Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Lady Vanishes (1938) - Alfred Hitchcock

It's easy to see why this film over almost all others from Alfred the great's British years, still manages to enrapture generation after generation. It has a certain charm to it that is lacking in a lot of the fat mans other work from this era. In fact I wouldn't be sticking my neck out too far, if I said that it's by far and away the best film he made before upping sticks and moving across the Atlantic.

Set in the fictional European country of Bandrika on the eve of WWII, a rag tag bunch of Europeans are homeward bound on a train. Amongst the various types making the journey are Michael Redgrave as Gilbert, who despite looking like a typical boys own type is actually quite an odd character, a sort of proto-beatnik if you will. Then there's Margaret Lockwood as Iris, who's also nicely unique being quite firey and independent. After all she's all the way out in the heart of Europe by herself, that sort of thing never normally happens in British films from this time, young women are almost always chaperoned by someone or other. Of course these two are bound to end up together by the end of the film, it's Hitchcock after all. As per usual in films of this ilk they don't hit it off immediately, and only really start to get it on once Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) goes missing.

The film actually kicks off with the whole cast being stranded in a hotel overnight due to heavy snow. It's an odd way to get the film rolling, and feels like an excuse for the ace writing team of Sidney Gilliat & Frank Launder, to fill some screen time with a succession of gags mainly centered around their most successful creations Charters and Caldicott. Who themselves would go on to appear in numerous films and even their own TV series, after the success of this film. However like so much else in this film, all is not what it seems. So the whimsical opening scene is actually pretty essential, since not only does it introduce us to the principal characters, but it contains information vital to understanding what transpires later in the film.

The pace of the film really picks up once the train journey begins and doesn't let up until the final beautifully framed shot. It's here that it really feels like a Hitchcock film, especially once Miss Froy goes missing. It's also at this point of the film that it becomes obvious that The Lady Vanishes isn't so much about bumbling Englishmen trying to find out the cricket result, or even old ladies disappearing, but is rather an allegory of the imminent war. People that once seemed perfectly normal and friendly, suddenly seem less so, and of course the Italian's are in league with the German's.

My favourite section of the The Lady Vanishes is towards the end of the film. One of the train cars has been uncoupled in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by the enemy. There's a shoot out, but it's not that that endears the scene to me. It's also where we find out just what the film is about, but it's not that either. It's more to do with the fact that the carriage represents Britain, which itself is of course cut off from mainland Europe. Britain would stand it's own ground against the threat from across the Channel, in much the same way that the Brits in the carriage pull together for the first time in the film (except Eric Todhunter, but I'll get to him in a minute), and stand up for what's right. As a piece of propaganda it's second to none, but the thing that makes this so good is that it's also great film making. You don't feel like you are being force fed a message like in so many other films made during the war years. Charters and Caldicott step up to the mark, as does almost everyone, except as I said Mr Todhunter (Cecil Parker), who strangely for someone who doesn't believe in violence carries a gun. Hmm.

Anyway I've rambled on plenty about this film, it's definitely essential viewing for anyone who loves Hitch, or for that matter films. Plus there is so much more to it than what I've written, a nun in heels, a wrapped up body, a wonderful scene using magicians props, lashings of romance and derring-do all filtered through the genius eye of Alfred Hitchcock. As I say essential stuff.

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