The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1938)

I felt like a Hitchcock tonight. But not one of the famous ones, no; I thought it best to go for something “lesser.” You know, something that no one really talks about much these days compared to your Psycho or Vertigo.

Well, shit. I got it wrong. The Lady Vanishes is not “lesser.” It’s about as good as anything I’ve seen from Hitch thus far (which is not a lot, admittedly, but I’m getting there).

I know the opening act gets a lot of flak for being extraneous to the central mystery. For a few minutes I wondered if this was, indeed, the right film. It was like something out of a silent short, or maybe even a nod to Grand Hotel. A lot of characters milling about, getting into laughable predicaments (especially Caldicott and Charters). Overblown foreign accents, complete with a fabricated language. Noises and nuisances. You wonder why you’re watching because nothing, technically, is happening.

Fast forward to the end, and I really didn’t mind the opening. I think Hitch was doing something ahead of his time by pulling the rug from our feet and denying instant gratification. The train and its thrills will come and due time, but sit and watch how these would-be passengers behave for a while. Marinate in their idiosyncrasies and habits, so that everything they do and say later on will make sense to you. And it all does. Plus, cut out the beginning and Miss Froy wouldn’t be as interesting a character—and you need her to be interesting, otherwise you would’ve give a fig about her disappearance.

The mystery has some loose ends, and methods are largely left to the viewers’ imaginations. So what. Hitch keeps the story going, tinkling as it does with the spirited investment of Redgrave and Lockwood (the former being particularly fun—no wonder the Redgrave dynasty is so revered). The supporting cast, given space to breathe, is charming and extremely well-rounded. Even Caldicott and Charters, who are but bit players after their opening romp, still manage to warm the heart with their cricket jabber and general obliviousness.

In his later Hollywood years, Hitch was more stylish, became more adventurous and experimental with his direction, and (of course) utilized the sexiness of Technicolor to great effect. The Lady Vanishes is definitely Hitch at his most British, and it’s certainly not as revelatory as his acclaimed later achievements. Nevertheless, it’s still bloody good fun. I was never bored, I thought the plot was cracking, and I loved being immersed in this world. Give me another ticket and I’ll gladly board this train again.