Friday, March 11, 2011

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

I don't consider myself much of a connoisseur of Hitchcock films.  I've seen my fair share -- "The 39 Steps" was my first, and "Rope" may be my favorite --  but my personal preference is for more recent films.  On the other hand, whenever I discover a new Hitchcock film I know for a fact that I'm in for a treat, so occasionally I carve out to time to watch one.  Thus I found myself watching "The Lady Vanishes," one of Hitchcock's last works before he moved to produce for American studios, and the film that firmly established his early reputation.

The first half-hour or so of the film is quite slow.  A large number of passengers are waiting for a train that has been snowed in, and must stay overnight at an already crowded inn.  We first see the events of the film through the eyes of two British gentlemen, Charters and Coldicott, utterly enraptured by the sport of cricket and utterly enraged at their inability to learn the score. They meet a young happy couple on their honeymoon -- a secret kept from both their real spouses -- and a chatterbox of an English governess, Ms. Froy (played by the inimitable Dame May Whitty).  At length we shift perspectives to Iris, a beautiful but rather spoiled young lady vacationing in Europe on her distant fiance's money. She bribes the innkeeper to stop the noise coming from the room above her, and meets the charming and worldly Gilbert, who was trying to transcribe a local country dance. Finally, as the night concludes, we return to Ms. Froy, listening in raptures to the trilling melody of a serenading guitarist.

As the music ends, the guitarist is strangled.

Events quickly accelerate. As they board the train, Iris is hit on the head with large flower-pot intended for Ms. Froy.  She manages to get on board, but suffers a concussion, and when she awakes, Ms. Froy has vanished, and none of the other passengers remember seeing her.  Only Gilbert believes her, and it takes him some time for that as well.  They search high and low for Ms. Froy, but to little avail.

The great joy of the film is in Hitchcock's ability to construct a compelling 'conspiracy,' for each person in the compartment must have a compelling reason for forgetting Ms. Froy.  Either they are all in on the conspiracy, or each is lying for reasons of their own.  That slow half-hour at the beginning of the film establishes those independent reasons, such that the final effect doesn't feel nearly as artificial or hodge-podge as it might have otherwise seemed.

There are a few sequences in this film that stand out to me. The fight in the baggage compartment between Gilbert and Doppo the Magnificent (a magician famous for his "vanishing woman" act...) is somewhat suspenseful but mostly uproarious, as Gilbert invites the fish-out-of-water Iris to help him fight.  Likewise, the climactic scene has moments of hilarity as the several English gentlemen find themselves (to their chagrin and disbelief) engaging in a gun battle.  The plot pressed onward, and the suspense is constantly maintained, but such moments and little asides are a genuine delight.

Unlike some of his bleaker works, the conclusion of the film is pretty unambiguously happy -- though Charters and Coldicott are disappointed when the fourth match of their cricket team is canceled due to flooding.  The MacGuffin is satisfactorily revealed, and there is a moment of romantic bliss in the penultimate scene involving Gilbert, Iris, and her fiance -- and no, I won't say more than that. There's nothing terrible profound about this film, but it is decidedly entertaining, and that's good enough for me

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