Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pantheon movie of the month - THE LADY VANISHES

THE LADY VANISHES may be less well regarded than PSYCHO and VERTIGO, but for my money it is Alfred Hitchcock's most entertaining film by far. It's equal parts thriller, romance, social comedy and political allegory. Hitchcock packs more into ninety minutes, and with more art and skill, than most film-makers can shake a stick at.

The movie was originally released in 1938 and comes from Hitchcock's English period. The story will be familiar to those of you who watched the recent Jodie Foster thriller FLIGHTPLAN. A beautiful young woman called Iris is travelling back to England from an unspecified Central European country. She is befriended by a little old woman called Mrs Froy. Iris wakes from a nap to find that Mrs Froy has disappeared. She wants to stop the train and have it searched, but none of the passengers recall seeing Mrs Froy. Is Iris delusional, or is she the victim of a sinister conspiracy?

The surprise is that, in sharp contrast with FLIGHTPLAN, the movie isn't really about whether or not Iris has imagined Mrs Froy. It is made very clear early on that Mrs Froy exists. There are three other things going on with this movie that take it beyond a simple thriller. First off, we have a brilliant romantic-comedy that pre-dates WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and all those films where two beautiful people can't stand each other so much they fall in love! Michael Redgrave, in his debut film role, is absolutely charming as the dashing hero, Gilbert, and Margaret Lockwood is suitably pretty as his reluctant lover. Better still, they have real chemistry and the dialogue, from Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, is wickedly funny.

Gilbert: Come on, sit down, take it easy. What's the trouble?
Iris Henderson: If you must know, something fell on my head.
Gilbert: When, infancy?

Gilbert: Can I help?
Iris Henderson: Only by going away.
Gilbert: No, no, no, no. My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.

Second, Hitchcock uses the concept of the Englishman travelling abroad to satirise English attitudes to foreigners, causing a fuss, drinking tea and, most dear to my heart, cricket! It's wonderfully funny to modern ears to hear British people exclaim, "They can't treat us like this: we're British subjects!" Or for Michael Redgrave to exclaim at an Italian's garlic breath.

Finally, one can read the movie as a profound political allegory. A cosmopolitan group of Europeans are presented with a pressing evil. A few choose to act upon the knowledge because they think it's right and damn the consequences. Most know exactly what's happening but refuse to act for petty personal reasons. Even in extremis, when most are stirred into action, there is still a man who claims it's pointless to resist such overwhelming force and wants to surrender to the enemy. It does not take a wild leap of imagination to see this as a comment on appeasement.

So you can watch THE LADY VANISHES for all sorts of reasons. It holds up well - it's fast-paced, it's got thrills and spills, and it's got depth. But the best reason to see it is that it's Hitchcock's funniest and most entertaining films Indeed, the movie spawned a comedy duo called Charters and Caldicott - the acerbic cricket-loving Englishmen - that went on to star in other movies and even had their own radio show!

THE LADY VANISHES was originally released in 1938. It is currently on re-release in the UK. It is widely available on DVD.

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