In Hitchcock’s second-to-last British production, the master of suspense utilizes the stiff-upper-lippedness that makes the English culture so well-known. Each character is impossibly polite, remarkably charming and highly intelligent. Witty lines are tossed off with relish, but it soon begins to sink in: we are trapped on a train for roughly the next hour, and something bad is about to happen. The claustrophobia begins to sink in, the quickening heartbeats, the pulse race. As only Hitchcock could make them, The Lady Vanishes is an impossibly entertaining and well-made suspenseful black comedy.
The plot concerns itself with one of Hitchcock’s favorite obsessions: the story of an innocent being descended into a nightmarish underworld of corruption and cover-ups. Iris is a beautiful brunette, played to perfection by Margaret Lockwood, returning home to England so she can get married. While waiting at the train station she gets bumped on the head, and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a kind elderly governess, helps her onto the train and takes care of her. Then Miss Froy disappears, no one believes Iris that she was even on the train. Iris knows that there’s a cover-up going on, but she needs helping proving it. Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musician, eventually steps up to help, and possibly has romantic intentions. With an assortment of characters – some menacing, some comedic – The Lady Vanishes is one of the greatest ensemble pieces in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.
There is something about the distinctly British tone that makes this film so immensely entertaining. Trying to imagine Americans in the same situation brings to mind a movie like Under Seige which would substitute the witty asides and strong characterizations for violence, sex and a brain-dead action-pace. The manners lull you into a comfort which Hitchcock ever so slowly pulls out from underneath you. And by the time we’re at the shoot out on the stalled train, I was tense from the suspense.
The Lady Vanishes is an absolute treasure. I don’t know if I would put it on the same level as my personal favorites like Psycho and Vertigo, but I do love it as much as Rebecca, Strangers on a Train and Rope. Take that for what you will. But do yourself a favor and find a way to watch this. You can thank me later.