Criterion Collection #3 – The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Thinking about a film to tackle next in light of the recent death of Roger Ebert, has certainly been a struggle. One of my favorite things about the man was his dedication to cinema’s past, and to keep early works in the conversation of contemporary cinema. What better way to keep that trend going than to further discuss another of Alfred Hitchcock’s early works, The Lady Vanishes. And though I could never fill the void left by Ebert’s absence, at least I can help keep the train moving. 

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Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is an English tourist getting one last taste of a free life, before opting to return to Britain to marry a man she doesn’t really seem content with. It’s just the simple life, after one full of travel and adventure, to which she seems to gravitate towards.

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The beginning of the film centers on life inside the Gasthof Petrus Inn – an inn filled the brim with tourists, musicians, and the like. Not even food can be found here the night before Iris leaves. During the evening, Iris struggles to sleep due to the noise of a musician, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), upstairs. She bribes the management to kick the man out of his room, where he then figures out the plot, and cons his way into Iris’ room to bother her all night until his luck is restored.

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The next day, as Iris prepares to catch a train, she is struck in the head with a falling plant that almost knocks her out. In true Hitchcock formula, following the wrong place wrong time scenario, the falling planter was actually designed for Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty).

Iris finally catches the train and opts to share a seat with Miss Froy. But after a nap, Iris awakens to her friend missing and no one on the train seems to have any recollection she even existed.

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We then learn of the complicated conspiracy as the film moves on. To call all of those details into play would only ruin the surprises which unfold. The film ends up being a character study, with each character on the train containing some element of importance that helps move the plot along.

Why is this woman being kidnapped and why are the other members of the train keeping their mouths shut about what they have or haven’t seen? Regardless, the plot has inspired many others like it (like 2005’s Flightplan). Two minor characters of the film, which represent many of the film’s comedic relief, Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), moved on to earn their own spin-off films (Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich and Crook’s Tour – an extra on the Criterion release of The Lady Vanishes).

The blu-ray release includes another excerpt from the infamous Francois Truffaut interview with Hitchcock from 1962. It’s only 10 minutes long, but it gives cinema aficionados a good insight to Hitchcock’s thoughts and directional choices while making the film. He claims the film was shot on a set only 90 feet long, but the film’s compositions make it seem way bigger than that.

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It just further proves just why Hitchcock was such an amazing and  influential giant in the film world. Even a film like this, or the original Man Who Knew Too Much or The 39 Steps, he takes stories that seem almost basic in their premise and provides them a world of depth, intrigue, composure, and mastery you might not have expected.

Perhaps this is exactly the way he wanted it for you – to expect the unexpected.

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