Dame May Whitty
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) starts off lighthearted enough. After an avalanche delays their train, a band of travelers huddle in a hillside inn, where nobody seems to be speaking the same language. Iris (Margaret Lockwood) and her girlfriends partake in champagne, while handsome musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) makes himself welcome in her room and two British cricket fans (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who would play these characters--or variations--multiple times thereafter) fuss over the next big match.
Cut to a hotel room where a professional singer practices a tune unfamiliar to the audience, but one that catches the ear of the governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who hums along with such focus. In a perfectly Hitchcockian shot, a pair of shadowy hands creep behind the singer and silence the voice.
The next day, the travelers wait at the platform for the scheduled train. Distractions and sheer chance find a potted plant falling on Iris’ head. Miss Froy ushers her onto the train and looks after her, almost as an obligation. They chat over tea. After, they rest in a small section of seats, where an Italian magician performs an illusion for a young boy. Miss Froy takes to a magazine while Iris dozes off, awaking to the great disappearing act that churns the final hour of the film: the lady, Miss Froy, has vanished.
No one on the train acknowledges ever seeing Miss Froy, even when Iris describes her entire attire down to the stitching. The café’s manager produces a receipt that suggests Iris only had tea for one. An onboard psychologist (of course!) pins it all as a hallucination brought on from Iris’ minor concussion.
The cards are rigged, shuffled by the Italian magician and, apparently, everyone else with a ticket. Even Miss Froy’s simple introduction is muted by the train, which, as if cued by conspirators, starts to whistle and howl at a deafening level the moment she tries to share her name with Iris.
Like any great Hitchcock picture, The Lady Vanishes is propelled by murder, paranoia and mistaken/lost identity. Though the first 20 or so minutes seem slow in the buildup, Hitchcock makes sure the next two acts are crammed with clever twists and rousing thrills. Every bit of dialogue serves the mystery and every action pushes viewers to the edge. The best example is the scene where Gilbert attempts to enter a neighboring compartment without stepping in the hall. In a magnificent matte shot, Gilbert exits a window and clutches the outside of the train, just as another roars by, missing killing him by mere centimeters. (It recalls the finale of Shadow of a Doubt, where the villain wasn’t as lucky.)
Shot in 1938, The Lady Vanishes helped Hitchcock make that big move to the States, where he’d introduce himself with Rebecca, his only Best Picture winner. And The Lady Vanishes, for all of its wit, suspense and romance, is his best British film, and sits with more well-known classics like North by Northwest, Notorious, Rear Window, Rope, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, and Vertigo as one of his finest overall.
Crook’s Tour (1:20:59): John Baxter’s 1941 film, based on a radio serial from the same year, features the characters Charters and Caldecott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), the British cricket fans in The Lady Vanishes.
Hitchcock/Truffaut (10:06): In this 1962 audio interview, the directors discuss The Lady Vanishes and British cinema as a whole. This excerpt was part of the series of interviews that led to Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock.
Mystery Train (33:32): In this video essay, film scholar and author Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick) discusses the contexts and style of The Lady Vanishes.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 20-page booklet featuring two essays: “All Aboard!” by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and “Tea & Treachery” by Hitchcock scholar Charles Barr.