The Lady Vanishes is the penultimate film of Alfred Hitchcock’s British period—just two years later, he would move to Hollywood to embark on the next phase of his career, which would yield the most influential, notorious, and acclaimed work of his lifetime. While it’s not as ambitious as his later era’s eventual peaks—the knotty psychosexual suspense-scapes of Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window or the surrealistically heightened melodrama of The Birds and Marnie--The Lady Vanishes is an understated master class in balancing humor and thrills.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Edward Black
Writers: Ethel Lina White, Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder
Cinematographer: Jack E. Cox
Music: Louis Levy, Charles Williams
Editor: R.E. Dearing
Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, May Whitty
US Theatrical Release: November 1, 1938
US Distributor: The Criterion Collection
The movie opens with a series of vignettes drawn from an evening at a hotel in fictional Bandrika, a remote European vacation spot that’s attracted a number of strange and charismatic characters. Each of them comes to life in a matter of seconds—indeed, it’s remarkable how efficient Hitchcock is in establishing the film’s style and substance alongside the necessary exposition in this prologue. Carefully built close-ups, punch lines, and split-second interactions lay the groundwork for the plot’s unfolding.
We meet Charters and Caldicott, two cricket-obsessed friends; Mr. Todhunter, a lawyer whose mistress has joined him on vacation, masquerading as his wife; Miss Froy, an unassuming older woman who will become the mystery’s central figure; and finally, our hero and heroine: Iris, who’s headed back to Britain to be married, and Gilbert, a mischievous and convivial bachelor whose noisy dancing prompts a late-night confrontation with an irritated Iris.
The film’s story begins when this disparate crowd makes its way onto a train bound for England. Iris is hit on the head by a falling flower pot at the train station, and Miss Froy helps her on board and joins her for tea in the dining car. A little while later, Iris awakens from a nap to discover that Miss Froy is nowhere to be found—and that virtually everyone on board claims to have no memory of ever seeing her. Suspicious of a doctor’s suggestion that she’s been hallucinating (as an aftereffect of her head injury) Iris is forced to team up with Gilbert, her antagonist from the night before and the only person who believes her story, to get to the bottom of Miss Froy’s disappearance.
Michael Redgrave is charming and hilarious as Gilbert, commanding each scene with an outsized personality that’s just as well suited for the sinister twists of a whodunit as it is for the farcical flourishes of comedy. Tuppence Middleton, meanwhile, breathes into Iris a sense of rising anxiety and suspicion that’s never at odds with the frequently humorous situations she finds herself in.
Still, the star of the film is the mastermind behind the camera, whose acute and intuitive understanding of suspense suffuses every frame. Many of Hitchcock’s most prominent obsessions—memory and its manipulation; identity clouded by layers of secrecy and deceit; espionage and international intrigue—make marquee appearances in The Lady Vanishes, and their resonance is no less potent for the film’s relatively light tone. The stylistic deftness that would make Hitchcock arguably the most heralded filmmaker of all time is fully intact here, and The Lady Vanishes sits alongside his later masterpieces as one of the very finest films of his career.