The Lady Vanishes (1938): A Political Mystery That Could Have Been Great

The Lady Vanishes Poster

      Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but this is not one of his best films. There are a lot of good ideas here…both in the political mystery and the location that are used, but it is never reaches its full potential. I’ll explain why in the assessment.

    “The Lady Vanishes” was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and produced by Edward Black, The story was also written by Alma Reville based on the story The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

    The premise is that English tourist Iris (Margaret Lockwood) meets a kind old lady named Miss Froy (May Whitty) who takes care of her when things don’t go well as she’s hit on the head twice before entering the train. When she passes out from exhaustion she wakes up to find Miss Froy is missing and no one in her cabin believes that she even exists. From here the story unfolds as works with another passenger she’d had an antagonistic relationship with named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to find out why everyone is acting as they are and where Miss Froy went.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Premise – A conspiracy to cover up a lady whose origins are unknown is a fascinating premise, especially when we learn about the politics of the area (Italy) and the time period (Before World War 2) really raise the stakes. The reasons given to Iris on Miss Froy not existing are really good too as she was hit on the head and was suffering from a lack of sleep because of Gilbert causing music and dancing in the floor above her and later harassing her in her room. All these factors strengthen the premise of the film.

Iris – Iris is the main character who drives most of the action. She clashes with Gilbert as he’s hanging out with the locals in the attic and playing music for them to dance too and she knows she needs sleep so she’ll be ready for the train the next day so they clash early on. She also is taken in by Miss Froy who quickly becomes her friend and reveals her selfless side as at the hotel she was being waited on every beck and call and we never saw her act with awareness towards anyone but herself. Miss Froy’s actions change that and when Gilbert is the only one who believes her they form a friendship and later a relationship. Margaret Lockwood did a great job in this role and it was wonderful seeing her go from powerless and spoiled to selfless and and powerful as she takes on armed agents with Gilbert to get Miss Froy’s data to the English government after it’s revealed she’s a spy.

Gilbert – This character starts out really annoying and childish but grows into his hero role and a man who respects Iris. They even get married at the end he’s changed so much as he remembers the tune that is code about Italy’s Alliance for the British government to know. he does a good job rallying people to action is a great contrast to Iris throughout as he is much more open while she is initially much more guarded. Michael Redgrave really gives a good range in this film.

Miss Froy – She starts out as a kindly old lady and is a great caring person…and is shown to be more at the end when she attempts to escape on foot from the train and gives Gilbert the code. We don’t know if she survives but her minor role was really good and she enriches every scene she’s in. May Whitty is fantastic.

Dr Hartz – Dr. Hartz is the government agent on the side of the fascists and is a brilliant opponent as he succeeds at almost all he sets out to do. It’s only because one of his agents messes up that things fall apart and the fact that the members of the train choose to fight him at the end. He is best described as the Noble Bastard as he doesn’t kill Iris and Gilbert and does all he can to avoid violence, only knocking out Gilbert and Iris once they’ve figured everything out. He even wishes them luck once they respect as he seems to have a good idea of threat of war about to come. Paul Lukas does great.

Okay: The Music – The soundtrack isn’t super memorable or great. It isn’t bad either. It’s okay. Louis Levy and Charles Williams soundtrack didn’t create any tension and it really depended on the script and actors for that.

The Cons: Execution of Premise – The execution starts out really slow almost too slow as we spend way too much time in the hotel before leaving which doesn’t really give us good knowledge about characters except that everyone is annoyed at being stuck from the snow. It picks up in the middle but than at the end there is one scene where one of the agents of the Italian government wakes up and holds Iris and two others hostage but his defeat is just glossed over, it’s hard to remember it even happening. This went for character arcs too as most went like this – 1)Resist doing anything. 2) Resist doing anything. 3) Give in and do something. Because of this even though the characters were interesting, they didn’t feel fully fleshed out or real.

Questions – We never know fully who the agents are and who Dr. Hartz serves. This doesn’t help the story as that mystery is part of what drove things. How Miss Froy knew the information is also left in the air as well as the consequences of their escape out of the country. For a movie that became a political spy thriller at the end it should have gone more into the implication of characters and events…instead we don’t get anything and that really brings it down.

      This was a solidly good film, but not great like many of Hitchcocks. There were too many questions and the character changes and how many minor characters were one note characters just didn’t help the plot. It put so much at stake but never fully explained why. The most we can do is guess at the implications given when the movie was made but that still doesn’t give us much to go off of. If you like Hitchcock, chances are you will like this film. I like Hitchcock and the film was good, even with these problems so I’d recommend it.

Final Score: 8 / 10. Solidly good but not a favorite.

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