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By 1938 director Alfred Hitchcock was already in a class by himself. English critics referred to his The Lady Vanishes as simply 'a Hitchcock movie'. We now recognize Lady as a romantic-comedy-suspense thriller developed far in advance of its time. Fritz Lang may have pioneered the espionage and conspiracy film but Hitchcock added his own mischievous personality, mixing jeopardy with sex appeal and a delicious sense of humor.
The bulk of The Lady Vanishes plays out on a passenger train. Besides throwing a score of strangers into a confined dramatic space, the train setting guarantees a heightened sense of excitement: movement toward an uncertain destiny. Although the film's intrigues include kidnapping and murder, Hitchcock maintains a buoyant tone. The supporting characters include a number of amusing eccentrics, and Hitchcock's writers pepper the dialogue with sly jokes and innuendo. But when young Iris Henderson discovers that some of her fellow travelers are not what they seem to be, a European holiday becomes a life and death struggle.
The show begins as a vacation lark on the eve of war. Returning to England from a vacation in Bandrika, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) befriends a charming old governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). After a nap, Iris finds that Miss Froy has disappeared. The Italians and Bandrikans sharing Iris' train compartment claim that MIss Froy never existed. Czech neurologist Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) suggests that Iris is hallucinating. Other travelers including English cricket fans Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford) have ulterior motives for denying that they saw the old governess. Music student Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave) indulges Iris' stubborn assertions until clues indicate that she's telling the truth -- a genuine conspiracy is afoot!
In Hitchcock's The 39 Steps an innocent fugitive uses charm and wit to evade the police and uncover a traitorous nest of spies. The Lady Vanishes changes the sex of the protagonist and puts her on the spot as 'the girl who knew too much.' As the only witness to an apparent kidnapping, Iris Henderson is given plenty of reasons to doubt her own memory. The other passengers in her compartment contradict her version of events and a respected doctor openly questions her sanity. But Iris has both pluck and spirit. With the help of a handsome fellow countryman she chips away at the mystery. If Iris is wrong she'll have inconvenienced a lot of people and proved herself a fool. But if her suspicions are correct lives may be saved, starting with that of the lovable Miss Froy.
Fritz Lang's spy classics predicted that modern times would be an age of technological terror. Hitchcock pulls Lang's paranoia back down to the level of light entertainment. A thoughtless playgirl matures by taking an interest in Mrs. Froy, the kind of sweet old lady that ingénues normally dismiss with a condescending smile. With Europe and England slipping toward war, Hitchcock's writers place Iris on a Ruritanian holiday surrounded by ignorant Bandrikans and distracted, selfish English tourists. As in Foreign Correspondent, a crime is being hatched in Europe while the English have their noses buried in private problems and petty diversions. The comedy team of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford are a deadpan pair of cricket twits. Hitchcock makes their Charters & Caldicott the butt of scores of jokes, starting with their inseparability. If not actually gay, they're platonically married. Hitchcock enjoys poking fun at Englishmen in general. When the suave Dr. Hartz talks about operating on the brain of an English minister, Gilbert Redman asks him if he indeed found a brain in the man's head.
The Lady Vanishes uses music and dance as a major theme. Young Gilbert and Iris 'meet cute' when the clog dancers he's studying 'play musical chairs with an elephant' on the floor above her room. Charters & Caldicott think that the Hungarian Rhapsody is that country's national anthem. A key tune becomes one of Hitchcock's most clever MacGuffins. His assured direction begins with some quaintly unrealistic model work but progresses to excellent special effects to show Gilbert climbing on the outside of a railway car. Hitchcock keeps interest high with expressionistic visuals. A subjective montage of ghostly 'Mrs. Froy' faces convinces Iris to stick to her story.
The Lady Vanishes reinforces 1930s' prejudices against Europeans, sneaky foreigners that exploit English gullibility and mask their murderous schemes with impeccable manners. When the chips are down the English show their true character. The respectable lawyer is revealed as a coward and appeaser, while the complacent Caldicott and Charters prove to be take-charge men of action. Iris and Gilbert's bickering disappears as they commit themselves to solving the mystery -- there's something about that nun that doesn't add up, and it's unwise to expect a magician to stay locked up in his own trick cabinet. Mrs. Froy earns her double-0 spy credentials by dashing into the woods under a hail of gunfire. Iris previously ignored the world outside her hermetic social circle, but adventure and danger open her mind to greater responsibilities. The war is still a year away, but the message imparted is that England can take it.
By 1938 Alfred Hitchcock had become a big fish in a small British pond; he'd soon be snapped up by David O. Selznick and promoted to the Hollywood big leagues. The further development of the English spy thriller would be left to Lady's writers Sidney Gilliat & Frank Launder, and the up 'n' coming "Archers" team of Powell & Pressburger. The film made a star of Michael Redgrave and launched actors Wayne and Radford on a series of spin-off 'Charters & Caldicott' comedies.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Lady Vanishes is a flawless transfer of this highly entertaining thriller, with a sharp image that takes full advantage of HD. It's the third go-round on this title for Criterion, which made Vanishes its third DVD release back before the millennium and then improved it for a 2007 DVD reissue. The audio track is especially clear. Hearing even mumbled lines erases memories of the dismal 16mm prints shown back film school. The commentary is carried by Bruce Eder, who points out the film's relatively straightforward camerawork, and its great many rear projection shots.
The extras replicate the contents of the earlier disc. Present is an entire Charters & Caldicott comedy called Crook's Tour, which mostly serves to remind us how inspired the main feature is. Leonard Leff's Video Essay analyzes Lady in detail, using film clips to illustrate his points directly. An audio extra presents an excerpt from François Truffaut's original tapes talking with Alfred Hitchcock, recorded for his influential interview book. A gallery of photos and artwork are included, and the insert booklet has essays by Geoffrey O'Brien and Charles Barr. Criterion's disc producer is Curtis Tsui; the packaging and cover design on this release are particularly attractive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lady Vanishes Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.