04 March 2009

Hitchcock | The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on a novel by Ethel Lina White

This is the most "English" film I've ever seen. It features a group of English folks vacationing -- er, holidaying -- in a fictitious country on the continent. Hitchcock mines plenty of humor -- er, humour -- out of the language and customs differences between his countrymen and the foreign-language-talkin' natives. At one point early on, the leading lady corrects the pronunciation of the harried hotel clerk ("ahv-ah-lahn-sh"). Two of the characters are eager to get home in time to catch a cricket match. The titular lady gives a waiter a packet of her own tea and tells him exactly how to make it. There's an entire plot point that hinges on the fact that only the English train passages will be in the dining car during tea time.

Knowing that war is only a year away, this is a fascinating look at the English temperament at the time. Only the English people on the train can be trusted. Every one of the foreigners traveling colludes to keep the lady vanished. Every one of the foreigners is odd or off or mean-looking. When the bad guys replace the vanished lady Mrs. Froy with a foreign clone, the clone is a gruff women with a permanent scowl who looks nothing like smiling Mrs. Froy. The foreign spies are cut-throat murders whilst England's spy -- Mrs. Froy -- is a sweet, old woman who exchanges secret codes in songs. The English are infallibly polite throughout their adventures in hostile territory, even to the point of one of them getting shot in the hand for his trouble. Once harmed, however, they fight for hard for their country. The impression this all gives me is that, even a year before the invasion of Poland, the English were psyching their national consciousness up for an inevitable war.

The film takes a little while to get going. Not knowing anything about it going in, I was a bit fearful that this was going to be a 90-minute film about goofy people in an alpine hotel. What it turned out to be is a summation of all of the tricks Hitchcock's picked up during his filmmaking career up to this point. The film starts with some of his beloved models, which is a fun and inexpensive way to crane through the mountains and into the hotel. The plot follows his favorite themes of normal, naive people being thrust into extraordinary situations. Hitchcock's cheeky humor abounds. There's some great, experimental opticals that allow the audience to experience Iris' concussion. There's some nice suspense when the evil doctor tries to poison Iris and Gilbert and even more when the train is diverted and the English passengers realize the spot they're in. The story is exciting and full of mystery and intrigue. I can certainly understand why this was a smash hit 71 years ago. (7/10)

Watched the region 1 DVD released by Criterion in 2007. Flawless transfer as far as I could tell. Disc 2 also has some great extras, including a spin-off (!) movie.