Alfred Hitchcock wasn't too good at straight-out comedy, which he only did once. But he was absolutely brilliant at clever, witty thrillers, one of the earliest of which is "The Lady Vanishes." While it has some major plot holes, Hitchcock makes up for those with witty dialogue and solid acting.
Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is having a last girl's-night-out with her best friends, at a small Alpine hotel. As she's leaving on the train, she befriends a kindly little old governess (Dame May Whitty) -- who vanishes while Iris is napping. Even worse, everyone denies that the old lady existed, making Iris wonder if she imagined the whole thing.
She enlists the help of eccentric musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to help her find the old lady, once they are both convinced that the lady existed. Now the pair must go through the train in search of the old lady -- but they never expected to uncover an international conspiracy, which could leave them all dead.
"The Lady Vanishes" was a pretty early movie of Hitchcock's, and at the end we're left wondering about several oddities in the plot (how is an eighty-year-old lady so athletic? How inept can those foreign agents BE?). As a spy thriller it's flawed but passable... but it's very good as a comedic mystery.
Hitchcock takes his time introducing us to these characters, by having them all bunk at one overcrowded hotel. One particularly funny scene has Gilbert invading Iris's suite, after she has him ejected from his room, and strewing his things all over as she orders him to leave. But Hitchcock also captures the claustrophobic feeling of being menaced on a train.
As well as the feisty socialite and weird musician, the movie is sprinkled with cricket-obsessed Brits, ebullient hoteliers, and bickering adulterous lovers. They all do fairly solid jobs, with Redgrave as a charming, slightly odd standout. And they all get some entertaining dialogue, no matter how stodgy they are. ("My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.")
"The Lady Vanishes" is a comedic mystery that doesn't quite work as a spy thriller. But it's still an entertaining, taut little movie. Definitely a keeper.
on November 19, 2002
This film is one of Hitchcock's early great works. Many believe THE LADY VANISHES to be an essential film. If you ask if I think everyone should see it I answer emphatically "Yes!". Whether or not it is essential to own is a bit up for grabs. I have seen it numerous times and it is enjoyable; great script, great scenes, great acting and directing etc. The 'lady' in question is so sweet and unassuming, and the young lady and man who become 'involved' are quite fiesty as well. Yet I have never felt compelled to own THE LADY VANISHES. As far as I'm concerned, it is a great example of early Hitchcock, but not essential.
That said, I am glad that Criterion Collection decided to include this title. The film elements look quite good considering the age of the negatives and how they were probably stored (without much care I'm guessing). The sound is as good as one can hope given the audio technology of the time (1939-World War Two was only just about to start!). Occasionally dialogue is not quite as crisp as I would like, but this is nothing too bothersome. All in all, this is a film that everyone should see at least once-certainly every film student or fan of Hitch.
on October 3, 2002
First, if one wants to get this on DVD, it is absolutely essential to get the Criterion edition. There are numerous cheap editions of this film, but, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Only the Criterion edition is based on a reconstituted copy, the others being reduplications of worn, aged copies.
THE LADY VANISHES was the last film that Alfred Hitchcock made in Great Britain before leaving for a long stay in Hollywood. I consider this one to be the second best of the films he made in England during the thirties, only surpassed by THE 39 STEPS. Of all the films that Hitchcock made, THE LADY VANISHES probably best blends both the suspense and the humor he loved to inject into every film. In fact, this film is funnier than many pure comedies. The scene where Basil Radford hijacks a long distance telephone call, only to shout to the operator, "How's England?!" only to mean thereby, "What has happened in Cricket?" is a classic. This is also yet another of Hitchcock's great train films. No major director used trains as often and as well as Hitchcock, and this is his finest effort in the genre.
The cast for this film is easily the best of any of Hitchcock's 1930s films, and holds up well against any of his American films. Michael Redgrave manages to project both the humor and seriousness that Hitchcock preferred in his leading men, and Margaret Lockwood, although not blonde, makes an excellent leading lady. But it is the supporting cast that makes this film so delectable. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford appear as "Caldicott" and "Charters," and as a pair of appalling Britishers abroad, they very nearly steal the movie. They were such a hit in this film that they became an instant team, and were paired in many additional films together. Sometimes, as in their memorable golf competition-to-the-death in DEAD OF NIGHT, they played similar characters under new names. But in several films they resurrected the Caldicott and Charters characters, as in Sir Carol Reed's NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, which was itself a fairly straightforward imitation of THE LADY VANISHES. I must confess that my favorite moments of THE LADY VANISHES occur when they are onscreen, especially in the gunfight at the end, in which they simultaneously display complacent bravery and stoic indifference. Paul Lukas makes a marvelous villain, and Dame May Whitty is perfect playing the title character.
The film is marred mildly by the much lower state of British cinema compared to Hollywood in 1939. One need only compare the initial shot in this film with early shots in REBECCA. I consider THE LADY VANISHES a better film (though REBECCA has some marvelous moments, although in many ways it is an untypical Hitchcock film, forced as he was to conform to Hollywood and not yet able to enforce his own vision there), but if you compare the model sets in the British film with the model shots of Manderlay, the difference is dramatic. The opening shots of the Swiss town are so obviously a miniature; in REBECCA it is not at all obvious that Manderlay is.
Spunky Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in Eastern Europe on her way to be married in England. Aboard are a colorful assortment of characters including two cricket-obsessed eccentrics, a suspicious couple having an illicit affair, and a rather scary magician. One bright note is an elderly governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) whom Iris befriends. As the trip gets underway, the old lady promptly disappears and no one seems to have seen her except Iris, who did suffer a bop on the head earlier and may have imagined her.
While the basic plot is a lot like Flightplan, this 1938 Alfred Hitchcock suspense story is full of comedic touches. The quirky characters are well-developed and appropriately silly or menacing and I was kept interested and guessing until the end. Lockwood is quite likeable as the spirited heroine and Michael Redgrave is fun as her joking yet sympathetic new friend.
The movie loses a star because model trains and bad indoor-for-outdoor sets are obviously used and in a shootout, two pistols hold at least a hundred bullets. But the overall mood is exciting as well as playful; indeed, this is a good mystery that doesn't take itself too seriously. Recommended.
Alfred Hitchcock wasn't too good at straight-out comedy, which he only did once that I can remember. But he was absolutely brilliant at clever, witty thrillers -- mystery with a comic edge. One of the earliest he created was "The Lady Vanishes." While it has some major plot holes, Hitchcock makes up for those with witty dialogue and solid acting.
Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is having a last girl's-night-out with her best friends, at a small Alpine hotel, only days before her wedding to a stuffy arisocrat. As she's leaving on the train, she befriends a kindly little old governess (Dame May Whitty) -- who vanishes while Iris is napping. Even worse, everyone denies that the old lady existed, making Iris wonder if she imagined the whole thing (due to a blow on the head).
She enlists the help of eccentric musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to help her find the old lady, once they are both convinced that the lady existed and that all the people who deny she was there are lying. Now the pair must go through the train in search of the woman -- but they never expected to uncover an international conspiracy and a bevy of German spies.
"The Lady Vanishes" was a pretty early movie of Hitchcock's, and at the end we're left wondering about several oddities in the plot (how is an eighty-year-old lady so athletic? How inept can those foreign agents BE?). As a spy thriller, it's enjoyable but too riddled with plot holes... but it's very good as a comedic mystery.
Hitchcock takes his time introducing us to these characters, by having them all bunk at one overcrowded hotel, and sprinkles it with clues that all is not as idyllic as it seems. One particularly funny scene has Gilbert invading Iris's suite, after she has him ejected from his room, and strewing his things all over as she orders him to leave. But Hitchcock also captures the claustrophobic feeling of being menaced on a train, with no way out.
As well as the feisty socialite and weird musician, the movie is sprinkled with cricket-obsessed Brits, ebullient hoteliers, sweet rambling old ladies, and bickering adulterous lovers. They all do fairly solid jobs, with Redgrave as a charming, slightly odd standout who keeps people awake with folk-dances, and gets all the best lines ("My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.")
"The Lady Vanishes" has actually been put out by Criterion before, but it was so unsatisfactory that I was better off with my cheap little Diamond edition. Presumably if they're releasing it a second time, then they've cleaned it up as even a minor Hitch movie deserves.
"The Lady Vanishes" is a comedic mystery that doesn't quite work as a spy thriller, but is taut, entertaining and amusing enough to keep you watching to the end. Definitely a keeper.
on May 4, 2004
First the usual warnings: caveat emptor, you get what you pay for, etc. etc. etc., yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah. With that out of the way, let me say that getting these three early Hitchcock films at such a low price is an extremely good deal. Sure they're blurry in parts and there are occasional picture/sound glitches, but nothing really interferes with either the storytelling or the suspense, which is really why you're watching them in the first place.
Let me add that the four-star rating is for the DVD as a whole. None of the films are presented at four-star quality (The Lady Vanishes is maybe three-and-a-half), but the fact that you get three movies instead of one or two bumps the score from average to slightly-above.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is the oldest of the three movies and its print and sound quality are the most deteriorated. Nevertheless, the symphony scene and the final gunfight retain their suspensefulness. The movie holds its own against the 1956 remake; Leslie Banks is no Jimmy Stewart, but at least Edna Banks doesn't sing.
Secret Agent features a young John Gielgud, only a year or two out of short pants, I'm sure. Peter Lorre steals the show here, however, as an assassin or curious nationality. Of the three, I felt this was the least Hitchcockian in comparison with his later - and greater - work. It works on a psychological level, like his very-early Blackmail, rather than building the suspense of the other two films on this DVD or terror of Psycho or The Birds. The "self-translating" cypher notes are a nice effect; the spinning bowls and train crash are nice attempts at special effects that fall a little short of the mark.
The Lady Vanishes is the most recent of these films, and sports the best sound and picture. It also has some of the most recognizable Hitchcockian touches. The poisoned brandies framed in the extreme foreground, the hero(ine) whose sanity is in doubt, etc. It's also the most comedic throughout (although Lorre and Robert Young play their roles for laughs in Secret Agent, too).
If you want pristine remastered prints of these films, look elsewhere and expect to pay significantly more than a few dollars per movie. If you can "make do" with versions that look 65-70 years old, and want to experience Hitchcock early in his career, give this DVD a spin. If it turns out not to be to your liking, at least you haven't paid a lot to find that out. Odds are you'll find you get a lot for the price (a brief biography of Hitchcock appears on the disc, trivia factoids appear on the packaging), and won't experience buyer's remorse or feel ripped off by your purchase.
on April 20, 2003
An avalanche has delayed a trans-European train in a nameless village in an eastern European country some time before World War II. In this village there is chaos due to the sudden over crowding, which leads to a shortage of hotel rooms where visitors meet new people. At the end of the night someone is murdered under peculiar circumstances, however, the murder remains unknown to the people in the village. In the morning of the very next day someone pushes a pot that happens to land on the head of Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), and she suffers from lightheadedness. A polite old lady, that Iris met the night before due to a disturbing musician, offers to help her on board the train and to take care of her. When Iris wakes up at a later occasion it seems like the old lady has vanished, and no one seems to know who she was. She desperately seeks aid from the very same musician, Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), who disturbed her sleep the previous night. These two characters set out to find out what has happened to the lost lady. Lady Vanishes is a quick humorous thriller that offers both deep belly laughs as well as exhilarating suspense. There are moments where the humor turns to slap-stick humor that seems to go overboard, yet it balances well with the daft lead of Iris. In the end, the combination between the absurd and the serious provides a clever satire that offers an exceptional cinematic experience.
on March 10, 2002
Hitchcock is best known for suspense--and if that is what you're looking for, this film may be a bit of a disappointment. The plot seems to be secondary, and the mystery isn't all that mysterious. But what makes this film stand out is its rollicking atmosphere and genuine sense of fun. All of the actors seem to be having the time of their lives: Michael Redgrave is hilariously brash ("You remind me of my father. You haven't any manners at all, and you're always seeing things."), Margaret Lockwood couldn't be prettier, Paul Lucas is suavely menacing, and Dame May Whitty is the perfect English lady. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as cricket obsessed tourists steal every scene they are in.
Although many of Hitchcock's British films of this period seem somewhat amateurish, as if he were experimenting with what he could do with film, The Lady Vanishes scarcely seems to strike a false note. I've seen the film almost a dozen times, and each time I like it more. The wit and charm of this picture doesn't diminish with age--if anything it increases.
A note: since The Lady Vanishes is out of copyright, there are many editions available. The best one by far is the Criterion Collection's edition, with restored picture and sound. It also features a fascinating commentary track by film historian Bruce Eder. It's a bit pricey, but well worth in in my opinion.
on January 4, 2002
I don't know why other versions of this movie are mixed in with the Criterion Collection version (or why Amazon persists in lumping VHS reviews with DVD reviews) that I am reviewing--it's confusing and frustrating to those who click on a particular version to learn about that version. The movie itself rates 5 stars, but the transfer barely rates at all. Criterion has a reputation for quality, but you'd never know it from this DVD. The picture quality is one of the worst I have ever seen, and the sound's not far behind. It looks like it was made from a bad print instead of going back to a restored negative to make a proper transfer. Although it looks better here than I have seen it before, that's not saying a lot. Dirt and white specks abound. This is restoration? Was every 25th speck removed leaving the other 24 to constantly irritate? The picture is grainy and not in very good focus. The sound is distorted and sometimes hard to understand. If this is the best that Criterion could do, they shouldn't have bothered. They have trashed a classic, and have added insult to injury by charging top dollar for a hack job.
on August 5, 2000
There's one thing that movies can do better than any other artistic medium. It's having you experience something from a character's point of view, and then having every other character in the movie say it never happened. Your empathy as a viewer is at its highest pitch: you saw what happened with your own eyes, and so you see it through the character's eyes as well, but then everyone denies it. This is the central scene on the train in THE LADY VANISHES. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in my opinion, is more cinematic than this. When the idea is used to trick the viewer (as in THE USUAL SUSPECTS), it's not as good (although still it's pretty good, because again it uses film in the most empathetic way possible). And when the trickery is fair--as in THE SIXTH SENSE--it can be superb. I rank THE LADY VANISHES right up there with VERTIGO, PSYCHO, and REAR WINDOW, as Hitchcock's greatest gifts to us, the moviegoers of the world. I would even add SHADOW OF A DOUBT to this pantheon. The thing I admire most about Hitchcock is that he was attracted to stories that showed what film could do as an art form. His best movies, in their different ways, display this for us. The movies I've mentioned would not be as good as novels or plays--and this is saying a great deal. It's a test, as a matter of fact, of what separates the film as an art medium from other artistic forms. The two directors who knew this best were Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. It would be so terrific if someone were to come along someday who could be said to be their equal. Bottom line: THE LADY VANISHES is one of the best movies you will ever see, but please, it works at a slower pace than today's movies, so let it sink in for you, don't be in a hurry, EXPERIENCE it!