When critics—at least American critics—speak of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces, they tend to refer to the golden seven of Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, and Shadow of a Doubt. It is remarkable (and perhaps an indication of Yankee bias) how rarely any of his British films enter into the discussion. David Thomson, for instance, acknowledges that "Hitchcock in England is a career unto itself" but does not include any of the British films on his list of the director's greatest works. "What is Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film?" David Denby wrote in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, "In recent decades, critical consensus has settled on the American movies from the fifties."Dial M for Murder, Rebecca, and even The Birds receive far more attention than such British productions as The Lodger, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thirty-Nine-Steps, and the best of them all, The Lady Vanishes.
It's particularly unfortunate because The Lady Vanishes represents a major turning point in Hitchcock's career, and not just because it was one of the last films he made before producer David Selznick lured him to Hollywood in 1939. The film displays the best qualities of his British career—immaculate timing, delicacy, and danger—but here Hitchcock delves more deeply than ever before into the anxieties and secret terrors of prewar English society. By doing so, the film provided a template to which Hitchcock often returned in his American masterpieces, revisiting the same narrative strategies in increasingly devious and innovative ways. (The Criterion Collection is certainly a major supporter: The Lady Vanishes was its third release in what is now a canon of more than 400; this month the company has put out a new, digitally restored, two-disc edition. *)
In its opening scenes, however, the film appears to have less in common with Hitchcock's later capers and psychological thrillers than with the comedies of manners popular in the mainstream British cinema of the '30s. The opening shot is a panorama of a snowbanked alpine village in the fictional Eastern European nation of Bandrika. The miniature set is an obvious fabrication—and would have been even to a 1938 audience—with toy trains, powder snow, and frozen figurines on the sidewalks, a touch that allows Hitchcock to establish a playful tone and a sense of quaint, reassuring artifice crucial to his technique. The more secure the audience feels, the more susceptible they are to the horrors of disruption Hitchcock will visit upon them later in the film.
But he takes his time. When the film begins, an avalanche has forced a trans-European express to stop in the village overnight. The train's English passengers—a brilliant ensemble cast of British character actors like Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Cecil Parker, and Dame May Whitty—must spend the night in a cramped provincial inn. "Third-rate country, what did you expect?" says one of the flustered Englishmen, who is frantic to get home in time to see a cricket match. Much of the first third of the film unfolds as typical British farce, with the comedy deriving from the frustrations of the British travelers at having to put up with the discomforts and confusions of life abroad. When a man orders a grilled steak at the inn's restaurant, he is appalled to discover that the kitchen has run out of food altogether. "Is that hospitality? Is that organization?" His cries have the wounded, indignant tone of someone whose grandmother has just been mugged.
After nearly half an hour of misunderstandings, sight gags, and jocular asides, Hitchcock moves in to focus on the relationship between Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a caddish Cambridge grad gallivanting around Europe with the excuse of writing a history of folk music, and a young woman named Iris Henderson (a dazzling, vivacious Margaret Lockwood, blessed with one of Hitchcock's best female roles, which is not saying much). Iris is traveling back to London to meet her fiance, a dreary chap whom her friends are trying to dissuade her from marrying.
A startling act of violence intrudes on this scene late in the night when the village balladeer is abruptly, and inexplicably, strangled. But the shot passes as quickly as it comes, and as soon as we know it, we're back on the train the next morning in another comic scenario. Mrs. Froy, a dowdy old British governess whom Iris has befriended at the inn, disappears while Iris is napping. Iris looks all over the train for Mrs. Froy, but all the other passengers deny having ever seen the old woman in the first place. What begins as a gag soon turns eerie, as the viewer is made to wonder whether Iris is losing her mind (perhaps the result of a flowerpot dropping on her head just before she boarded the train). Or is a vast conspiracy in the works? Either way, the disappearance of Mrs. Froy bodes ill.
Hitchcock understood as well as any film director the close relationship between humor and horror. He shifts from one to the other just as Iris, searching for Mrs. Froy in the train's storage car, passes through the false partition in a magician's disappearing chamber. The best, most harrowing example of this strategy comes in the film's climactic scene, soon after Mrs. Froy is discovered (having been kidnapped, it turns out, by Bandrikan revolutionary forces for suspected espionage). The train's dining car, in which the British travelers have assembled, is uncoupled from the rest of the train. It rolls to a stop in the middle of the forest, where it comes under fire from Mrs. Froy's kidnappers. Reluctantly, the British begin to shoot back in self-defense—all except the fussy Mr. Todhunter (Parker), a barrister on vacation with his mistress. "They can't possibly do anything to us," he insists, just before the gunplay begins. "We're British subjects." While the other men return fire with cool equanimity, Todhunter loses his nerve. "If we give ourselves up, they daren't murder us in cold blood. They're bound to give us a trial." Disregarding the warnings of the others, he walks out of the train toward the enemy, waving a white handkerchief. As soon as he's spotted, he's shot in the back and dies.
There's something comical about the premise—pompous, wussy Brit gets his comeuppance—but Hitchcock doesn't go for laughs here. Far from it—although the death happens quickly, and there is only a muted reaction from the other characters, the sudden act of violence is frightening and stunning in its flatness. It is the first time real harm is done to one of the characters, and the film's lighthearted tone is, in a single jolt, replaced by one of dread. Hitchcock's point about the arrogance of British power is clear (and particularly haunting, given that the film was made in 1938): Even though Todhunter is the film's most obtuse figure, his haughtiness is reflected in all of the English characters. The Brits' lofty self-assuredness is revealed to be a grim, willful denial of the real evils that threaten to disrupt their lives of privilege and security.
This dramatic heightening of the stakes, as well as the sudden impingement of menace into everyday life, are motifs that recur in Hitchcock's later work. We see it in the appearance of long-lost Uncle Charlie in Shadow of the Doubt; the shock of Madeleine Elster's suicide in Vertigo; and, most famously, the death of Marion Crane 45 minutes into Psycho. The intrusion of horror into what seems a secure, familiar setting is the idea behind Hitchcock's most-celebrated plot device, the MacGuffin, a narrative hook that advances the plot early in the film but in the final reckoning proves irrelevant. As in Hitchcock's other great films, we are made to realize in The Lady Vanishes that what disturbed us initially (the disappearance of governess Froy) pales in comparison with the darker dangers that lurk ahead (the false sense of security of the prosperous, the fatal arrogance of great nations). If The Lady Vanishes has a weakness, it's that Hitchcock allows the despair of the gunfight scene to dissipate relatively quickly; it's not long before wedding bells are chiming. The chill of the scene leaves its mark and lends a darker pallor to the film's triumphant conclusion, but it was not until the American years that Hitchcock allowed himself to explore more fully the depths of paranoia, obsession, and dread first hinted at in The Lady Vanishes. In the next 20 years, he ventured so deep into these dark places that, by the time he made Vertigo, there was no way out; as soon as one lady vanishes, we know another will follow.