KD's Classic 5: Strangers on a Train… Vanishing

This week, we’ve got a grab bag of thrillers, comedies, and dramas for some fun summer viewing.

The Lady Vanishes

Streaming on Hulu  or on IMDB or Amazon instant video and available on DVD from Criterion

If all you know of Alfred Hitchcock is Vertigo or Psycho, then you owe it to yourself to explore another good half dozen titles, and you must include this one. Though not as well known as the director’s “greatest hits,” The Lady Vanishes is not only his best early work and best British film but one of his overall most watchable, a highly suspenseful and successful combination of espionage, comedy and romance. It was the only film he picked up that was written for and started by another director, which he did in order to finish out his British contract. Hitchcock did, however, make it distinctly his in every way. The plot will sound familiar because it’s been recycled many times since, including by Hitch himself on his TV series, and in Jodie Foster’s Flightplan. It’s about a woman, played by the beautiful Margaret Lockwood, who has a hard time convincing fellow train passengers she’s not crazy or suffering from an earlier head injury, and that the old lady who boarded with her has disappeared or that the lady even existed in the first place. The Lady Vanishes uses many elements that recurred in Hitch’s work: the confined and claustrophobic setting of a train, strong and spunky women, playful romantic comedy, subtle but unmistakable wartime propaganda, and of course the “MacGuffin,” the ultimately irrelevant and interchangeable but vital focus of everyone’s energies, the revelation of which is never a spoiler; here it’s a message hidden in a few bars of a folk song carried by the old woman.

The film’s lightness and humor comes from sharp and witty writing (adapted from the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White) and unexpected, incongruous moments, like a nun with high heels who shakes the doubters into believing there’s something to Lockwood’s paranoia. A huge part of the fun is the duo of stereotypically but amusingly stiff and patriotic tea drinking Brits Caldicott and Charters– cricket obsessed, oblivious to the approaching war clouds and more immediate danger on the train. They first dread Lockwood’s story, afraid it might delay their train, but then become most loyal helpers once it’s clear their precious England is threatened. In 1938, gathering dangers and rumors of war were much on European minds, and here Hitch shows us varying attitudes and levels of awareness, from vigilant to ignorant to appeasing, with pointed lines like, “Pacifist eh? Won’t work old boy. Early Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions!” Eventually the train’s dining car becomes symbolic of England, surrounded by enemies, and in a scene that Hitchcock added to the script, the British cornered there are forced to fight.

The cast is great: seasoned stage actress Dame May Whitty had her most enduring role as the vanished lady. Lockwood in her mid-twenties was a rising star, already well enough known to be specially picked by Hitch; only a few years later she’d become England’s most popular actress by playing bad girls and doing a run of hit costume dramas. Michael Redgrave, father of Lynn and Vanessa, had appeared in Hitch’s Secret Agent, but The Lady Vanishes was his first major movie role and one he wasn’t even that interested in, preferring to stick with his stage career. Redgrave’s natural nonchalance showed through and worked well for the role, as he becomes intrigued by Lockwood and first playfully, condescendingly and opportunistically plays along with her claims, long enough to get the romantic chemistry going, then ends up taking both Lockwood and her story quite seriously indeed. Lockwood isn’t eager to get from the Balkans to England to marry someone she doesn’t love, and so with some grateful relief for the distraction she throws herself into solving the mystery with the charming Redgrave.

Lady was a quick, low budget affair (see: obvious model train for exterior shots) but as Hitchcock’s last British film and first with his name above the title, it turned out to be a huge global hit and won rave reviews. The movie’s success cemented his reputation as England greatest director and capable maker of thrillers and got him a contract with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock moved to Hollywood, excited that his next project might be a movie about the Titanic (what a thriller that would have been), but ended up making Rebecca instead. One of the supporting players, Googie Withers, died July 16.


4 more classic things, all culled from new/recent Warner Archive MOD/DVD releases

To celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday (August 6) you can pre-order a 3-film RKO movie set out August 2, or titles like The Fuller Brush Girl, Miss Grant Takes Richmond and Her Husband’s Affairs.

Carole Lombard was another one of filmdom’s greatest comediennes, but was also good with drama, as you can see in these two rarities: In Name Only, Lombard enters a complicated relationship with Cary Grant; in Vigil in the Night, directed by George Stevens, she plays a nurse who derails her promising career to take the blame for her sister’s role in a child’s death, resigning herself to a life of sacrifice.

Another medical melodrama worth seeing is Symphony of Six Million, about an ambitious Jewish surgeon (Ricardo Cortez) who sells out and forgets his roots (and Irene Dunne) in order to climb the New York society ladder.

Noir gems: Follow Me Quietly is a short, gritty and cheaply made thriller by Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin), in essence a serial killer procedural with one of the creepiest scenes ever filmed. Also check out The Threat with the great Charles McGraw as a prison escapee out for revenge against the cop, D.A. and anyone else he blames for putting him away.

Kristina Dijan is the intellectual storehouse of anything classic. With a mental repertoire of black and white films that rivals that of the MGM warehouse, Kristina is the voice of Landmark's regular "KD's Classic 5" column.

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One Response to “KD's Classic 5: Strangers on a Train… Vanishing”

  1. Karen says:

    Great post! I have never seen The Lady Vanishes but, as usual, you have made me want to!

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