Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Short Take: The Lady Vanishes

On the surface, The Lady Vanishes (1938) is one of the conspiracy thrillers director Alfred Hitchcock is famous for. A young British woman (Margaret Lockwood) befriends an elderly governess (Dame May Whitty) while riding on a cross-continental train. After the younger woman awakens from a nap, she finds the governess has disappeared, and no one on the train has any recollection of her. Was the older woman kidnapped, and are the other passengers part of a conspiracy to cover it up? Or is the younger woman hallucinating from a concussion suffered before she boarded the train? Most Hitchcock thrillers have a sense of humor about their teasing suspense tropes. But this picture goes far beyond wry self-awareness. Its tongue is as firmly in cheek as a Mad magazine parody. It's not an immersive piece of storytelling; one either enjoys it for the mocking treatment of the story conventions, or one doesn't. Hitchcock's direction is marvelous. The staging is remarkably sophisticated, and the expert pacing keeps the movie hurtling forward. His filmmaking virtuosity is thrilling in its own right. The script, credited to Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, is erratic. It does a witty job of sustaining the genre satire once it gets going, but it is hobbled by a largely extraneous first act, and the jokes, while amusing, aren't especially memorable. The cast also includes Michael Redgrave as the leading man who is not a love interest, Paul Lukas as the sinister psychiatrist, and the comedy duo of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as Caldicott and Childers, the cricket enthusiasts who are also passengers on the train. The source novel is The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. The film is the last one from Hitchcock's British period. After it was released, he moved to the United States and began making films through the Hollywood studios.

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