The Lady Vanishes, made in 1938, is my favourite of Hitchcock’s pre-war English films. As few spoilers as possible, but it’s about a train journey from a fictional central European country back to England – a journey on which, as the title promises, a lady vanishes.
At its heart the film has the form of a thriller (Will they find the lady? Why has she vanished? Why are these people lying?), and the story is driven along by one of Hitchcock’s favourite devices, the couple who take an instant dislike to each other. (It made stars of Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, seen in the publicity still above with the sinister Paul Lukaz). Along the way we get some fine Hitchcock set-pieces, notably the fight in the guard’s van, stuffed full of magician’s props, and of course (it is set on a train) the climb between the carriages along the outside of the train.
But this is wrapped around with a set of stories that capture the good and bad of inter-war England (yes, I do mean England). The good? The cricket obsessed Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, desperate to make their connection at Basel that will get them to England in time for the last day of the Test match who come good when the chips are down. The bad? The ambitious lawyer who’s taken his mistress on holiday, but (it becomes clear) has no intention of leaving his wife. And also the plucky: the English governess who is not quite what she seems to be. A lot of this is down to the writers, Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat, who had completed the script for another director before Hitchcock joined the project. Their work often had a sharp eye for Britain and its culture.
There’s some fine writing here, and some fine construction; the sequence on the train where several people swear that they haven’t seen the vanished Miss Froy for reasons that are to do with their own small worlds, rather than malice or conspiracy, is a wonderful thing.
But there’s a lot more: we get a film that both prefigures the imminent outbreak of war and, in its way, is an elegy for the England that will be swept away by it. (The peerless Philip French called it “a faultlessly cast mirror held up to the nation in the year of Munich.”) The hotel where the action starts is both a metaphor for pre-war Europe, with guests from dozens of countries crammed in by an avalanche, and an anticipation of the privations of war (Radford and Wayne have to share a maid’s room, and take so long dressing for dinner that the restaurant has run out of food).
And the shootout on the train (spoilers here) is almost like Dunkirk: outgunned by the military surrounding them, they are down to their last bullet, and on the verge of having to give up, when they manage to make an unlikely escape.
But, before the escape, one of them decides the position is hopeless and chooses to surrender:
Just because I’ve the sense to try to avoid being murdered, I’m accused of being a pacifist. Alright. I’d rather be callef a rat than die like one. … If we give ourselves up, they daren’t murder us in cold blood. They’re bound to give us a trial.
Despite his white flag, he ends up getting shot – in cold blood – for his pains. Before Munich, before the annexation of Czechosolvakia, Hitchcock – and Launder and Gilliat – knew what was coming.