A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.
Passengers on a scheduled train out of the mountainous European country of Mandrika are delayed by a day due to an avalanche, and thus get up close and personal with each other out of necessity in the only and what becomes an overcrowded inn in the area. Once the train departs, the one person who it is uncertain is on the train is a middle aged English governess named Miss Froy. Iris Henderson, who was vacationing in Mandrika with girlfriends before heading back to England to get married, is certain that Miss Froy was on the train as they were in the same compartment and they had tea together in the dining car, but all those people who can corroborate her story don't seem to want to do so. Iris' thoughts are easily dismissed as a possible concussion as Iris was hit over the head just before boarding the train. Iris will take anyone's help in finding Miss Froy, even that of an Englishman named Gilbert, a musicologist with who she had a not so pleasant encounter at the inn the evening ... Written by
Alfred Hitchcock was noted for his light comic touch, but history records only one attempt at a full-out comedy, 1955's "The Trouble With Harry." The real trouble with "Harry" is it's not funny, but fortunately Hitchcock did leave us with a much surer and defter comedy in the guise of a thriller. Enter "The Lady Vanishes."
The opening scene gets a lot of hackles from people, as we find ourselves in a mountain valley where, after the credits roll, the camera glides over what is obviously a miniature train set. We even see a toy roadster glide by as the camera closes on the exterior of a model house.
Why, it's so primitive and fake! exclaim viewers accustomed to "Matrix"-style FX.
But they miss the point, and not just because they fail to take account of the time when the film was made. Here's what I think: Hitchcock shot the scene with a deliberate nod at the hokeyness of it, reminding his audience from the start that this is not the real thing but play-acting, to be taken as such. He knows it looks a bit phony (though the arresting pan-and-zoom would be the sort of opening other directors would imitate as soon as the technology let them). The focus of "The Lady Vanishes" is not politics, or even mystery. It is fun, in the same non-critical way as a child's entertainment. In this, Hitchcock succeeds, and creates no mere time capsule but a vessel of entertainment that has withstood decades of changing fashion, because it is first, last, and always fun.
"The Lady Vanishes" is the sort of film that works on pace, craft, and charm. The plot is well thought-out, provided you yourself try not to think about it much. There's really no reason for the story to go down the way it does, and once the movie is over, you begin to see the holes. Why is it necessary for British intelligence to go through so much trouble for info that could be just as easily delivered by telegram, or diplomatic pouch? Why, if you cold-bloodedly swipe a woman from a train, do you leave a witness behind to blurt out that there's been a disappearance? How come a name written on the inside of a train compartment window is erased by a blast of locomotive smoke across the outside of the window? But the engaging plot does what it is supposed to, keeping you interested and wondering what will happen next, rather than why it is happening the way it is.
The storyline of "The Lady Vanishes" is unlike any Hitchcock film. It's so light and airy that it reminds me more of a Tintin comic book, with the mythical Slavic nation of Vandreka the sort of simultaneously quaint and suspicious setting Herge would stick Captain Haddock and the Thompson Twins. Leave aside your sophisticated Dashiell Hammett-fed expectations for a moment. If you let yourself go, you will be transported, and quite entertained. Hitchcock never meshed comedy so thoroughly in the body of a story as he does here. Even "North By Northwest" has its serious spots, but "The Lady Vanishes" features a tense fight in a baggage car that's right out of Abbott & Costello and a climactic shootout that pauses for jokes between Caldicott and Charters, the cricket-mad pair who are a non-stop font of humor.
Margaret Lockwood is an effective plot vehicle as doughty Iris, who refuses to believe a knock on the head made her imagine the presence of the title character, Miss Froy. Michael Redgrave (Vanessa's pop) is a revelation as Gilbert, the folk-music scholar who half-humors, half-believes her strange tale until a stray scrap of trash converts him to her cause. He has a wonderful Errol Flynn-like quality, with his toothbrush mustache and his way with a quip.
Speaking of quips, the dialogue in this movie sparkles throughout, as when the barrister tells his mistress "The law, like Caesar's wife, must be above reproach," and she replies "Even when the law just spent six weeks with Caesar's wife?" Or when Iris asks how she was supposed to have replaced Miss Froy's face with that of the sinister Madame Kummer, and Gilbert replies: "Any change would be an improvement."
Interesting also for the opening, which ambles on for about 20 minutes before it starts to go anywhere, establishing the characters and the comic tone without offering a whiff of what the mystery might be. The close, too, with villains who seem oddly detached once the story is resolved ('Jolly good luck to them,' Paul Lukas observes enigmatically.) But that's for film scholars to muse over.
Hitchcock was never as agreeable a companion as he was here. And few films will put the kind of smile on your face like 'The Lady Vanishes,' no matter how long ago it was made.
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