Wednesday, March 12, 2008

THE LADY VANISHES (1938)

I like the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but I'm not a fawning acolyte. I hot and cold with him: I love PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, REBECCA, and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, but I don’t like NORTH BY NORTHWEST or THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (either version), and I am smack in the middle on films that others love, like REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO. One of my very favorite Hitchcocks is this fairly early effort, one of the last films he made in England before coming to Hollywood. A trainload of people are stranded overnight at an Alpine inn due to an avalanche. We meet the main characters as they interact during the evening: Margaret Lockwood is a lively and lovely young woman on her way back to England, after holidaying with friends, to marry a man she doesn't much care for; Michael Redgrave is a cocky but likeable musicologist who gets on Lockwood's bad side with some noisy folk dancing right above her room; Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are a pair of middle-aged British men who, despite the atmosphere of upcoming war, are only concerned with cricket matches back home; Dame May Whitty is a nice older lady, Paul Lukas is a distinguished doctor, and Cecil Parker and Linden Travers are a pair of illicit lovers posing as a married couple. This congenial and amusing section of the film ends with a whistling troubadour being strangled, though no one seems to notice. The next day on the train, Lockwood and Whitty bond over tea, but later Lockwood discovers that Whitty has gone missing, and some passengers insist that she was never on the train to start with. With Redgrave's help, Lockwood investigates and they run afoul of some spies, led by Lukas. There are some grand twists and turns and action sequences (such as they were in late 30's British movies) before everything gets sorted out and the good guys win.

I love this movie for two reasons: 1) the opening sequence which begins with the camera swooping over a patently artificial but charming miniature set and continues on a patently artificial but charming mountain inn set, and 2) the train setting later. I'm always a sucker for thrillers set on trains and this is practically an archetypal example: a small cast of characters (some good, some bad, and some whom we're not sure about) stuck on a moving train with espionage and/or robbery and/or murder afoot. Lockwood and Redgrave make a nice couple, though it took me a while to accept Redgrave, who is quite obnoxious in the opening. I also love Radford and Wayne, whose characters, Charters and Caldicott, became popular and appeared in a handful of other films, most notably NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, another wonderful spies-on-a-train movie. The only real Hitchcockian touches I could identify here are the stagy sets (as in ROPE, THE BIRDS, REAR WINDOW), his cameo near the end (which I didn't catch), and the quirky touch of a high heel-wearing nun. The first section is quite humorous, but the light tone remains throughout, tempered with the tension and occasional violence of a thriller. Enjoyable and endlessly watchable. [DVD]

3 comments:

Jim said...

To me, Hitchcock's most congenial convergence of theme, zeitgeist, cast, and story is found in Shadow of a Doubt. Unlike you, I like North By Northwest, though I always fall asleep between the cornfield and Mt. Rushmore and wake up wondering how the heck I got there.

Also, Joseph Cotten and James Mason are usually my two favorite AH villains (unless I happen to be watching a different AH film).

Sorry if that sounds like fawning. I don't fawn. Or gush.

Michael said...

Funny, I don't think I've ever made it through NxNW without falling asleep (though it's not terribly unusual for me to nod off for a few minutes in any given movie). Shadow of a Doubt is OK--it's my mom's favorite Hitchcock, but something's missing in it for me. I guess I'm not crazy about Teresa Wright.

Jim said...

She's a little bland, I'll give you that, but what about Hume Cronyn? And Joseph Cotten is absolutely perfect, here and elsewhere. The abdication of the father role by the father, the mother's disturbingly romantic attitude toward her brother ... there's an awful lot going on there.

I like the idea of the polluted and perverse corrupting the pure small town, and I like the minor characters. The cop, the sassy little sister, and my favorite ... the ripe, precocious girlfriend.