The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Travelers on a trans-European train are delayed for a night due to bad weather in the small town of Mandrika. The passengers cram into the small village hotel where socialite Iris Henderson meets an old governess called Miss Froy. Shortly after the journey restarts, Miss Froy disappears.
Jason: I’ve seen The Lady Vanishes a few times now, and watching it this time, I was struck by how funny the first act is, as we’re being introduced to the characters. I especially like the scenes between Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). At first, we think they’re going to be the focus of the plot, as if they’re secret agents or something, with all their talk about “what’s going on in England,” but they’re just cricket enthusiasts. And their scenes with the maid are hilarious.
James: I totally agree. I jotted down pretty much the same thing in my notes. I love how we’re misled into believing that Charters and Caldicott are agents of some evil scheme. I think this pair is the perfect R2D2 and C3PO.
Jason: I also enjoyed the scenes between Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter (Cecil Parker and Linden Travis, a dead-ringer for Helena Bonham Carter), who embody the film’s theme of infidelity. And I love the scene where the girls are acting all young and naughty and lingerie-clad in their room—seems very risqué for 1938. You wouldn’t have seen so much skin in an American film, that’s for sure.
James: Do you think Iris (Margaret Lockwood) comes across as a bitch in her introduction? She seems a bit spoiled and rude. I didn’t like her at first. But man, she certainly has nice legs. I love Hitch for this stuff. I mean, the camera is focused on her legs for much of the beginning of that scene. I loved it. And the way the waiter gulps when looking at her legs and gets nervous when asked to help her down . . . classic.
Jason: Yep! But what I love about the beginning of this film is the way all the characters are introduced gradually and carefully so that they’re all perfectly set up for the mystery later. And it’s a long first act, almost a half-hour, before anything Hitchcockian even happens.
James: What I noticed about the beginning is that, like Psycho, it’s almost a completely different film than what follows. It was a big setup for the plot, sure, but it felt like a comedy that switches to a thriller on the train. What did you think of the train model at the beginning? I liked how the camera panned over the train station then into the “real” hotel, even though it wasn’t a flawless transition.
Jason: The train model was obviously fake, but damn, it was well made and intricate. And it was another thing that, in retrospect, I forgive—a lot like I forgive the absurdity of the use of a lullaby to deliver a secret code.
James: I try not to look too closely at that type of thing. For example, how did the bad guys plan to have the other body brought on the train? They didn’t have cell phones, and there’s no way they could’ve planned it so fast after realizing Froy wasn’t dead from that planter drop.
Jason: Yeah, The Lady Vanishes is full of holes, but for me, I just forgive them and go along for the ride. I think that’s what Hitch intended. (I remember reading about this one in Hitchcock/Truffaut a while back.)
James: Just to clarify, I don’t look too hard for reasons or answers in these films. I just wanted to point out another possible hole.
Jason: Sure, they’re fun to point out. Back to the film, I like how the very first shot is of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) disappearing into the night, outside the hotel. And it is kind of interesting that when we see all three main characters—Froy, Iris Henderson (Lockwood, who might be my favorite Hitch girl so far), and Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave)—interacting for the first time, it’s a moment of comic tension, and we have no idea about the drama ahead of them.
James: Did you find it difficult to take when Gilbert walked into Iris’s room and started putting his stuff everywhere? Is the threat of telling everyone that she asked him there so bad that she would let him stay, as she appeared to be doing? I loved the outcome of that scene, but it was hard to swallow. Maybe that’s because I’m so far removed from the intended audience.
Jason: That scene did seem a bit forced, but easy to forgive. It had kind of an It Happened One Night feel to it.
James: I didn’t like either of the lead actors all that much. Well, not as much as some other Hitch leads. He seemed dirty . . . especially after the way he was introduced. First he doesn’t care about making too much noise, then later he barges in on Iris in her skivvies. I immediately didn’t like him, even though I warmed up to him once he comes out of the bathroom fully clothed.
Jason: I agree that both main characters didn’t come off well at the start. In fact, I didn’t think they would be the main characters until much later. Iris comes off as a stuck-up British brat at first, just one member of that young trio of girls, and Gilbert is an ass. But when they became the leads, I forgave all that and attributed it to Hitchcock misleading the audience. Sounds like I liked Lockwood much more than you did. I thought she was beautiful not in the usual “Hitchcock gorgeous” sense but in a young, sharp, pert, spirited sense. And I did like Redgrave, although not nearly as much as Robert Donat (whom Hitch originally wanted for this role, if I recall). Redgrave has that under-the-breath delivery that suits Hitch’s sense of humor. But you’re right, neither character comes off well at first.
James: I wonder how Donat would’ve done in this role . . . it would’ve been totally different, that’s for sure.
Jason: Yeah, Gilbert would have been a very different character, not quite as goofy . . . serious-minded but with a Hitch sense of humor. A great line just occurred to me: Iris says to Gilbert, “Something fell on my head,” and he says, “When, infancy?” Now that I think about it, I do like that these two hate each other at first, but by the end, they’re destined to be married. Seems like Hitch does that kind of switcheroo quite often.
James: One thing I’m learning is that Hitch, or his screenwriters, can come up with some great one-liner humor. The banter is quite amazing if you think about it. This serves the purpose of providing humor, but as you said, it also shows that the two characters don’t like each other.
Jason: So when the first real Hitch moment happens in the film—the strangling of the violinist beneath the balcony—we go “Huh?” and in fact we don’t understand that death until the end of the film. A nice touch. Only later does the question come up, “Why didn’t they just send the secret code in a letter or something?” but it doesn’t matter at all, and therefore it’s the perfect MacGuffin. And this MacGuffin is totally ridiculous and meaningless, the best one since The 39 Steps.
James: Can the secret code really be a MacGuffin? I mean, we didn’t know it was code until the end, and we don’t know that the mystery will unravel the way it does. I think it was a mystery (finding the killers/bad guys) within a mystery (finding Froy).
Jason: I think a MacGuffin can still be a MacGuffin even if you only understand the full extent of it in retrospect.
James: Maybe it’s just not a MacGuffin in the strictest sense . . . similar to Young and Innocent.
Jason: Now, once the action moves to the train, the movie really takes off, and this time I enjoyed watching the movie for its “mystery-in-a-confined-space” aspects. The moving shadows and rear projection and jostling cameras, throughout this sequence, really created a convincing claustrophobia and speeding-train setting. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a 1938 audience, and I think putting the mystery on the train must have amped up the suspense. And, of course, this is the most prominent use of trains so far.
James: You mentioned putting yourself in 1938 shoes. But do the opposite and think of what this film would be like if it were created today. The mystery would be more about “Is this girl insane?” than “Where is Froy?” I definitely liked the claustrophobic feel to this film. The confined space really elevated the mystery and the danger factor.
Jason: I think even 1938 audiences must have wondered whether Iris was insane. Or at least, they must have thought, “Did the falling planter mess up her head?” The appearance later of the brain doctor confirms that. But yeah, I bet a movie today would stress that part, and maybe even not make it clear that Iris is telling the truth.
Jason: The Lady Vanishes gets totally involving once Miss Froy disappears. I was really engaged with the mystery, especially on this third viewing. It all makes total sense in a ludicrous way, and I loved how the innocent passengers are lying to Iris for their own private reasons. That’s all thanks to the great character setup in the first act. It’s really great storytelling.
James: I enjoyed the fact that all the passengers mislead Iris. I think it adds to the intensity (along with the other elements, like the name on the window disappearing) because we as an audience know that Froy exists. So when no one is on Iris’s side, it’s easy to get frustrated by the whole thing and wonder just how Iris is going to figure it all out. Plus, the whole “Who’s behind this whole thing?” question really works in this film.
Jason: As the mystery starts to deepen, there are many moments in the film that seem just right. First of all, there’s the great scene where it seems Froy has returned, but it’s this strange-looking woman who has mysteriously taken her place. What a great reveal that is! Wasn’t that woman disturbing? When I first saw her, I went, “Eeeewww.” Kind of a shudder, you know? I wonder if that was the intended effect. I can imagine audiences reacting with gasps, not only because of her odd appearance but also because the mystery just got complicated and weird.
James: That Froy pretender is one nasty hag. “Ewww” indeed.
Jason: And I love the scene where Iris and Gilbert are talking in the dining car, and we know the name Froy is on that window, but Hitch doesn’t even have to show it to remind us. We’re just waiting for the reveal. And when it happens, it’s all over her face, and she explodes. But I didn’t really understand why the name disappeared. Did someone wipe it off? Did going in the tunnel somehow erase it? It did add to the notion that she was imagining it.
James: I assumed the smoke from the engine fogged over the window again, thus the name disappeared. I truly loved those moments in this film. Hitch was definitely toying with the audience’s emotions in this one. I loved the fact that right when we thought she had proof (the cheating wife said she had seen the old woman), everything falls apart when she fingers the wrong Froy.
Jason: Then, later, when the magician gets involved, I got a kick out of the “Vanishing Lady” apparatus in the luggage car. It’s a clue, but we don’t understand how or why yet.
James: I just thought it was a clue that reminds the audience of the key elements in the plot. I think it pointed to the fact that the Italian was in on the scheme in some way, but it also referenced the film’s title.
James: Oh, I know what I noticed this time . . . did you notice that when Froy and Iris go to get tea that the waiter is dressing himself? It’s as if he knocked out the real waiter and put on his clothes.
Jason: That’s very interesting. I noticed something, but I didn’t make any connection. Which is strange, because I love details like that.
James: I never noticed it before, but it in retrospect, it gave a clue to something darker happening on that train.
Jason: I thought the villain this time—Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas)—was pretty good. A nice air of superiority and menace. We gradually understand that he’s got this whole network of baddies surrounding him. Plus, the fact that he’s a brain doctor adds to that element of whether Iris is imagining everything. And it just occurred to me that Iris is another symbol of vision. Is she seeing everything correctly?
James: I liked the villain in this one, too, mainly because we don’t know he’s a villain right off. I mean, it’s obvious, but at the same time, we aren’t quite sure until he’s found out later in the film.
Jason: What did you think of the shootout at the end?
James: I enjoyed the shootout, except for one thing: What happened to that soldier who came onboard? He had one bullet left when he got up, then the train started rolling. Did he not shoot? Did he jump off? It’s not a big deal, but at the same time, it’s important. But yeah, the shootout worked for me, particularly when you’re not 100 percent sure Froy made it out alive.
Jason: That soldier did just disappear, didn’t he? But I thought the gun was empty. Were they just bluffing him? You’re right, that needed resolution.
James: The gun had one bullet left. I distinctly remember that. I didn’t quite understand why no one used that last bullet though.
Jason: This just occurs to me: Charters’ reaction to getting shot in the hand toward the end is priceless (“I guess they mean business”), as well as their banter throughout the climax. It’s no wonder Charters and Caldicott appeared in later films together. And the way Mr. Todhunter gets mowed down for being a “pacifist”—probably some kind of comment there on the tensions of the time.
James: One other minor problem I had with the ending was the way Froy reacts to seeing the pair. She’s playing the MacGuffin tune on the piano as if she knows they’re there. And she should know they’re there because she’s in the room when they’re announced. Yet she looks totally shocked to see them walk in.
Jason: Yeah, that shot is a little awkward.
James: According to the Hitchcock/Truffaut book, Hitch came in late on the production of this film, but he added one element all his own that wasn’t in the book or script. Do you know what element that was? It doesn’t say.
Jason: I think the one big element Hitch added was the ending shootout. But he added other things, like the magician. I think the original character in the script was a banker.
James: Ah, I see.
Jason: The commentary over this film is very good. The guy talks about a lot of the things we’ve talked about, but one thing that was interesting was Hitchcock’s common device of thrusting ordinary people into extraordinary situations—for example, the Lawrence couple in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps. Of course, I’ve noticed this about his plots, but it’s yet another thing to watch for as we go forward. The commentator talks a lot about the MacGuffin, both in this film and in concept. And he points out something I missed: When Iris goes nuts after seeing Froy’s name on the window, she screeches, and her sound merges with that of the shrieking train whistle—just like the effect in The 39 Steps.
James: As far as I’m concerned, you can boil pretty much every Hitch film down to the average man being thrust into anything but average situations. I think “the wrong man accused” is just one way to tell that type of story.
Jason: Just some leftover notes: Loved the moment in the fight with the magician when Iris moves a suitcase along the floor as a stepstool so she can reach up to bite the man’s hand. And I did notice, as you did, the birds in that sequence. Because, wouldn’t you say that that’s the scene when it becomes totally clear to the protagonists that something sinister is going on? Also, I wasn’t too sure about the whole poisoned-drink scene. Iris fainting before the “drug” takes effect was a bit too much, but I did like how in the background of the next scene, she’s touching her toes to try to stay awake.
James: You know, I hadn’t thought about many of those elements. Now that I think about it, why did she faint? That’s ridiculous. That’s interesting that we’ve got several small gripes about this film when you think about it too hard. But yeah, I loved her doing those toe touches in the next room. And you’re right, of course, about those birds. I guess they did symbolize something. But it just wasn’t as obvious as his earlier films. Man, this guy is a genius. Although, the Hitch cameo wasn’t much fun this time. I like when he does something at least slightly goofy.
Jason: Agreed. Unfortunately, I think most of his cameos coming up are similar to this one, just incidental shots . . .
James: So, in this one we had infidelity, a cameo, brandy, birds, a knife, a MacGuffin, a train, and of course, lingerie. Ready for Jamaica Inn?
Jason: Yep. That one looks like an oddity. His last British film, done pretty much on assignment before going to America to direct what was almost Titanic but became Rebecca . . .
James: Jamaica Inn is a little weird. I’ve seen it only once, but I remember it not being his best.