Prior to heading off to the bright lights of Hollywood Alfred Hitchcock made what was perhaps his most ambitious British film, The Lady Vanishes. Starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, the film paved the way for his most notable early Hollywood film, with its theme of memory and identity laying the groundwork for the expression of those ideas in works such as Notorious, Saboteur and Spellbound. Obviously those are two of the key recurring notions passed through his entire body of work, and its arguable that The Lady Vanishes is where it all began (although admittedly The 39 Steps may beg to differ).
The Lady Vanishes combines a number of Hitchcockian tropes, spy thriller, conspiracy ghastliness, witty, wry comedy and a strong female presence, in to a grand showcase of all that made the directors early period great. The director is one of the few that crossed over from the silent period in to the sound relative unscathed, placing in a rather unique position in the 1930’s. The concept of relating a filmic narrative structure to the process of a train journey was certainly nothing new in 1938, but Hitchcock delighted in the possibilities of the hyper-cinematic form of transport.
Technically the film is a bit of a marvel, with sound stages, model work and back projection doing a mighty job of standing in for continental Europe. The films opening bars, in which a glorified train set stands in for the snow-struck Bandrika mountain retreat is remarkable, with confident camerawork standing in for shooting on location. The sight of a train in motion is achieved utilising similar creative thinking, with an experimental montage that recalls Hitchcock’s time in Germany making up for any shortcomings in provisions. Even with the limitations of shooting in Britain in 1939 in mind, one cannot ever look upon the creative decisions made by Hitchcock as being lesser in any way, with they the unequivocally best for the story at hand. One might assume that had conditions been any different the film would have remained the same.
The formidable pairing of Lockwood and Redgrave make for an endearing leading duo, with the ensemble cast in which they lead proving one of Hitchcock’s most successful larger casts. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are on proto-R2D2/C3PO duties, with their witty asides providing a sort-of context and running commentary to proceedings, ensuring that the familiar Hitchcock wry humour punctuates even the most disparate of situations. A familiar translation-woe driven comedy features, with translation and communication problems actually driving the film dramatically too. It’s perhaps more interesting observation when one considers that the world was on the verge of all out war at this time. The spacial peace within the film itself soon breaks out in chaos when the realisation that our momentary protagonists aren’t going anywhere as the film opens, with this absurdity pulling the film along not unlike the transport at the heart of the film. No better is this chaotic approach illustrated than with opening portion of the films final act, in which the daftest of fight scenes, complete with doves, bunnies and magic tricks breaks out. Chaos reigns, yet order prevails by the time the closing credits roll, an apt finale to Hitchcock’s time in his homeland.