The Noirwich Crime Writing Festival is here again! To celebrate, we’re dusting off a favourite thriller that balances jolly japes and suspense: The Lady Vanishes, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The Lady Vanishes is one of the final films in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘British Era’, before he travelled to America to make such classics as Psycho, The Birds, Notorious, Dial M For Murder, Rear Window and Vertigo. Hitchcock had been making films for 16 years by the time he directed The Lady Vanishes, and his fame was growing rapidly, as he had already released The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much to great acclaim.
The Lady Vanishes is a comedy thriller based on a novel called The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White about a young woman travelling through Europe who stumbles into a bizarre mystery. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), returning to England to get married, is forced to stay overnight in an overcrowded inn in the fictional country of Bandrika when her train is delayed. She is woken in the night by the rude but handsome Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) playing folk music in the attic room above. The next day, as they are preparing to get on the train, Iris is knocked out by a falling flower pot and wakes up in a train compartment, being looked after by a kindly ex-governess called Miss Froy (May Whitty). She falls asleep and wakes to discover that Miss Froy is nowhere to be found, and everyone on the train denies that she was ever there. Was her friend simply a dream brought on by a head injury, or is there something more sinister at work?
While The Lady Vanishes lacks the visceral horror and nerve-jangling tension of Hitchcock’s more serious works, it is a really well put-together film, filled with thrilling chases and witty banter. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave have wonderful chemistry as an initially hostile partnership who quickly become friends. Gilbert is the only person on the train willing to believe Iris, and their dialogue is joyful to watch as they form an unlikely alliance to solve the sinister conundrum. Both actors were relatively unknown in film at the time, but their star quality is evident.
For all the danger and mystery, there are moments of brilliant comedy, mostly from two cricket-obsessed Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), who are rushing back to England to see the last days of a Test match and spend the whole film trying to find out the current score. Charters and Caldicott turned into a popular comedy duo, appearing in other British films such as Dead of Night, as well as their own BBC TV series. Some of the comedy hasn’t aged well, with a lot of portrayals of the ‘locals’ becoming uncomfortable these days, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, especially as the film makes as much fun of these intolerant, bumbling English tourists as it does the citizens of Bandrika.
The Lady Vanishes might be one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films, but it is well worth watching, great fun while also filled with suspense and mystery.
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Check out our Short History of Crime Fiction in 9 Books here for more pulse-pounding stories.
Plenty of authors, from Agatha Christie to Patricia Highsmith, have taken inspiration from the claustrophobic, self-contained atmosphere of a train as a perfect setting for murder. Watch Strangers On a Train (DVD LOBBY 791.43) for another Hitchcock classic set on a train – we reviewed it here. While Agatha Christie’s most famous train-based mystery is Murder on the Orient Express, 4.50 From Paddington is closer to The Lady Vanishes, as a friend of Miss Marple’s sees a woman strangled in a passing train and the amateur detective investigates. We have the BBC adaptation from the 1990’s and the more recent ITV adaptation in the DVD Lobby at 823.91. La Bête Humaine by Émile Zola is an intense psychological study of a murderer who is obsessed with a particular train (NORFOLK HOUSE 843.8).
Another great example of this old-fashioned gallows humour is The Ladykillers, a film from Ealing Studios starring Alex Guinness as the leader of a group of thieves whose best-laid plans are undone by a kindly old woman whose house they use to make their scheme. Check it out, and the rest of Ealing’s best comedies, in The Definitive Ealing Studios Collection (DVD LOBBY 791.43).
We have most of Alfred Hitchcock’s great films in the DVD Lobby, but to see where The Lady Vanishes fits in his oeuvre, watch Hitchcock: the British Years and The Early Hitchcock Collection, both in the DVD LOBBY at 791.43.
United Artists (1938) Catherine Lacy, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes [film still] Accessible at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The-Lady-Vanishes-1938.jpg (Accessed on: 22/09/16)