The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Among the British films, The Lady Vanishes stands as an unusual work in Hitchcock’s career. Hitchcock’s signature style is here, but the structure and pacing of the story as well as the ideas at work make the film different. Some of those differences make the film one worth reflecting on as more than just a fun thriller, but sometimes the film is simply entertaining instead of enlightening.

A group of travelers are abandoned during a storm and forced to travel together on the train the next day. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) meets Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) on the train, but after taking a nap discovers the woman is missing. As she tries to find her, everyone around her say they never saw this woman.

Alfred Hitchcock is often heralded as the master of suspense, but The Lady Vanishes is a reminder that he’s also a magnificent comedian. The film runs a gauntlet of gags. There are some humorous physical pratfalls, a number of screwball-comedy style hijinks and pratfalls and the signature dry, morbid humor that is often associated with Hitchcock.

It’s also a bit surprising how risque the film can be. There’s a running gag early on about two of the characters having to take the maids room as long as they agree to let her change in it. Being quite proper gentlemen, they’re at a loss whenever she barges into the room to change while they’re trying to go to sleep. Another sequence involves a man proposing he share a room with a woman he’s never met. Films were much more wholesome back in the day.

Part of the film’s agenda is to reveal how morally compromised the characters are. As the train ride continues, people who could confirm Iris’ tale decide against it. Some do it because they’re afraid of getting involved, others because they’d rather not delay the train. No one on the train feels any obligation to serve any sort of moral order placing the their own interests above any sense of greater good.

Ethel Linda White’s original story makes a framework that connects and unites these characters that otherwise would only seek only their own preservation. It’s in a united sense of self-preservation and self-interest that the train is finally able to come together and work as one.

All this builds to an ending that is tonally unsound. A majority of the film is a quite cynical, sinister look at how society is corrupt and self-seeking at all levels. However, the conclusion the film comes to at the end feels like a cheap, forced note to appease audience-members instead of leaving them in that challenging place of self-reflection and culpability.

Without the conviction to end boldly, The Lady Vanishes ends up squandering a lot of what makes it fascinating. By the end, narrative convention and audience expectation overwhelms an intriguing examination of society. The film would rather be fun and incidental, which might work for a film with lesser ideas, but it fails to live up to the obligations of the themes it presents.

© 2015 James Blake Ewing