Though Alfred Hitchcock's American films rightfully receive the lion's share of attention in any retrospective of the director's work, the Master of Suspense produced some exceptional movies in his native England in the 1930s before defecting to Hollywood. The original 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' 'The 39 Steps,' and 'Sabotage' all exhibit Hitch's trademark elements of style and innovation, but the prize for Sir Alfred's finest and most enjoyable British film must surely go to 'The Lady Vanishes,' which combines comedy, intrigue, romance, action, and tension with such grace and economy, it rivals anything the director has done across the pond.
Hitchcock is best known for thrillers, but what sets him (far) apart from other filmmakers specializing in the genre is the distinctive light touch that pervades so many of his movies. Suspense may be the driving force that propels his work, but he always finds room, often at odd moments, to insert a cutting quip or stolen kiss, both of which add a delicious pungency to his concoctions and subtle complexities to his characters. 'The Lady Vanishes' is one of the first examples of this brilliant formula that allows the audience to experience a gamut of emotions while enjoying a turbulent rollercoaster ride.
The film's opening scenes trick us into believing we're watching a screwball comedy instead of a mystery, as Hitchcock concentrates on relationships and the frenetic atmosphere of an overbooked plush hotel in a fictional central European country where travelers on a transcontinental train are temporarily stranded due to an avalanche. Among the journeyers are an adulterous couple, a pair of uptight gentlemen desperate to return to England, and Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a bubbly socialite on her way home to (reluctantly) marry a fellow blueblood. That evening, Iris meets the kindly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly governess and music teacher, and also clashes with dashing music scholar Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave, father of Vanessa and Lynn, in his film debut), whose foot-stomping experiments on the floor above disturb her sleep.
At the train station the next day, a falling flower pot (possibly intended for Miss Froy?) hits Iris on the head, causing her to pass out moments after she boards. When she regains consciousness, she and Miss Froy are seated in a compartment with other passengers and later enjoy some tea in the dining car. After a brief nap, Iris awakens to find Miss Froy missing, but when she asks about her whereabouts, no one on the train ever recalls seeing her. They even go so far as to suggest Miss Froy never existed at all, that she was a "vivid subjective vision" imagined by Iris as a result of her head injury. Iris, however, remains unconvinced, adamantly believing Miss Froy is somewhere on the train and might be in jeopardy. Gilbert takes her side, and as the two set out to find the vanished lady before the train reaches its destination, they encounter more sinister forces at work while waging their own battle of the sexes.
The plot of 'The Lady Vanishes' has been borrowed, recycled, and reinvented many times since Hitchcock's film premiered, perhaps most recently in Jodie Foster's 'Flightplan,' but the original is so meticulously constructed and perfectly paced, it has no peer. Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's screenplay tosses a gallery of interesting characters onto the train, and all harbor secrets and exercise questionable judgment while serving vital and varied purposes within the story's tangled fabric. Yet there's no fluff or extraneous palaver gumming up the works; 'The Lady Vanishes' is a prime example of lean, focused moviemaking. Though the film takes its time laying its groundwork and might seem initially aimless, don't doubt Hitchcock. Like the train on which most of the action takes place, it quickly picks up steam and barrels full throttle toward a thrilling climax. And along the way, there's plenty of snappy dialogue and witty repartee to sweeten the journey, much of it pointedly aimed at British society, apathy, and egotism.
Due to its shoestring budget, 'The Lady Vanishes' looks rather primitive from a technical standpoint, yet Hitchcock manages to do a lot with very little, employing interesting camera angles and fashioning clever visual effects, such as swirling multiple images and transpositions, to enhance mood and get the audience into the heroine's troubled head. The train sequences all were shot on a 90-foot set, and Hitchcock maximizes every inch, creating that familiar sense of entrapment and claustrophobia for which he is so renowned. He also uses his beloved macguffin - that intensely sought-after item for which men and women are willing to kill, but the specifics of which are completely irrelevant - to supreme advantage.
It's common knowledge Hitchcock didn't care much about actors and never offered them much guidance during shooting, yet somehow their performances in his films almost always ring true. 'The Lady Vanishes' is no exception. There's a high degree of naturalness to the portrayals here, from Lockwood, Redgrave, and Whitty on down to the supporting players, all of whom wear their British heritage like a badge of honor yet don't shy away from lampooning it. Unlike many Hitchcock movies, this one possesses a true ensemble cast, and its cohesion improves the picture immeasurably.
'The Lady Vanishes' is a blueprint for such espionage-tinged Hitchcock pictures as 'Foreign Correspondent,' 'Saboteur,' and, most notably, 'North by Northwest,' as well as films with converging plot threads, like 'Rear Window.' And it's a marvelous transition piece, bridging the gap between Hitchcock's formative British period and the more lavish, layered, and artistic pictures he would soon make in Hollywood. First and foremost, though, 'The Lady Vanishes' stands on its own as a tight, engrossing, and endlessly entertaining film, a seamless blend of style, substance, and sheer fun that holds up amazingly well and deserves to be regarded as one of Hitchcock's best.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Lady Vanishes' comes packaged in the standard clear Criterion case, with a 24-page, attractively designed booklet (described below) nestled inside the front cover. The 50-GB, dual-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and LPCM monaural audio. Upon insertion of the disc into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
Criterion has done a fabulous job with 'The Lady Vanishes,' fashioning a surprisingly clear and vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that makes this film appear much younger than its 73 years. The source material has been dandily spruced up, with hardly any nicks or specks marring the black-and-white image. A white vertical line here and black vertical line there occasionally appear on the print, but the instances are brief and barely noticeable. Grain is evident, but the picture never succumbs to it, maintaining a warm, film-like feel without looking overly textured. Gray level variance is quite good, with deep, inky blacks contrasting nicely with well-defined whites and the shades in between.
The enhanced clarity makes the use of miniatures more apparent, but rear projection work is seamlessly integrated into the whole, and the close shots of train tracks and telephone wires are stunningly crisp. Facial close-ups are a tad soft, yet possess a glamorous Hollywood feel, and background elements are easy to discern.
No digital issues or doctoring seem to afflict the image, which remains a delight to watch from start to finish. For a seven-decade-old film, this 'Lady' is quite a looker.
For vintage films, audio is at least as problematic as video, and Criterion takes great care with this antiquated track. The mono audio is presented in lossless LPCM form, which captures every nuance in Hitchcock's active track. (The director was famous for creating meticulous sound fields, and 'The Lady Vanishes' is a primer on the art form.) The mix can be tricky at times, because there's so much background noise competing against the actors' dialogue, especially once everyone boards the train. As a result, conversations occasionally can be hard to understand (the actors' rapid-fire delivery also doesn't help), but for the most part, the spoken word is clear and comprehendible.
Dynamic range is quite good; high ends occasionally flirt with distortion, but remain in check, while lows possess nice weight. Accents, such as train whistles, stomping, and gunfire, are all distinct, while the constant rail noise provides a solid underlying framework to the track. 'The Lady Vanishes' apparently contains less music than any other Hitchcock film, and the sparingly employed score flaunts decent fidelity without the tinniness that often clouds audio from the 1930s.
Criterion's technicians have done a terrific job cleansing this track - a few errant pops crop up now and then, but hiss is kept to a minimum, and no static or crackles creep in. This may not be perfect sound, but for a classic British film, it's mighty fine.
Typical of Criterion releases, the supplemental package is varied, thoughtfully constructed, intellectually stimulating, and geared toward the serious film aficionado.
Hitchcock's penultimate British film is a supremely good-natured and entertaining mystery-comedy distinguished by the director's trademark artistry and flawless pacing. Thrills, romance, intrigue, and a bit of potent social commentary also permeate 'The Lady Vanishes,' making it one of the Master of Suspense's best films. Criterion's Blu-ray release is another winner, featuring top-notch video and audio, and an absorbing array of substantive extras sure to please fans of cinema in general and Hitchcock in particular. So hop aboard the train, join the hunt, and revel in this marvelous romp. Highly recommended.