The Lady Vanishes (1938) – Alfred Hitchcock (Dir.), Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave
There’s a gentleman who existed once. Many years ago. He entered filmmaking, a hidden specter, pumping out films as though they were Irish babies (that’s three a year), subtly and gently redefining how we understand tension and visual storytelling. Part silhouetted shadow of night, part Winston Churchill impersonator, this man is a master of thrillers, a godfather of horror and a delight of British sensibility. I am, of course, talking about Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
We all know Hitchcock as the man who brought us Norman Bates, a fear of biplanes flying over our heads in corn fields, and James Stewart watching us get dressed from his rear window. Hitchcock’s name is synonymous with cinematic excellence and class (as well as ‘ornithophobia’, but that’s because ‘ornithophobia’ is recklessly difficult to say.). However, what you might not have known is that Hitchcock’s career spanned about forty years. Watching a movie from his earlier years (i.e. The Lady Vanishes) and one from 1960 (Psycho) would be like comparing Oliver Stone’s Platoon, a grim, well-shot, brilliantly scripted Vietnam thriller, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps a movie that thinks it’s better than the numeral ‘2’…and that Shia Lebeouf isn’t completely fucking terrible. It would be like comparing Scorcesse’s Goodfella’s to Hugo. Both good, but occupying opposing beds in the overnight train of Marty’s long career. A train fraught with gunfights, Jack Nicholson wearing a strap-on, and people demanding to know if you think they’re funny, like a fucking clown.
Speaking of trains: This movie. Hitchcock loves his trains. We have strangers meeting on them, we have people taking them North by Northwest. I’m not sure what about these locomotives endlessly fascinated the man, but every chance he gets, he cuts to a vehicle rolling by, pounding and steaming its way along. Inadequacy issues, perhaps?
Well, in a nutshell, this thing is about a spoiled spark-plug Iris (Margaret Lockwood, doing her best to confuse the shit out of me with a half-English/half-American garble of an accent. Which was it? IT DROVE ME CRAZY) befriending an old woman, Mrs. Froy (Dame May Witty – not sure if she was a dame or she was just badass enough to demand that it was put in the credits) on a train going through the Eastern European country of *muffled cough and change subject*. After getting hit on the head, she passes out and Mrs. Froy is gone. Nobody on the train remembers her. Everyone thinks can’t-decide-what-side-of-the-fucking-pond-she-came-from Iris is crazy. Except for famed parent of everyone famous, and Petyr Baelish look-a-like, Michael Redgrave. He had a character…I guess he played music and was writing a book…or reading a book…point is, he looks like Petyr Baelish and he is dashing as all hell. It seems that Mrs. Froy was just a pigment of Iris’ imagination, but, remember, this is Hitchcock…
While watching this classic, I decided that this was the same plot I’d seen before with a woman on a train going missing and whatnot. And then I remembered that I HAD seen it before…on stage when I was a wee little shit. About the point when they discover the magic cabinet, I had a moment of “Eureka!” And stripped down naked. My roommates don’t appreciate when I do this and I don’t appreciate them stifling me, both emotionally and artistically, so they can shut their whore mouths. Anyhoo…When I was about ten, my parents dragged my brother and myself to see a campy adaptation of this movie made for the London stage. If I remember correctly…it sucked. I never saw the second half because either I A) Fell asleep (extremely plausible) B) left in a huff because the two old women in front of us complained that my brother and I were “Eating our sweets too loudly.” Well, missies, you’re lucky you can still hear anything. As your bodies break down and the last wisps of youth flitter away into oblivion, you’ll be glad you could hear my damn sweets. Enjoy eternal nothingness. Jerks.
It was an apt translation to the stage, I discovered as the plot unfurled and the characters grew ever-more ridiculous. It’s about as campy as Ru Paul starting a musical theater company. Is this the same Hitchcock that made me fear tennis matches? That pushed Jimmy Stewart to the brink of madness? It’s almost easy to forget that Hitchcock isn’t just British, he’s as British as the bloody leg-before-wicket rule enacted at the third test match of the Ashes after a fortnight of raining cats and dogs. Or, simply, ‘British as fuck’, in American. We have these two men, Caldicott and Charters who wander from scene to scene, complaining about foreigners (their food, their language, their lack of up-to-date cricket information and their not-being-british). Now, I like to think I’m an enlightened person, an ally to the LGBTQ community…but these guys were about as gay and a sausage eating contest in a Nazi all-boys school. Like…prep school gay. Like…St. Paul airport bathroom gay. In summation: these two ‘hetero-life mates’ and their discussion of ‘cricket’ was nothing more than a prelude to good old, weepy, shameful, don’t-tell-your-mother penis-to-penis. And yet…it never comes up. Ever. Nobody mentions a word. They just accept these two confirmed bachelors climbing into bed together shirtless and don’t blink an eye. Oh the English.
That aside, the whole ordeal waffled between taught political thriller and a damn pantomime. When the doctor (so obviously, gloriously malicious and yet NO ONE SUSPECTS HIM) tells Iris that Mrs. Froy “Never existed,” I had half a mind to yell “Oh, yes she did!” And he’d have turned to the camera and stated flatly, “Oh. No, she didn’t.” And I’d yell back, “Oh, yes she…” The point I’m trying to make is that pantos are fucking insufferable. They’re like strapping two toddlers to your head and dousing them in pepper. Entertaining for about six seconds until you have the sensation of a miniature foot kicking you in the temples from both sides for two hours. There was NO TENSION in the entire film. For about 20 minutes you question if Iris is just suffering from ‘crazy bitch-itis’ and this whole thing is just playing out in her head in some mental institution on the outskirts of *cough and mumble, change the subject*. But then you find out what’s going on. The second you question a motive, the motive is made clear. There is no suspense.
And then the fights scenes…oh lordy. There are two. And they are amazing. Both brilliant and horribly terrible that you stare on in utter shock. First, the fist fight. It’s like two virgins who decided they were both subs, thereby both of them are tied up, trying to dry hump each other into oblivion. And Iris stands to the side, gently kicking their bottoms. It reminded me why I’m so glad virginity is not a permanent affliction. Next: a gunfight so nonchalant, you’d think it was cucumber that was simply too cool for academics, thus it lies there, not giving a fuck. People are shooting, sort of. It’s the most painfully British shoot-out since the Queen decided that she didn’t want to go to the royal wedding and capped a few guards. I think that happened. I heard about it.
This movie didn’t seem to care. An overwhelming sense of distance hung in the air, forcing any connection with the characters into the sidelines, leaving these oddballs of British sensibilities to flounce further down the road of absurdity. This was codified for me when Charters (the tweedly named Basil Radford – I know, right? People actually have names like that) walks out of the train and gets shot in the hand. He doesn’t react. He doesn’t do anything. He just glances down and walks back inside. After getting shot. In the hand. WHAT? What’s confusing about the entire ordeal is that sometimes it exemplifies Hitchcock’s strengths: his ability to visually advance the plot, his sense of wit and character, his complex plotting…and yet the rest is a floundering mess of Anglican hilarity.
It’s difficult to tell if this was intentionally a comedy or simply so soaked in goofiness that Goofie would have asked them to “cool on that shit.” (And then Goofie would knock down his sunglasses, rev his engine, look into the camera one last time and declare ‘Derrrrr. See ya later!’ He’d ride off into the night, just a light dwindling into the mountains, a ghost drifting from our lives as quickly as he had entered. We’ll miss you, Goofie. God rest his soul.) Excuse me. Sorry. To the point: Hitchcock is a master, a genius even. Perhaps this absurdity was simply an extended piece of satire, singling out the British as completely disconnected from the international community, people who emulate their island dwelling, repelling all invaders attempting to broaden their world view. The central plot point is that there is a message that needs to get back to the Foreign Office about two major European powers joining forces. Since this was made in ’38, Hitchcock couldn’t say who it was…but let’s assume it rhymes with Shmermany and Shmussia. Perhaps he was kicking the Brits where the sun don’t shine, a very naughty place no one should mention in polite company, in order to force them into the international community on the brink of world war.
Or, perhaps, it was just really silly. Like…really, really, really silly. It’s a fascinating relic, a milestone on a career so prolific it would make Joyce Carol Oates say ‘Damn, son.’ See this movie. I laughed more during the length of its run-time than I have in a long while.