakes up to find the older lady gone, she becomes increasingly frustrated not only that nobody knows where Miss Froy is, but that everybody denies even seeing her.

It sparks off a manhunt for the missing woman, one the fascinated Gilbert joins in, the pair gradually warming to each other. Iris is convinced of a cover up, but when a renowned brain surgeon gets on at the next stop with a patient bound for the London hospital, offers to take a look at her and diagnoses hallucinogenic concussion, it seems obvious to everyone (even Iris to some degree) that she imagined Miss Froy completely.

But in expert fashion by the writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder – based on a story by Ethel Lina White – enough clues are peppered throughout the proceedings to give Iris enough to hold onto to convince her she's not crazy. During their search, she and Gilbert are attacked by another passenger, a travelling magician, when they discover his magic box that disappears people. The lawyer's mistress secretly confides in Iris that she remembers Miss Froy. Clues gradually stack up and lead to other clues.

The game is afoot, and what actually happened to Miss Froy (and whether she really exists) is connected to the beautiful music she was listening to from her hotel window, the mysterious bandaged patient the doctor has bought aboard and several other people not being exactly who they say they are.

It can't really escape the technological constraints of the time (even the exteriors appear to be shot on sound stages) but it will keep you guessing and there's a nice chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave to keep it all buoyant.

But one more thing I'd be curious about, considering Hitchcock's films are so endlessly analysed and re-interpreted. When we meet Iris she's wealthy and vibrant but feels trapped, bound for a marriage it become increasingly obvious she doesn't want. Even discussing her impending nuptials with her two travelling companions makes it seem like she's effectively given up, as if she's headed for prison instead of marriage. But by the time she's been through her adventures with Gilbert and Miss Froy, Iris sees her fiance waiting for her at the station when they arrive and instead turns and rushes into a waiting cab with Gilbert to complete their mission.

I'm no psychologist, but I can't help wondering if it's partly a fable about how the human spirit thrives on excitement, wonder and serendipity. Iris' ordeal has been frustrating and at-times frightening, but it's nevertheless given her a new lease on life and convinced her she actually has the strength to reject the life it seems fate has carved out for her.

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