|Director: Alfred Hitchcock |
|Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat & Frank Launder (based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White)
|Stars: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Matilda Henderson), Michael Redgrave(Gilbert Redman), Paul Lukas (Dr. Hartz of Prague), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy, Governess), Cecil Parker (Eric Todhunter), Linden Travers (“Mrs.” Margaret Todhunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford (Charters), Mary Clare (Baroness Isabel Nisatona), Emile Boreo (Boris the Hotel Manager), Googie Withers (Blanche), Sally Stewart (Julie)
|MPAA Rating: NR
|Year of Release: 1938
In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, his in-depth examination of each of Hitchcock's films, Donald Spoto notes that The Lady Vanishes is the one Hitchcock film “that may be most fully enjoyed without analysis.” This is not to say that the film cannot support analysis (in fact, Spoto goes to some length to analyze the structuring motifs of sleep, music, and memory throughout the film), it is just that picking it apart doesn't substantially increase the enjoyment and appreciation of the film the way it does with other Hitchcock works. It is, to again borrow from Spoto, simply “crackling good entertainment.”
The Lady Vanishes was the second-to-last film Hitchcock made in his native England before moving to Hollywood at the invitation of producer David O. Selznick, and it is by far his most British film. Part of this has to do with the pronounced presence of two comical secondary characters, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), who are the very definition of caricatured stuffy, erudite Brits on vacation (their characters were so popular that they later headlined their own films and a radio series). Utterly obsessed with the outcome of a cricket match back home, they studiously avoid involvement in the film's spy-thriller shenanigans until they are literally thrust into the middle of it. Until then, they keep a stiff upper lip and try to stay out of any business they don't perceive to be their own.
These characters work so well because The Lady Vanishes is, at its heart, a comedy. It is such a good comedy, in fact, that it makes you wish Hitchcock had made more of them (although it should be said that virtually all of his film have some comedic elements to them, even if said comedy comes in various shades of pitch black). The majority of the story takes place on a train that is headed back from an unnamed country in Eastern Europe. We have already met all of the principal characters at a hotel the night before. In addition to Charters and Caldicott, we have our protagonist, Iris Matilda Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a free spirit who is returning to England somewhat reluctantly to settle down and get married. At the hotel she develops an antagonistic relationship with Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), a dashing musicologist who irritates her to no end with his music playing and dancing in the room above. And then there's Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a prototypical little old lady who is returning to England after having worked abroad as a governess.
Iris and Miss Froy sit in the same car on the train the next morning and share tea together. Iris dozes off, and when she wakes up, Miss Froy has disappeared. Iris's inability to locate the woman on the relatively small train (it seems to have only four or five cars) is heightened when everyone around her, including those sitting in the same passenger cabin, claim to have never seen the woman at all. We know that Miss Froy does indeed exist because we saw her the night before interacting with a number of characters, thus she cannot be a hallucination or a dream. The question, then, is twofold: What has happened to Miss Froy and what conspiracy is afoot to convince all these people to deny having seen her?
One of the most delightful tricks in The Lady Vanishes is the way screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (working from a novel by Ethel Lina White) eventually supply us with completely convincing, yet slightly absurd, answers to these questions. Each person who denies having seen Miss Froy has good reason--some nefarious, some selfish, and some just ridiculous. Ironically, of course, Gilbert Redman is the only person on the train who believes Iris's account of the disappearing woman, and if I'm ruining anything by suggesting that their search for answers leads to romance, then you haven't seen very many movies.
While certainly not one of Hitchcock's deepest or most innovative films, The Lady Vanishes works as pure enjoyment. (It is also something of a technical accomplishment, considering that is was shot entirely on a single 90-foot soundstage and used miniatures and rear projection to create the illusions of place and movement.) It's both funny and intriguing in the way it develops its mystery and then strings it out into a web of espionage and deceit. Hitchcock upped the action-violence factor by adding a fistfight in the baggage car and a shootout to the script, all of which he gleefully called “fantasy, sheer fantasy!” in his interview with François Truffaut. It may be fantasy, but few directors have ever had a firmer grasp on how to suck you into it.
|The Lady Vanishes Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder
Crook's Tour, a 1941 feature-length Charters and Caldicott adventure
Excerpts from François Truffaut's legendary 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock
“Mystery Train,” video essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff
Stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and promotional art
New essays by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and Hitchcock scholar Charles Barr
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 20, 2007 |
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|For those interested in observing just how far digital transfers have come in the past 10 years, a comparison of Criterion's original 1998 release of The Lady Vanishes and this new disc would be instructive. While state-of-the-art in '98, the image quality on the original disc, despite having been restored, pales in comparison to the this release. The new high-definition transfer, which was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System, is infinitely smoother, cleaner, and more detailed (it also has twice the average bit rate and is dual-layered). While contrast was too heavy on the older transfer, this one maintains a beautiful gradation of grays, which creates a more natural, film-like appearance. The original monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print and digitally restored, certainly reflects the limitations of sound film technology in the late 1930s, but sounds extremely good for its age. There is little or no ambient hiss and a minimum of aural artifacts.
|The only supplement included on the original Criterion disc, a screen-specific audo commentary by film scholar Bruce Eder, is also included on this new disc. All of the others supplements are new. “Mystery Train,” a 33-minute video essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, is like an illustrated, condensed version of a good commentary track. Leff covers all the major topics, including how the film fits in with Hitchcock's other work, his relatioship with the actors, the film's political subtext, and even whether or not Caldicott and Charters are gay. The biggest addition to this new DVD is the inclusion of the entire 1941 feature film Crook's Tour, which marked the second time Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne had reprised their on-screen roles as Charters and Caldicott. This is the first time this amusing movie has been available on home video, so that alone makes it something of a milestone. While the liner notes don't cite the source of the transfer, it must have been a nice print because the image is quite clean and sharp, with little in the way of age or damage. Another wonderful new addition is 10 minutes of audio footage from François Truffaut's 1962 interview with Hitchcock. Having read the resulting 1967 book Hitchcock numerous times, it was a real pleasure to hear the actual interview for myself, rather than simply read its transcription. There is also a stills gallery that contains 4 behind-the-scenes photos, 8 lobby cards, and 10 international posters.
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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