ⓘ The Lady Vanishes


ⓘ The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes is a 1938 British mystery thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the film is about a beautiful English tourist travelling by train in continental Europe who discovers that her elderly travelling companion seems to have disappeared from the train. After her fellow passengers deny ever having seen the elderly lady, the young woman is helped by a young musicologist, the two proceeding to search the train for clues to the old ladys disappearance.

The Lady Vanishes was filmed in the Gainsborough Studios at Islington, London. Hitchcock caught Hollywoods attention with the film and relocated to Hollywood soon after its release. Although the directors three previous efforts had done poorly at the box office, The Lady Vanishes was widely successful, and confirmed American producer David O. Selznicks belief that Hitchcock indeed had a future in Hollywood cinema.

The British Film Institute ranked The Lady Vanishes the 35th best British film of the 20th century. In 2017 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw it ranked the 31st best British film ever. Having remained one of Hitchcocks most renowned British films, a remake also titled The Lady Vanishes was released in 1979, and in March 2013 the BBC broadcast a TV adaptation starring Tuppence Middleton as Iris. Bill Kenwright adapted the 1938 film to a stage version, which went on a national tour in 2019. The play stars husband and wife Juliet Mills and Maxwell Caulfield and Lorna Fitzgerald.


1. Plot

English tourist Iris Henderson Margaret Lockwood along with her friends Blanche Googie Withers and Julie Sally Stewart arrive at the "Gasthof Petrus" inn in the country of Bandrika, "one of Europes few undiscovered corners". Iris is returning to Britain to marry a "blue-blooded cheque chaser", but an avalanche has blocked the railway line. The stranded passengers are forced to stay the night at the inn, including Charters and Caldicott, cricket enthusiasts who want to return to England to see the last days of the Test match. Charters and Caldicott head for the dining room and are seated with Miss Froy Dame May Whitty, only to find that due to the rush of unexpected guests, there is no food left. Miss Froy tells them of her experience being governess and music teacher for the past six years and now returning home to England. Upon hearing a folk singer in the distance, she remarks on the cultural richness of the country and exits the dining room.

In her room, Miss Froy opens the window to listen more intently to the folk singer, who sings on the street below her window. As evening comes, her listening is interrupted by a clarinet and stomping coming from the room above. Coming into the hallway of the inn, she encounters Iris, who has the room next to hers and is very perturbed by the noise. Iris calls the hotel manager, who enters the offending room to discover Gilbert Redman Michael Redgrave, an ethnomusicologist, who is playing clarinet and transcribing indigenous folk music of the region while three natives dance. The hotel manager has Gilbert thrown out of his room. Gilbert attempts to make himself comfortable in Iriss room, forcing her to capitulate.

As Miss Froy listens, the folk singer is strangled by an unseen murderer.

The next morning, before catching the train, Iris is hit on the head by a planter apparently aimed at Miss Froy, who then helps Iris onto the train. Also on board are Charters and Caldicott, Gilbert, a lawyer named Todhunter and his mistress "Mrs. Todhunter". As a result of her injury, Iris blacks out. After the train is moving, Iris wakes up in a compartment with Miss Froy and several strangers. She joins Miss Froy in the dining car for tea. Unable to be heard above the train noise, the elderly lady writes her name on the window with her finger. Soon after, they return to their compartment, where Iris falls asleep.

When Iris awakens, Miss Froy has vanished. The strangers in her compartment say they know nothing about an English lady. Even Todhunter, who spoke with Miss Froy earlier, pretends not to remember her in an attempt to avoid any possible scandal. Iris searches, but cannot find her. She meets up with Gilbert, who agrees to help. Dr. Hartz Paul Lukas, a brain surgeon, says Iris may be suffering from concussion-related hallucinations. Charters and Caldicott also claim not to remember Miss Froy, because they are afraid a delay would make them miss the cricket match.

Madame Kummer, dressed exactly like Miss Froy, appears in her place, but Iris and Gilbert continue to search. They are attacked by a knife-wielding magician, Signor Doppo. They start to suspect that Dr. Hartzs patient, whose face is covered by bandages, is Miss Froy. Dr. Hartz tells his fellow conspirator, a British woman dressed as a nun, to drug Iris and Gilbert. Then, convinced they will soon be asleep, Hartz admits to them that he is involved in the conspiracy. The false nun does not follow Hartzs instructions out of loyalty to her fellow countrymen; Gilbert and Iris escape, free Miss Froy and replace her with Madame Kummer.

When the train stops near the border, Dr. Hartz discovers the switch. He has part of the train diverted onto a branch line, where soldiers await. Gilbert and Iris inform their fellow passengers of what is happening. The train pulls to a stop and a uniformed soldier requests that they all accompany him. They knock him out and take his gun. Another soldier fires, wounding Charters in the hand, and a shootout begins.

During the gunfight, Miss Froy reveals to Gilbert and Iris that she is a British agent who must deliver a message to the Foreign Office in Whitehall. The message is encoded in the tune that the folk singer sang. Gilbert memorises the tune. With his help, Miss Froy slips away into the forest. Todhunter attempts to surrender, waving a white handkerchief, and is shot dead. Gilbert and Caldicott then commandeer the locomotive, and the group escape across the border.

In London, Charters and Caldicott discover the Test Match has been cancelled due to flooding. Seeing her fiance from a distance, Iris avoids him and jumps into a cab with Gilbert. Recognizing that Iris would rather be with him than her betrothed, Gilbert kisses her. They arrive at the Foreign Office, and are seated in a waiting room. Suddenly Gilbert is unable to remember the vital tune. Gilbert and Iris then hear the tune on the piano. The doors of the office open to reveal Miss Froy playing the tune on the piano surrounded by ministers listening intently. The film ends as the three are joyfully reunited.


2. Production

The Lady Vanishes was originally called The Lost Lady, and Irish director Roy William Neill was assigned by producer Edward Black to make it. A crew was dispatched to Yugoslavia to do background shots, but when the Yugoslav police accidentally discovered that they were not well-portrayed in the script, they kicked the crew out of the country, and Black scrapped the project. A year later, Hitchcock could not come up with a property to direct to fulfil his contract with Black, so he accepted when Black offered The Lost Lady to him. Hitchcock worked with the writers to make some changes to tighten up the opening and ending of the story, but otherwise the script did not change much.

At first, Hitchcock considered Lilli Palmer for the female lead, but went instead with Margaret Lockwood, who was at the time relatively unknown. Lockwood was attracted to the heroines of Ethel Lina Whites stories, and accepted the role.

Michael Redgrave was also unknown to the cinema audience, but was a rising stage star at the time. He was reluctant to leave the stage to do the film, but was convinced by John Gielgud to do so. As it happened, the film, Redgraves first leading role, made him an international star. However, according to Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, Redgrave and Hitchcock did not get along; Redgrave wanted more rehearsals, while Hitchcock valued spontaneity more. The two never worked together again.

The film, which was shot at Islington Studios and Shepherds Bush, and on location in Hampshire, including at Longmoor Military Camp where there is the Longmoor Military Railway, was the first to be made under an agreement between Gaumont-British and MGM, in which Gaumont provided MGM with some of their Gainsborough films for release in the UK, for which MGM would pay half the production costs if MGM decided to release the film in the US. In the case of The Lady Vanishes, however, 20th Century-Fox did the American release.

Filming was briefly interrupted by a strike of electricians.

The plot of Hitchcocks film differs considerably from Whites novel. In The Wheel Spins, Miss Froy really is an innocent old lady looking forward to seeing her octogenarian parents; she is abducted because she knows something without realising its significance that would cause trouble for the local authorities if it came out. Iris mental confusion is due to sunstroke, not a blow to the head. In Whites novel, the wheel keeps spinning: the train never stops, and there is no final shoot-out. Additionally, the supporting cast differs somewhat; for instance, in the novel, the Gilbert character is Max Hare, a young British engineer building a dam in the hills who knows the local language, and there is also a modern-languages professor character who acts as Iriss and Maxs interpreter who does not appear in the film. The cricket-obsessed characters Charters and Caldicott were created especially for the film and do not appear in the novel.

The plot has clear references to the political situation leading up to World War II. The British characters, originally trying their hardest to keep out of the conflict, end up working together to fight off the jack-booted foreigners, while the lawyer who wishes to negotiate with the attackers by waving a white flag is shot.

Alfred Hitchcock can be seen at Victoria Station, wearing a black coat and smoking a cigarette, near the end of the film. The film marks the first appearance of the comedy double-act Charters and Caldicott played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford.


3.1. Reception and legacy Critical response

When The Lady Vanishes opened in the UK it was an immediate hit, becoming the most successful British film to that date. It was also very successful when it opened in New York. In a contemporary review, the Monthly Film Bulletin described the film as an "out of the ordinary and exciting thriller", praising Hitchcocks direction and the cast, specifically Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas and Dame May Whitty.

The film has retained its popularity through the years. In his review for the BBC, Jamie Russell gave the film four out of five stars, calling it a "craftily sophisticated thriller" and a "cracking piece of entertainment". In his review for BFI Screenonline, Mark Duguid wrote that the film was "arguably the most accomplished, and certainly the wittiest of Hitchcocks British films, and is up there with the best of his American work". Duguid singled out the young writing partnership of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, noting:

The story is blessed by great characters and many witty and imaginative touches, in particular the conceit by which the passengers are each given selfish motives for refusing to verify Iris story. As well as the chemistry between the two leads, the film has some of Hitchcocks best character parts, with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne particularly good value as the cricket obsessed Charters and Caldicott.

The American film critic and historian Leonard Maltin gave the film four out of four stars in his Movie Guide, and included the film in his list of 100 Must-See Films of the 20th Century. The Guardian called the film "one of the greatest train movies from the genres golden era", and a contender for the "title of best comedy thriller ever made". The film frequently ranks among the best British films of all time.


3.2. Reception and legacy Awards and honours

The Lady Vanishes was named Best Picture of 1938 by The New York Times. In 1939, Hitchcock received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director, the only time Hitchcock received an award for his directing.


4. Charters and Caldicott

The humorous characters Charters and Caldicott proved to be so popular that they were featured in three somewhat related films that were made by other writers and directors. Night Train to Munich 1940 was the first of the three and was directed by Carol Reed. This film was also written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and starred Margaret Lockwood playing a different character than in The Lady Vanishes as well as Rex Harrison. Night Train to Munich was given a DVD release by Criterion.

The duo also appeared in 1941 in Crooks Tour written by Barbara K. Emary and directed by John Baxter. This film was included as a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release of The Lady Vanishes. The last film to feature the Charters and Caldicott characters was Millions Like Us 1943, which was once again written by Gilliat and Launder, who also assumed the role of directors. Hitchcock had nothing to do with any of these films, and had moved to Hollywood by the time they went into production.


5. Music and sound

Elisabeth Weis contends that Hitchcock’s use of sound in The Lady Vanishes uses the" classical style” – that is, that the director eschews expressionistic sounds in favor of sounds heard in a realistic context. For example, when Iris faints on the train, rather than extraneous noises to denote delirium, only the sound of the train is heard. Another striking use of sound is how evil things are often heard before they are shown. The evil doctor Dr. Hartz often is first heard before he appears on screen, representing an aural intrusion" not so much an invasion of piracy as of security.”

In over half of Hitchcock’s films, music is an essential component, often of fundamental importance to the plot. In The Lady Vanishes, Gilbert is a musicologist really an ethnomusicologist and music teacher and Miss Froy is also a music teacher." Hitchcock’s dependence on music, classical or popular, is also the logical outgrowth of his search for plot devices that are suggestive but that derive naturally from a situation, so that any symbolic or metaphorical value they might have is not so obtrusive as to stop the flow of action or reduce audience involvement.” Other than diegetic source music, no other music is heard during the film.

The idea of confusing noise with music already present in Hitchcock’s 1936 film Secret Agent is used when we first encounter Gilbert, the musicologist. We first hear the sound coming from his room as it interrupts Miss Froy listening to the serenader. Iris complains about the" noise” to the hotel manager. When she finally encounters Gilbert he clarifies their different points of view:" You dare call it noise - the ancient music with which your peasant ancestors celebrated every wedding for countless generations…” That Gilbert speaks of wedding music is ironically intentional because it will come up again at the end of the film when he tries to recall the tune and sings Mendelssohns Wedding March instead, an indication of his impending marriage to Iris.

The notion of folk music and its deceptive innocence is significant in the film. The first encounter with folk music is when Miss Froy hears the serenader from the dining room. Before leaving to go to her room and listen more intently, she remarks" Do you hear that music? Everyone sings here, the people are just like happy children with laughter on their lips and music in their hearts.” The next encounter with folk music is Gilbert’s preoccupation with preserving the musical heritage of Mandrika which" helps establish the innocent and indigenous qualities of folk tunes - and his own innocent, awkward sincerity as well.” The irony of these set-ups is that folk music is the cause of trouble. In the serenader’s case, his playing of the tune - the films MacGuffin - results in his murder. In Gilbert’s case, his playing results in complaint from Iris.