The Lady Vanishes is Alfred Hitchcock’s best film of his British era. It is an awesome cocktail of comedy, thrills and romance while simultaneously taking a peak at at British insularity.
This film could be seen as a predecessor to Hitchcock’s single setting films of the 40s and 50s. Although The Lady Vanishes does not take place in one exact location like Lifeboat, Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, it does manage to convey a sense of claustrophobia. The cast of characters start the film as cramped guests in a hotel and end up as cramped passengers on a train.
This tightness results in a lurid intimacy that Hitchcock shows here. You have the duo of Charters and Caldicott who may or may not be gay. We know Hitchcock films do not have an issue peering into queerness. We’ll see this later in 1940’s Rebecca and 1948’s Rope. You have Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter, an adulterous couple. Then you have our protagonist, Iris Henderson, played wonderfully by Margaret Lockwood, first introduced with her friends in the hotel as she prepares to leave for her wedding to a rich man to further her societal status. Once she meets Michael Redgrave’s Gilbert, a courtship begins throughout the film that is dripping with sexual energy.
Hitchcock does an excellent job in getting the audience to care about the disappearance of the titular “lady,” Miss Froy by having May Whitty dominate her scenes and become a singular presence so that you feel her absence once it occurs. If we don’t feel ourselves missing Miss Froy, then it becomes difficult for us to feel for Iris as she searches for the woman and is not believed and doubted at every turn. Again, Hitchcock’s skill as a cinematic manipulator is top notch.
One area that differentiates The Lady Vanishes from subsequent Hitchcock films is its heroine. Lockwood’s Iris, while certainly initially aristocratic, is not the typical icy and damaged Hitchcockian woman. She does not operate from a point of despair like Marion Crane. She doesn’t have a tragic backstory like Marnie or is terrorized like Melanie from The Birds. She isn’t manipulated like Alica Huberman of Notorious. Iris’ actions are to simply get to the bottom of the vanishing of Miss Froy because it is the right thing to do.
Iris’ determination eventually spreads through to the other characters who all initially refuse to become involved in the search, focusing on their own wants and desires, much like people tend to when they consider their class and status in life and that since they are secure, there is no need for them to stick their neck out for anyone. However, once things take a dark turn into the climatic shootout, and Charters is shot in the hand, the fantasy of the audience watching and the grim reality of the characters being watched, smash together to create a thrilling sequence where these characters who only cared for themselves, answer the call to do the right thing against a foreign fascists.
While Jamaica Inn would end up becoming the film that closes out Hitchcock’s time in Britain before he comes to America, The Lady Vanishes is his biggest achievement of that period. It bursts of youthful energy that may have not only been a goodbye to England, but officially to his own youth as he was about to turn 40. It almost is like a myth of a plucky young hero out to save the day. I can imagine with World War II on the horizon this was needed. Yet even with The Lady Vanishes being the close of an era, it is a clear indication of the future of Hitchcock’s filmography.