Friday, August 30, 2013

DVD Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

(Released: 2007 by The Criterion Collection) 

Another looong  DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

You got us involved in this fantastic plot; you might at least trust us!”

Indeed, if there’s one filmmaker I can “trust” to involve me in a “fantastic plot”, it’s Alfred Hitchcock!  And, needless to say, he earns that trust with “The Lady Vanishes”! 

In the remote Balkan enclave of “Bandrika” (…actually, what is clearly a “village” of MODEL buildings – hotel, railroad station, trains, etc.) an avalanche (of “model snow”) has covered the model tracks, delaying a departing model train.  Sure, it was 1938, but no effort is made, with any means of camera trickery, to convince us that the setup is anything BUT a model.  Hitchcock probably didn't feel the NEED to trick us thusly.

All that's missing is the Christmas Tree!
A disparate group of travelers are forced to spend the night at the hotel, until the tracks can be cleared.  This gives us an opportunity to become acquainted with them:  British tourist and party girl Iris Henderson and nervy but charming European “folklorist” Gilbert, our principal protagonists, are joined by eccentric English governess Miss Froy, two cricket-obsessed British travelers Charters and Caldicott, Italian magician Signor Doppo, and an adulterous couple Mr. and (um…) “Mrs.” Todhunter.

After an evening of somewhat comedic vignettes involving the characters, the train is cleared with the new day – and the travelers are off.  During this time, Iris befriends Miss Froy, sharing a compartment and tea in the dining car with her… until the governess suddenly DISAPPEARS – and no one on the train will admit to ever having seen her. 

Wherefore art thou, Mrs. Froy?
Iris convinces Gilbert of this baffling disappearance of an elderly woman off of a speeding train, and the pair set out to solve the mystery.  

Limited, as the film is, to the confines of the train and its coaches; Hitchcock delivers a taut, suspenseful, and claustrophobic masterpiece, expertly balanced with more than a touch of lightheartedness and comedy than one might expect in such a film.

Gilbert’s line “Feint heart never found old lady!”, and Iris and Gilbert momentarily assuming the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, while snooping about the baggage car and the magician’s props therein, are examples of said lightheartedness. 

Other Items of Note:

Per the DVD's Commentary Track, this was Alfred Hitchcock’s final British film before departing for Hollywood (...or maybe not. See the conflicting commentaries discussed later on in the review -- and an additional discussion of same in our Comments Section).

Credited with “Continuity” is “Alma Reville”, who either was (or would be) Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock. 

Iris Henderson is a rare case of a brunette heroine in a Hitchcock film.  Oddly, the most prominent blonde is the elderly Miss Froy.  

The Lady Vanishes” was reworked years later as “Into Thin Air”, a 1955 episode of the ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS American television series.  See THIS REVIEW, which discusses the episode. 

Perhaps I'm not the ONLY lady who "vanishes"!
As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.  


I had to look REALLY hard - and, even then, I'm not certain I've found a legitimate "CON". 

There is no Theatrical Trailer to be found anywhere on this two disc set.  Of course, not being an American film, it is entirely possible that one may not exist.  

Stop looking!  There's NO Theatrical Trailer!


It’s from The Criterion Collection:  Read all about who they are and what they do so well!  They originated the COMMENTARY TRACK, and set the standards for Extra Features for cryin’ out loud!  Every DVD enthusiast has something to thank them for! 

The Film:  There are no delays on THIS train!  You’ll be on the edge of your “reserved seat” from beginning to end… certainly once the train trip begins.  

The Cast: 

·         Margaret Lockwood as “Iris Henderson”. 

·         Michael Redgrave as “Gilbert”. 

·         Dame May Whitty as “Miss Froy”. 

·         Paul Lukas as “Dr. Hartz”. 

·         Naunton Wayne as “Caldicott”. 

·         Basil Radford as “Charters”. 

·         Cecil Parker as “Eric Todhunter”. 

·         Linden Travers as “(Mrs) Todhunter”. 

·         Mary Clare as “The Baroness”. 

·         Philip Leaver as “Signor Doppo”. 

·         Catherine Lacy as “The Nun”

·         Josephine Wilson as “Mme. Kummer.
Pick out as many as you can, folks!

Menus: The Main Menu is done in a nice orange color, similar to the packaging.  Vague images of passing scenery are dimly filtered through the bright orange color.  The ongoing sound of the traveling train is pervasive in the background, with no jarring whistle sounds.  It is just the clacking of the train itself in an endless loop, which becomes oddly relaxing and tension building at the same time.
Clickety-Clack! Clickety-Clack!  You'll never want your money back!

Subtitles: Are easy to read, in white lettering over the Black & White picture images – and you may very well need them to best understand all of the quickly-spoken British dialogue.

Extra Features: 

It’s the Criterion Collection!  Of course there are a great host of Extra Features! 

 Disc 1:

Commentary Track by Film Historian Bruce Eder:  Eder opens the proceedings with a hearty “Good Ev-ven-ing!”  His observations include: 

·         The Lady Vanishes” was Hitchcock’s final British film – and his most complex effort to that point in time.

·         The “Bandrikan” language used in the film is compete gibberish.

·         The forced hotel-stay sequence, through which the audience is introduced to the main characters, runs for the first 20 minutes of the 01:36:15 film – and is the most gradual opening of all the Hitchcock thrillers.
·         Echoes of various elements of  The Lady Vanishes” are found in many later Hitchcock films such as: “Rear Window”, “Vertigo”, “The Wrong Man”, “The Birds” (I guess he means the magician’s loosed pigeons!), “Torn Curtain”, “The Trouble with Harry”, “Rope”, “Saboteur”, and “Strangers on a Train”.

·         Eder adds that The Lady Vanishes” has influenced television shows ranging from Murder She Wrote, to The Big Valley, to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea!
Yes, really! 

Joe’s Note: Can’t speak for the first two – but I sure recognized the bit that turned up in VOYAGE!  In fact, I was surprised to find that Eder noted it too!  

I can’t discuss it in any detail without spoiling a key element of “The Lady Vanishes”, but I will say that the VOYAGE episode (“Escape from Venice”) was written by Charles Bennett – who was a screenwriter for, and associate of, Alfred Hitchcock.  

Though, Bennett had no listed credit on “The Lady Vanishes”.  More on the relationship between Hitchcock and Charles Bennett can be found in THIS REVIEW of Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent”.)

·         On the characters of Charters and Caldicott, Eder observes: “Some viewers, over the years, have suggested that Charters and Caldicott represent a vaguely hinted gay couple.  But Eder regards them more as “…overgrown schoolboys, who have never outgrown their enthusiasm for the game of cricket.”
Well... That's another fine mess, etc. etc.

·         Eder also compares Charters and Caldicott to Laurel and Hardy. For what it’s worth, so did I. 

·         Eder notes the confined set of the train (“The movements of the characters are dictated by the setting, in which they’re trapped.”), and observes that he would better this in Lifeboat”.  

·         Hitchcock once said that the key to suspense is to inform the audience of something which the characters are unaware – and let the action play out.”

·         Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” was the first all-talking British feature. 

·         Finally, Variety thought “The Lady Vanishes” was “too British for American audiences”.  Clearly, they were wrong.  

Other Extra Features Include: 

Disc 2:

"Mystery Train:  Alfred Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes":  Hosted by Leonard Leff:  (Runs 33:29)

  • Leff reveals the location of the Hitchcock Cameo, for those who missed it.  I’ll offer no spoilers on this.

  • The Lady Vanishes” is a key component of what is known as the early Hitchcock “Thriller Sextet” which includes: “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, “The 39 Steps”, “Secret Agent”, “Sabotage”, “Young and Innocent”, and “The Lady Vanishes”.
We're part of a SEXTET... Imagine that!

  • The Lady Vanishes” was filmed using only one rail coach to represent an entire train.  The rest were transparencies and miniatures.

  • Leff describes “The Hitchcock Formula”: A man, a woman, an urbane villain, and “The McGuffin”. 

  • The McGuffin” is defined as something important to the characters – not us. “The McGuffin” sets in motion the chase, and the chase generates the suspense. 
I'll have the "McGuffin Extra Value Meal" -- and Super-Size the drink!

·         Alfred Hitchcock called his writers “Constructionists”, and invented the character of “Signor Doppo” the Italian magician (…presumably for the fun and suspense that resulted from the “baggage car search sequence”).

·         In seeming conflict with the Commentary Track, Leff says that, after “The Lady Vanishes” Hitchcock made “Jamaica Inn”, and then moved on to the states.

Hitchcock/Truffaut:  (10:06) Excerpts from a 1962 audio interview, with focus on “The Lady Vanishes”.  A translator moderates the pair, adversely affecting the general “flow”.

“Crooks Tour”:  (01:20:54) A 1941 British spinoff comedy film, featuring the characters of Charters and Caldicott.  The opening credits sequence features cartoonish drawings of the pair in “round the world” settings – traveling in a plane, a rickshaw, on a camel, etc.  
Click to ENLARGE for reading!

Hawtrey Charters and Sinclair Caldicott journey from the Arabian Desert, to Hungary, to London in a grand comic-misunderstanding involving Nazi spies, the British Secret Service, and Charters’ indignant sister “Edith”, keeping a “stiff upper lip” all the way.  
Click to ENLARGE to see the title illustration cartoons.

Among the cast is frequent American television guest star Abraham Sofaer (Star Trek TOS, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Kolchak the Night Stalker, and many more) as a Arab conspiring with the Nazis. Hitchcock had no involvement with this film. 

A very enjoyable film, for what it was!  This interesting curio, created as a result of the success of “The Lady Vanishes”, is something I would NEVER otherwise be aware of, if not for the diligence of the Criterion Collection.  Kudos to them for unearthing it! 

Stills Gallery:  Click you way through stills, posters and promotional materials from the production of “The Lady Vanishes”. 

Enclosed Booklet: 20 pages (!) plus wrap-around cover, commemorating The Lady Vanishes”.


It’s Hitchcock – and a baffling mystery to boot.  There are many fun and interesting characters – two of whom merited a spinoff feature of their own.  What’s not to love?

The Extra Features go well above and beyond the usual.  Again, what’s not to love? 

The Lady Vanishes”, as presented by The Criterion Collection, is highly recommended for enthusiasts of Alfred Hitchcock, mystery, suspense, espionage, the period immediately leading up to WW II, old trains, collections of eccentric characters, and just about anything else.    



Chris Barat said...


Leff is correct regarding JAMAICA INN. Hitchcock did that film after TLV and just before he moved to America.


Joe Torcivia said...

That was my recollection too, Chris. But, it’s interesting to note how the two commentaries differ.

scarecrow33 said...

Great review, Joe!!

The Lady Vanishes is a prime example of Hitchcock doing what he does best--suspense and mystery tempered with a little comedy and romance.

I think his use of models was deliberate--but at the time, it was a convention of movie-making to zoom in on a doll's house version of the set before revealing the true set. It establishes the "willing suspension of disbelief" that allows an audience to enter into the make-believe world of cinema, and I think at some level the earliest viewers of this film "got" that idea. In other words, I think people of the time were more capable of "believing" that a fake-looking model village was supposed to be the real thing. Hitchcock does that. He blends artifice and reality so skillfully that one can readily be transported from one to the other. (There is a fantastic shot in "Foreign Correspondent" where--if I remember correctly--the camera zooms to a model plane flying through the sky straight into one of the windows and right through the window into the cabin of the airplane--an unbroken shot, or at least seamlessly edited! It's an amazing accomplishment for its day.)

The same is true of many of the other conventions of older films that we look upon today as "hokey"--sentimental introductions scrolling on the screen, people walking in the foreground in front of a filmed background that doesn't always match up, car scenes with false-looking rear projections that don't necessary match with the territory the characters are supposed to be driving through, characters walking on a "treadmill" along a supposed sidewalk--the list can go on and on. These (to us) glaring inconsistencies and artifices were more common and acceptable in the 30's and 40's.

Nice summary of the film...enough to tantalize one who is unfamiliar with Lady Vanishes into wanting to see it.

There was a remake done in the late 70's which is not as bad as some critics have said--it lacks the Hitchcock touch, but still has many delights, such as the beautiful color photography and Angela Lansbury in the title role. Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepard are a bit embarrassing in the lead roles, but they do move the plot along. It would have been nice to see that version on a 3rd disc in the set, if such had been possible.

I agree that the Charters and Caldecott film is very rich and rewarding. This is one of the better Criterion releases.

I pretty much second everything you say in the review, Joe--I hope people are inspired to seek it out and watch it again, or see it for the first time.

Good e-ve-ning!

Joe Torcivia said...


I can only imagine the “model village” was a directorial choice, because stock footage of an even-marginally suitable location that had nothing more than minimal bearing on the overall plot, and need never be seen again once the train got underway, would have been more than acceptable in a film of that vintage. …After all, the same technique would suffice for TV productions decades later.

Somehow, I think I’d enjoy Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Froy! Though, for my money, the rest of the film should remain in the ‘30s.

Based on the bonus film included here, Charters and Caldecott should have merited a film SERIES. Or, a string of SHORTS, at the very least! They were a very entertaining duo that managed to transcend even Hitchcock!

Clearly, you have enjoyed this film in the past – and may even have this very same DVD, as you indicate a familiarity with the Charters and Caldecott film. So, yes… maybe we’ll cause someone to check it out for the first time! That’d be nice!

Chris Barat said...


The "Ruritanian" (Balkan) setting of this movie reminds me a bit of the settings frequently used by Roy Crane in his WASH TUBBS comic strip in the late 30s, or the kingdom of Syldavia in Herge's TINTIN story KING OTTOKAR'S SCEPTRE. Of course, the fact that the story took place on a train limited the amount of local color that could be shown. Still, it's as if a lot of creators jointly realized that the "fanciful Europe" on display in these works was about to dematerialize as dramatically as did Hitchcock's "Lady."


Joe Torcivia said...

And, let’s not forget Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse newspaper strip classic of 1937-1938: “The Monarch of Medioka”. Those years would have made “Monarch” concurrent with the filming and release of “The Lady Vanishes”. Europe, between the two wars, must have been an irresistibly intrigue-laden sandbox for creators such as Hitchcock, Crane, Herge, and Gottfredson and more to play in! Maybe even more so than Casablanca! …Seems to me a good story came out of that place too!

Oh, and to your earlier comment above, I watched the commentary track again and Bruce Eder says that “The Lady Vanishes” …“ended Hitchcock’s British period”.

Now, he didn’t EXACTLY say that “TLV” was his FINAL British film, but I think you can certainly understand why I might interpret it that way, when formulating the review.

scarecrow33 said...

Hitchcock received his contract from Selznick while working on The Lady Vanishes, but before he started work on Jamaica Inn. Can't find the exact release date for either film, but TLV was apparently released in 1938 and JI in 1939. In two of my Hitchcock books, Jamaica Inn is listed as his "final" British production.

Joe Torcivia said...

That’s got to be correct, Scarecrow! And, thanks for clearing it up in more detail. I think the Commentary Track should have expressed it just a tad more precisely.

Then again, he gets MANY extra points in by book, just for mentioning VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA – and at precisely the moment (while listening to the commentary) that I was thinking the very same thing!