Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Film Review - The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes marked a distinctive departure for director Alfred Hitchcock. His prestige limited mainly to the British Isles, the success of The 39 Steps as well as others that followed gave him the opportunity to branch out across the Atlantic and develop a full-fledged directorial career in Hollywood. Following the embarrassing Jamaica Inn, a reluctant concession he made in a fit of desperation after his contract at Gainsbourgh went up and he found himself unemployed as he negotiated his contract in America, he was finally able to achieve his goal. It would be some time however before he made a truly ‘Americanized’ feature film and even longer before he was able to waive the creative control he once held in England.

What makes The Lady Vanishes truly worth while is watching the surprising amount of sexual chemistry between the two leads – Iris Henderson, played by the genteel Margaret Lockwood, and the charismatic Gilbert Redman, sportingly portrayed by stage performer Michael Redgrave (The Lady Vanishes being his motion picture debut) – unfold. Their love-hate relationship throughout the film is awfully renascent of another Alfred Hitchcock British romantic-comedy, The 39 Steps, which starred Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll. Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates his knack for creating scintillating romances in his films even if they have been seen time and again before.

Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, a comedic duo whose popularity in The Lady Vanishes garnered them their own film series as well as a popular radio program, are two English gentlemen obsessed with the game of cricket dashing back to Manchester to catch the big game. While they are played off mainly for laughs, additionally they serve as a bitter commentary on English society of the 1930s whose sole focus was on trivial matters (exemplified in this film through their incessant discussion of cricket) that they failed to notice the evil surrounding them, specifically Nazi-Germany. As Iris searches frantically for Miss Froy, the two gentlemen do nothing to assist her, lost in their discussion of sporting events. Only until one of them is shot in the hand by a foreign conspirator near the end of the film do they come to their senses and take action.

It is a bit difficult to swallow the idea of the elderly Dame May Whitty as a British secret agent to say the least about it but no one ever said Hitchcock films were made on the basis of logic. It is certainly anti-climatic at the end of the film when she appears in the office of the foreign minister having escaped from the train and presumed by Iris Henderson and Gilbert Redman to be dead, but the rest of the film counterbalances this rather flat conclusion.

Although nearly all of The Lady Vanishes, with the exception of the ‘revolving-door’ opening sequence in a European hotel located in the mountains in which the main players are introduced, takes place aboard a train, never once does the limited location seemed confined, either to us, the film’s audience, or its performers onscreen. This truly serves as a credit to Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance as a filmmaker. His expertise with camera movements and intricate staging of characters and their movements works to his full advantage in this film. It is quite evident from the outset that The Lady Vanishes was made on a strictly limited production budget. Without any extensive knowledge of the director’s relationship with Gaumont Pictures, the little European town and the trains which the camera zooms past immediately following the opening credits are clearly miniatures and its restrictive location make that clear. Surprisingly however this works to the director’s advantage. The idea that a little old lady could mysteriously vanish out of thin air on a train is absurd. And yet the elements of intrigue and suspicion draw us into the film’s story, no matter how preposterous it may seem. It is a formula that has been difficult to reproduce as adequately or as brilliantly as Hitchcock was able to in 1939; a reason why The Lady Vanishes stand out as one of his best films made in Britain.

Censorship boards in England during the 1930s and 40s strictly prohibited British filmmakers from directly attacking the German government, now under the influence of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. British governmental officials did so out of fear that Germany, a key economic partner, would end trading business with England if they were insulted. This however did prevent these same filmmakers from criticizing the British government’s attitude toward Nazi-Germany, unlike the United States in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s which hampered all efforts to motivate the people toward war with Germany. Alfred Hitchcock maintained his political neutrality throughout his career but it is quite understandable that he would exhibit hostility toward Germany in his films of the 1940s, especially in Lifeboat and Notorious. Hitchcock it seems is hardly sly about his political commentary in The Lady Vanishes, although this may be a bit more apparent today in the aftermath of the Second World War then it was when it was first released. The fact that the German government was never directly associated in the film was enough to appease the British government officials even if it made them look bad in the eyes of the British public.

While the identity of the foreign nation in question is never revealed (it is often referred to simply as a Mittel European nation), it is almost impossible not to associate this false nation-state with Nazi-Germany, particularly in light of its German-like language (one made-up especially for this film). Further elements of The Lady Vanishes, specifically the shoot-out with the foreign conspirators at the end, makes the idea that governmental officials did not pick up on Hitchcock’s political message laughable, if not embarrassing on the part of the British government. Again, there is distinctive difference between the people of the times and our perspective today. One of the English passenger shouts amidst the gunfire with the conspirators outside the halted train, “They can’t possibly do anything to us, we’re British subjects”. It is especially disheartening to see how naïve and isolationist people of the 1930s and 40s were toward the evils going on around them. Hitchcock strikes home his political analysis with the Neville Chamberlain-like adulterer who, refusing to be labeled a pacifist but at the same time protesting any violent course of action, storms out of the train waving a white-flag in the direction of the foreign conspirators, only to be shot dead in his tracks. The director’s point is clear – England can not appease Hitler and survive.

The Lady Vanishes stands apart from many of Hitchcock’s earlier British films, with the possible exception of The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much, as one of the best of the first half of his filmmaking career. And while its basic plotline has been reproduced on numerous occasions (the most recent example being the Jodi Foster blockbuster, Flightplan), none have exhibited the precise level of mystery or suspense that this film has maintained over the decades since its initial release.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A)