Monday, March 17, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Lady Vanishes" (1938)

Honestly, I struggled to get through "The Lady Vanishes," which is something I never thought I'd say about an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Even toward the end of his days when his fastball had lost its snap -- "Marnie," "Torn Curtain" -- Hitch's movies always had a sense of bravura momentum, of characters and events drawn inextricably forward. The proceedings might grow self-indulgent or even silly, but the Master of Suspense always managed to keep things moving.

Not in "Lady," his second-to-last film made in the British production system before dipping oars toward Hollywood. The first hour is an absolute chore, more His Girl Friday-type of snappy romantic banter than thriller, essentially a comedy of manners lacking narrative oomph.

Things don't really get moving till the last 30 minutes when the guns come out.

I was amused by this description from Hitchcock's Wikipedia page: "a fast-paced film about the search for a kindly old Englishwoman Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears while on board a train in the fictional country of Bandrika." If this is fast-paced, I don't care to see Hitch's version of cinematic lollygagging.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris Henderson, an English dilettante enjoying a snow skiing vacation with her girlfriends before heading home to be wed, an event she approaches more with resolution than eagerness. After getting knocked on the head by a dropped piece of luggage, she befriends a British governess returning home aboard the same train.

Miss Froy is described as "middle-aged," though Whitty was 73 years old when she played her, and looks every inch of prim elderly Englander. She disappears after Iris falls asleep, and to her consternation no one else onboard claims to remember seeing her. Enlisting the aid of Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, in his star-making role), a puckish musicologist with whom she had sparred at their hotel, Iris sets off on a quest to prove she's not crazy, and that Miss Froy has been abducted, or worse.

Helpfully arriving to provide illumination is a physician of dubious European origin named Dr. Hartz, played by Paul Lukas, who usually plays the good guy and appears to be wearing quite obvious makeup to accent/lengthen his eyebrows. He tells Iris her memory of Miss Froy is an injury-induced psychosis. Later, when evidence mounts to prove her existence, a doppelganger wearing the exact same clothing Iris described Miss Froy as wearing is produced.

Needless to say, this being a Hitchcock movie, the revelation of foul play is inevitable. This builds to such moments as a fistfight with a buffoonish Italian magician using his props as a backdrop, Gilbert climbing along the outside of the train from one window to the next, and a faux nun given away by her stylish high-heeled shoes.

Ostensibly, the story is about the search for Miss Froy, and to find out why seemingly everyone on the train is in on the conspiracy to discredit her existence. Really, though, it's a setup for Iris and Gilbert to fall in love, in that classic I-hate-you-until-the-moment-I-realize-you-are-the-one formula.

Sexually the film is rather frisky for its era. We see Iris and her pals in a considerably disrobed state, and Gilbert is wont to make teasing statements about their relationship, at one point marching into her room and asking which side of the bed she prefers. He even gives her a cheeky slap on the rump, though the actual moment of contact between palm and derriere happens carefully just out of frame.

Also showing up is Cecil Parker as Todhunter, a wealthy barrister who is traveling with his mistress and weighing whether a divorce would impinge his changes of obtaining a judgeship. Needless to say, he's the fellow whose spine shows yellow when the going gets tough.

Providing the comic relief are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, a pair of unctuous British gents whose sole purpose in life appears to be returning to England in time to catch the cricket tournament. It's a twinkly pairing, men who take such seriousness in spectacularly unimportant things, and they act as a sort of self-parody of everything English. They were so popular they would go on to appear together in three more movies.

"The Lady Vanishes" was a huge hit commercially and critically, and indeed it was the success of this film -- after a string of moribund pictures -- that convinced David O. Selznick he ought to bring Hitchcock across the pond to make American movies. For me, it remains one of his weaker efforts, a bit of light, frothy tosh on the way to grander and grimmer things.

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