This week for our cultural article, we will be examining Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899 – 1980) 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes. Set primarily on a train bound for England from Central Europe, Hitchcock’s film weaves an intriguing and intense narrative around characters united and divided by their snobbery, self-centredness, complacency, and nationalism.
The Lady Vanishes is one-part comedy, one-part murder mystery, and one-part thriller. The film’s first act is rather comedic in nature. A recent avalanche has blocked the train lines, forcing most of the residents to remain at the hotel overnight. The hotel in question becomes so overbooked and so strained in its resources, that two of its guests are forced to sleep in the maid’s quarters. This first act draws the audience in with its lighthearted attitude and its mixture of verbal and physical humour. Not even the murder of a folk singer outside the hotel is enough to distract us from the revelry.
The first act ends with the disappearance of the film’s titular character, Miss Froy (May Whitty, 1865 – 1948). From this point, the film becomes a murder mystery with Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood, 1916 – 1990), a wealthy socialite, and her helper, the musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave, 1908 – 1985), searching for her. Here Hitcock begins to play subtle tricks on our minds. We, like Iris Henderson, know Miss Froy exists, but the other characters deny ever having seen her. Simultaneously, Hitchcock plays with our curiosity and our frustration. Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act.
Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act. This act becomes a fight for survival as the film’s British characters are forced to fight against unnamed foreign forced outside.
Throughout the Lady Vanishes, themes of nationalism and class-snobbery pop-up. The film’s British characters and arrogant and insular in their attitudes. When it appears that they are about to be killed by foreign police officers, one Brit rather proudly exclaims: “They can’t do anything to us. We’re British subjects.” This is juxtaposed by the subtle undercurrent of politics, exemplified by the film’s antagonists, who may or may not be in league with Fascist Italy.
Then there’s the notion of social class and the snobbery and divisiveness that goes with it. (A reality Hitchcock, as the son of a trader, was quite familiar with). Hitchcock cynically links money and title together by having Iris return to England to marry Lord Charles Forthingale for no other reason than to appease her father, who is reportedly “aching to have a coat of arms on the jam label.” Then there’s the cricket-obsessed Charters (Naunton Wayne, 1901 – 1970) and Caldicott (Basil Radford, 1897 – 1952) representing the idle upper-class. (These two would become popular stock characters in numerous films, radio plays, and television shows). And then there’s the travelling lawyer (Cecil Parker, 1897 – 1971) and his mistress (Linden Travers, 1913 – 2001) who avoid contact with those they deem beneath them, and who are perfectly prepared to lie to protect their precious social status.
The Lady Vanishes has frequently been credited as Hitchcock’s last great British film. Hitchcock masterfully weaves elements of mystery, suspense, humour, international politics, class-snobbery, and nationalism together to form an intriguing story. The Lady Vanishes is still as intriguing today as it was nearly eighty years ago.