The Lady Vanishes

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UK, 1938

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Production: Gainsborough; black and white; running time: 96 minutes; length: 8,650 feet. Released 1938.

Producer: Edward Black; screenplay: Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, from the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White; additional dialogue: Alma Reville; photography: Jack Cox; editor: R. E. Dearing; art director: Alec Vetchinsky; music: Louis Levy.

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson); Michael Redgrave (Gilbert); Paul Lukas (Dr. Hartz); Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy); Googie Withers (Blanche); Cecil Parker (Mr. Todhunter); Linden Travers (Mrs. Todhunter); Mary Clare (The Baroness); Naunton Wayne (Caldicott); Basil Radford (Charters); Emile Boreo (Hotel Manager); Sally Stewart (Julie); Philip Leaver (Signor Doppo); Selma Vaz Dias (Signora Doppo); Catherine Lacey (The Nun).



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* * *

The Lady Vanishes is probably Alfred Hitchcock's most popular film of the 1930s. Scripted by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a novel, The Wheel Spins (1936), by the best-selling novelist Ethel Lina White, the film was shot in five weeks during the late autumn of 1938. Although the project was originally offered to an American director, Roy William Neill, the film was abruptly cancelled after a Gainsborough film crew, doing some exterior shooting in Yugoslavia, created a minor political furor when the local authorities became nervous about how their native country was to be depicted in the British cinema. The film received new life, however, when Hitchcock read the script, in October 1937, and, after the director made some minor additions, Gainsborough went into almost immediate production.

In spite of the film's popular and financial success, it has fared badly at the hands of the critics. For example, John Russell Taylor described the film as the "lightest and purist of diversions" with little claim on logic or to any deep meaning. Donald Spoto called it a mere divertissement, a cinematic soufflé. Even Raymond Durgnat, after a rather lengthy analysis of the film, characterized it as one of Hitchcock's "least substantial." Hitchcock himself, in his interview with François Truffaut, has added to such critical trivializing by concentrating his remarks on the technical experiment of achieving the scene in the dining car with the close-up of the drugged drinks. Yet in spite of such critical evasion there is reason to regard the film as a serious work.

Among the first substantial accounts of the film was the one written by Raymond Durgnat in his study The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock. Durgnat explores the film's contemporary political ramifications and writes about the film as a reaction to the mounting European crisis brought on by the allies' attempt to pacify Hitler at Munich. Durgnat's analysis centres on how the various British characters interact with each other in face of a "political" danger. At first unaware of the crisis or self-consciously avoiding it, the various members of the microcosm of British society on the train awaken to the importance of becoming involved in the effort to restrain the forces of evil represented by the German-accented doctor and his uniformed as well as un-uniformed accomplices. Such a sociological reading is not difficult to fathom given the time period of the film and given Hitchcock's preoccupation with spies and spying in his films of the 1930s, such as Secret Agent, Sabotage, and The 39 Steps, and although Durgnat's analysis is not particularly sophisticated as political criticism goes, it does help to refute the claim that The Lady Vanishes is undeserving of detailed analysis. It also opens up a wide-ranging and potentially exciting direction for further examination of Hitchcock's films of the 1930s as expressive of a variety of political issues, including a fairly critical examination of British inter-war society.

A far more complex and in many ways more difficult approach to the film has recently emerged as feminist critics, spurred on by the work of Laura Mulvey and Raymond Bellour, and as evidenced in a recent study by Tania Modleski, have come to see Hitchcock's cinema as a fruitful site for exploring the treatment of women in classical cinema. Such an approach focusses less on the realpolitik of the film and concentrates more forcefully on the treatment of the female characters. By shifting the critical focus back to the female protagonist, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), the analysis of the film returns the critical emphasis to questions of gender, the relationship between female characters, and women as structural agents in the narrative.

The focus of the criticism then becomes less what is happening, and its possible external meanings (Durgnat) and more on how the female character has become a cluster of values and ideologies which can be made intelligible by a careful analysis of such things as the disruptive femaleness of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), or the mother/daughter combination of Miss Froy and Iris Henderson and how that relationship is modified by the presence of the male protagonist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). This approach opens the film to depth psychology and political criticism of the most sophisticated nature.

Although it remains a popular item on film society offerings, its wit still appreciable some 50 years after it was made, The Lady Vanishes also now occupies, along with The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, and the early Man Who Knew Too Much, a central place as a formative Hitchcock film.

—Charles L. P. Silet

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The Lady Vanishes

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