An old black-and-white movie was on the telly the other day – a vintage Hitchcock film from the Thirties, made just before he moved to the States. The film in question is his thriller The Lady Vanishes, and it’s great to watch even now, some 78 years after it was released. Yes, parts of it are faintly ridiculous to modern eyes, but it’s a lot of fun that’s still, well, thrilling.
(A warning: As I’m going to discuss key plot points of said movie, you may wish to avoid the rest of this blog-post if you haven’t seen it yet. Can’t believe that I’ve just done a spoiler alert for a blog-post about a film that was made in 1938, but there you go.)
The plot, based on a long-forgotten novel, is this: A group of British tourists are stranded in the mountainous (and fictional) central European country of Bandrika – an avalanche has meant that their train is delayed. Among them is Iris (Margaret Lockwood), a pretty English girl who’s heading back home to get married; while waiting for the train in the local guest-house, she meets with two fellow-Britons – an older English lady called Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who she gets on well with, and a debonair musician called Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) who winds her up the wrong way. Also waiting for the train are a lawyer who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself because the woman he’s with isn’t his wife, and Charters and Caldicott, a pair of avid cricket fans who are desperate to get back to England because there’s a Test match going on and they want to go to the final day. As well as some misunderstandings with the guest-house staff due to their inability to talk the local language, they endeavour, with no success, to find out the latest score. Outside, a lone violinist plays a local folk-tune and is quietly strangled.
Iris and Miss Froy adopt each other as travelling-companions for the journey home, although it’s clear to the viewer that someone’s out to get the latter – at the station, Iris receives a bump on the head from a falling pot-plant that was meant for Miss Froy. As a result, Iris passes out after tea, and she’s in for a nasty shock when she awakes as Miss Froy has vanished – and, what’s worse, everyone who’s encountered her denies having done so (cleverly, Hitchcock has them deny this for different reasons – the lawyer doesn’t want to draw attention to himself because he’s with his mistress, Charters and Caldicott think that if Iris’s talk of a missing woman is taken seriously the train will be stopped and then they’ll never get to the Test match, and the various foreigners in Iris’s compartment have, well, somewhat more nefarious reasons for keeping their mouths shut). Was she hallucinating about Miss Froy? Dr Hartz, a brain surgeon who’s also on the train, thinks she might be. Only Gilbert believes her story, and they set out to look for the vanished lady.
In the goods carriage, they’re attacked by one of the foreign passengers who turns out to be a knife-wielding magician in a scene which may well have inspired the circus train sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They then figure out that the doc is a wrong ’un who has captured Miss Froy, disguising her as a bandage-covered patient in his care. Far from being the mild-mannered governess she claimed to be, Miss Froy is actually a British agent who’s taking a vital message (memorised, in the coded form of a folk-tune she’d heard the late violinist playing earlier) back to the Foreign Office. Dr Hartz is of course trying to stop her – although his co-conspirator, a nun who isn’t really a nun, turns out to be English and is, therefore, appalled when she realises that she’s in a conspiracy against a fellow-Englishwoman; this, clearly, was not what she signed up for. So she switches sides and helps Iris and Gilbert.
As the train reaches the frontier, the doc realises that the pesky Brits have rescued the British spy, and he arranges with the Bandrikan (?) military to have the train uncoupled and shunted to a siding so he can recapture the now-unbandaged Miss Froy. Unfortunately for him, but hilariously for the viewer, it’s tea-time and the part of the train he’s moved to the siding includes the restaurant car, which contains all of the train’s British passengers who are (of course) taking tea. They’re not best pleased about their journey home being interrupted.
As the movie nears its climax, the train is surrounded by soldiers intent of capturing Miss Froy; the plucky Brits – Charters, Caldicott and the nun-who-isn’t-really-a-nun as well as Iris and Gilbert – realise that the only solution is to fight their way out with the two pistols they happen to have between them. The only one who disagrees is the lawyer, who thinks he can negotiate with the baddies (it doesn’t end well for him). Even though the country they’re trying to get out of is fictional, the politics of the time – this was 1938, the year of the Munich crisis when war loomed inexorably on the horizon – are inescapable (coincidentally, the film was released just over a week after Neville Chamberlain waved his piece of paper after flying home from Germany). The message is quite clear: Even though they’re out-gunned and the situation looks hopeless, the best thing the British can do is show a stiff upper lip (naturally, this is a film where, if you get shot in the hand, you calmly borrow your friend’s pocket-square to use as a makeshift bandage), crack a few jokes about the government and fight on in the hope of eventually winning through. I never thought of Alfred Hitchcock as being a critic of Appeasement, but on this evidence, he quite clearly was.
This is really superb stuff from Hitchcock – a train journey where nothing is quite what it seems (he was very good at those) leading onto an attempted kidnapping, tales of espionage and a shoot-out interspersed with some cricket banter. No wonder this was the best British film in 1938! There are some great stand-out performances although as with so many films the show is, of course, almost stolen by the comic relief. Charters and Caldicott proved so popular with audiences that they returned in various not-Hitchcock films made by the same studio like Night Train to Munich (more or less a remake of The Lady Vanishes – it even had Margaret Lockwood in it, playing a similar role). Even after the actors who played them were banned from playing characters called Charters and Caldicott (following a dispute with the studio over how big a role they should have in a movie that they ended up not starring in) they still turned up as similar, cricket-mad characters in a few films (the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, for example, as well as a film called It’s Not Cricket which I now need to find because, let’s face it, there aren’t that many films about cricket).
Hitchcock himself, by the way, makes his trademark appearance in the crowd at Victoria station towards the end; it was only later that he got into the habit of appearing early on in his films in order to avoid detracting attention from the plot, as audiences used to cheer when they saw him.