9/23/09

Hitch on the Hump: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

By 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was tiring of the British film industry. His last couple of films, 1936’s Sabotage and 1937’s Young and Innocent, had made no inroads with the movie going public, and the choice of films laid out for him by producers at Gaumont-British were not to his taste. He dreamed of moving to Hollywood, and he had recently traveled to America to begin making overtures to the various studios. When he returned, he still owed one more film for his Gaumont contract. Hitchcock had been so wrapped up in his plans to escape the U.K. for America that the notoriously prepared director didn’t have a project lined up.

Enter new screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. The pair had been working for some time on an adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Stops, and even before Hitchcock got his hands on it they had crafted a tale with distinct “Hitchcockian” flair. There was a speeding train, a young man and woman linked by necessity, a missing body, and a pair of Englishmen more interested in finding out the cricket scores than finding the missing lady to provide comic relief. Gilliat was working as the assistant to Walter Mycroft, who had written the novel Hitchcock‘s 1928 film Champagne was based on. This allowed him to get the film to Hitchcock, and in the words of biographer Patrick McGilligan“the director’s nose twitched”. Hitch did ask for a few changes in the script adding an introductory scene at the beginning and a more dramatic closing to the story. Hitch along with his wife Alma, credited with ‘continuity’ in the film, made some other sweeping changes to the body of the script increasing and changing parts, and in the end, the production would end on a bad note between the writers and the director.

The Lady Vanishes stars Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson, a young woman who had been living a carefree life traveling across Europe with her friends, who is returning to England to get married to a man she is indifferent about. While trying to return a pair of glasses to a little English lady, Miss. Froy (Dame May Whitty), she gets conked on the head by a potted plant. The older woman helps her onto the train and shares a cup of tea with her. Iris, very tired from her day, takes a short nap in their compartment, and when she awakes Miss Froy is nowhere to be found. To make matters worse, no one will admit to having seen the lady. Enlisting the help of folk music scholar Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris begins to unravel the mystery involving political intrigue, magicians, and mysterious patients.

With the writers at his throat, the last thing Hitchcock needed was a leading man who did not take to him at all, but that is what he got from Michael Redgrave. Having been something of a star in the theater, Redgrave was wary of the medium of film overall and Hitchcock’s films in general. The actor even went so far as to label himself “something of an intellectual snob”. Redgrave did not cotton to Hitchcock’s techniques either, and never understood why the director kept him apart from his co-star Margaret Lockwood until their first scene together. Redgrave commented, “It is possibly the greatest disadvantage of acting for the camera that one must do an important scene with someone one had never acted with, perhaps never even met, and in somewhat artificial circumstances. After some initial parrying, Margaret and I got along well, though we remained suspicious of each other for some time.”

Little did Redgrave known that Hitchcock was often up to tricks like this on set to get the performances he wanted from his actors, such as when he left The 39 Steps co-stars Robert Donet and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together for the better part of the day after he “lost the key”. Redgrave and Lockwood’s characters meet under bad circumstances and remain suspicious of each other for some time before their romance blossoms. Hitch’s techniques were not always understood, but the performances he got were undeniable. Hitch and Redgrave continued to butt heads during the course of filming especially when Redgrave commented on having three hours to prepare for a scene in the theater. The director is quoted as having responded, “I’m sorry in this medium we have three minutes.” The Lady Vanishes launched Redgrave’s film career and he would go on to appear in Orson Wells Mr. Arkadin (1955) and 1961’s The Innocents.

I could find almost nothing of what actress Margaret Lockwood thought of the director or what he thought of his brunette leading lady which was very unusual since usually Hitch and his ladies either clashed greatly or had a wonderful relationship. She was the choice of Gaumont producer Ted Black, and she had been working in film since her role in 1934’s Lorna Doone. Her performance is the linchpin on the film, and I enjoyed watching her go from spoiled socialite to bewildered young woman to determined investigator. At each turn, her character grew more endearing and likeable. My favorite of her scenes occurs when Redgrave’s Gilbert is struggling with a French magician in the baggage car. Her attempts to help Gilbert are comical and very well timed. The one pronouncement that I found Lockwood made about Hitch dubbed him, “a dozing, nodding Buddha with an enigmatic smile on his face.” She would not be the first or last of Hitchcock’s actors to comment on the catnaps the director was prone to take while on set.

The Lady Vanishes is enhanced by the subtle secondary performances that surround Lockwood and Redgrave’s characters. Dame May Whitty has limited screen time as the titular vanishing lady, but when she appears, her performance is most memorable. Hitchcock must have thought the same because he cast her again in his 1941 film Suspicion. The Lady Vanishes also launched the career of a comic duo who were not even a duo until they were paired in Hitch’s film. Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford were cast as Caldicott and Charters, the two English gents who preferred not to get involved in the mystery because they wanted to get back to England in time for an important cricket match. It’s easy to see while watching The Lady Vanishes why Wayne and Radford would become a duo in films and radio as they had a natural comic chemistry that made them quite amusing to watch.

While the acting was quite good and the script very funny and well paced, the part that stuck me most about The Lady Vanishes was the deftly wrought camera work in the picture. From the very start the camera pans in over a town which looks very much like what it is, a miniature, to the modern audience, but it transitions so fluidly into the set that I was very impressed. Throughout the film, Hitchcock and cinematographer Jack Cox, who had worked with the director since 1927’s The Ring, prove their mastery of the double exposure, the process shot, and all the classically Germanic camera angles you could ever need or want. The most impressive of their shots comes when Redgrave’s Gilbert hangs on the outside of a railcar in order to climb into the next one. A train comes speeding along in the other direction as the folk music scholar flattens himself against the train. While in the age of green screen and CGI, it may appear primitive, I found the process shot to be very compelling and thrillingly shot.

The Lady Vanishes would finally give Hitchcock another hit in Great Britain and in the United States where 21st Century Fox distributed the film. This allowed him a bigger bargaining chip as he got closer to making his move halfway across the world to California. He directed one last picture in England, 1939’s Jamaica Inn, but his eyes were squarely focused on the States where producer David O. Selznick was enticing the director with a planned film about the crash of the Titanic.

Hitch’s next to last British film has fast become one of my favorites in his oeuvre, and I would highly recommend that any fan of the director, or classic film, seek this one out. It is widely available at many price points. I’m going to link it below from the Internet Archive, it can be widely found on value priced DVD’s, and The Criterion Collection has issued an expansive edition of the film for those with the cash to drop on it. Any way you see this film, it is more than worth it. This is Hitchcock material almost in a stereotypical fashion. It’s thrilling, mysterious, funny, and astonishing at times. Check this one out folks, and you’re sure to like what you see.


Bugg Rating

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