Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Lady Vanishes

Title: The Lady Vanishes
Year: 1938
Studio: Gainsborough
Screenplay: Sidney Gilliatt and Frank Launder
Source Material: The novel 'The Wheel Spins' by Ethel Lina White
Running Time: 92 minutes
A black & white picture

Sunday 31st October, 8:00am
I'm very much an 'early to bed, early to rise' sort of chappie. However, last night I was volunteering at a charity trivia night and didn't get in until around midnight (golly, I'm teetering on the verge of rebellion there) yet I still awoke at 6:30 all raring to go for another day. I have to go out this afternoon, so I thought I'd plough on with my blog this morning. So, armed with some Alpen muesli and a bacon sandwich, I watched an all-time classic - one which has a superb reputation and every bit of it is deserved...

Iris Henderson - Margaret Lockwood
Gilbert - Michael Redgrave
Dr Hartz - Paul Lukas
Miss Froy - Dame May Whitty
Mr Todhunter - Cecil Parker
"Mrs" Todhunter - Linden Travers
Caldicott - Naunton Wayne
Charters - Basil Radford
Baroness - Mary Clare
Hotel Manager - Emile Boreo
Blanche - Googie Withers
Julie - Sally Stewart
Signor Doppo - Philip Leaver
Signora Doppo - Zelma Vas Dias
The Nun - Catherine Lacy
Madame Kumma - Josephine Wilson
The Officer - Charles Oliver
Anna - Kathleen Tremaine

An avalanche traps travellers at a hotel which is already filled to capacity, so some guests are having to share rooms with the staff, much to the chagrin of the tourists. One young girl, Iris Henderson is with two girlfriends celebrating her engagement and forthcoming marriage. She is frustrated by the noise coming from above her room and discovers a gentlemen, Gilbert, who is studying about folk music for a forthcoming book he is writing. The noise was due to his encouragement of the locals to provide him with inspiration.
Also disturbed by the cacophony is Miss Froy, an elderly governess who is travelling alone. She was listening to a local busker who was serenading outside the hotel. Unbeknown to her, the singer is throttled for some dark purpose. Luckily, Miss Froy had heard all she needed...
The nest morning on the station platform, a mysterious pair of hands tries to push a flower-box from a high window onto Miss Froy, however, Iris Henderson is the unintended recipient of the falling plants. Once aboard the train, Iris faints. When she awakes, she is in a compartment with Miss Froy and a handful of strangers.
Miss Froy takes Iris to the dining car for some tea. During a lengthy noise of steam whistles and passing train in the other direction, Iris is unable to hear Miss Froy's name, so the latter writes it on the window with her finger. Miss Froy also insists to the steward that she has her own Harriman's Herbal Tea, which she supplies herself.
Back in their compartment, Iris falls unconscious again. When she wakes, Miss Froy is gone and not one of the other passengers believes she was ever there in the first place - this frustrates and confuses poor Iris.
Iris goes in search of anyone who might remember Miss Froy, but all those she asks seem to have no recollection (or at least, have good reason to lie about it).
Caldicott and Charters, two pompous British gentlemen who think only about cricket are trying to ignore her pleas because they don't want any disturbances ruining their chances of getting home in time for the match.
She meets Gilbert again who, despite teasing her, is keen to believe Iris' story and joins in with the investigation. A Dr Hartz suggests she has been hallucinating following on from the concussion, but Iris is not convinced.
At the next station, a heavily bandaged patient on a stretcher and a nun board...

Of the other passengers, one "Mrs" Todhunter (travelling under the pseudonym as her relationship with Mr Todhunter is illicit) is appalled at the lies being told Miss Henderson and admits she does recall Miss Froy. It appears Miss Froy is back, but upon going to see her, it is a completely different woman - not even English.
However, after being scalded by Mr Todhunter and warned of the complications of her actions, the only witness changes her story to say that this 'new' figure is Miss Froy - confusing Iris even more.

In the dining carriage, Iris has almost given up hope and has almost begun to believe she imagined the whole thing - until she sees Miss Froy's finger daubed name on the window. She causes a scene, appeals to everyone in the car and when they try to subdue her, she pulls the emergency brake... and faints again.
Whilst resting again in the compartment, Gilbert sees an empty packet of Harriman's Herbal Tea and piecing together the facts from the story Iris gave him, he now believes she was right. The two of them search the cargo carriage and find a variety of animals (a calf, some pigeons and rabbits) and a lot of magicians' tools and tricks of the trade. Amongst a heap of fancy dress items, they find Miss Froy's spectacles. The Italian man from the compartment (who is 'The Great Doppo', the magician) catches them and they struggle in a fight. They overcome him and place him in a trunk, but due to its nature, it has a false back and he escapes.

They continue their search and come across the bandaged patient and the nun. Iris is not convinced that a real nun would wear high heels and they begin to wonder if Miss Froy has been switched with the person under the bandages. They discuss with Dr Hartz who feels they are too close to exposing his troop and their plans, so he asks the nun to drug the drinks. Back in his compartment, he tells his victims that they were indeed correct but lets them know they will soon be unconscious. Iris faints (again) and then Gilbert feigns sleep. It turns out that the nun has had a streak of conscience and did not poison their drinks after all and she tries to assist. The three of them knock out the imposter Miss Froy (Miss Kumma) and wrap her back up in the bandages, saving Miss Froy. However, Hartz learns of the deception at the next station, uncouples the front few carriages with the aid of some accomplices at the station and they move off onto a different track.

The train slows to a halt at a wooded area and the foreign agents are waiting for them. An officer boards and, recognised by the woman dressed as the nun as one of the bad guys, Gilbert knocks him out with a chair. A shoot-out ensues and Mr Todhunter is killed, even though he was all ready to surrender.
Miss Froy explains she has to make a dash for it. She admits to being a spy and passes on the coded tune that she learned from the agent pretending to be the busker the previous night. If both she and Gilbert try to return to Whitehall, London, then they'll have a better chance. She runs into the wood but apparently falls - Gilbert and Iris do not know if she is safe or not.
Gilbert and Caldicott manage to get the train going again by holding the drivers at gunpoint and the faux-nun helps change the track points before being wounded in the leg by a gunshot.
The Germans nonchalantly admit defeat and watch the train depart over the border...

Back in London, Iris is reluctant to meet her fiance again - after all she was only going to marry him because she had done so much with her life already and felt the time was right to marry - and she leaps into a cab with Gilbert. They kiss.
Charters and Caldicott are happy to be back in London, but are disheartened to learn that the cricket was cancelled due to floods.

At the foreign office in Whitehall, Gilbert suddenly realises he has forgotten the coded tune (now he only has the wedding march in his head!) however, both he and Iris hear the tune played on a piano - they enter a large room and see Miss Froy sat at the instrument - she is alive and well.

The End

Great Lines
There are so many it is hard to choose just a handful. These are my pick of the best:

Charters: (about fellow on phone being ignorant of cricket) "You can't be in England and not know the test score!!"
Caldicott: "Silly ass."


Charters: "What a country. I don't wonder they have revolutions."


Miss Froy: "I never think you should judge a country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren't we?"


Miss Froy: "Some people have so little consideration for others, it makes life so much more difficult than it need be, don't you think?" (Oh, this could be my mantra!)


Gilbert: "...always supposing you were born in wedlock, which I doubt!"


Caldicott: (reading the newspaper sports section) "...nothing but Baseball! Y'know... we used to call it 'rounders' - Children play it with a rubber ball and a stick."

and when Gilbert sees Iris having issues with her head:

Gilbert: "...what's the trouble?"
Iris: "If you must know, something fell on my head"
Gilbert: "When? Infancy?"

During the struggle with the Italian magician in the cargo carriage:

Gilbert: (pleading to Iris) "Kick him! See if he's got a false bottom!"

And finally, Gilbert's line ironically defending the British state of mind in a crisis:

"...never climb a fence if you can sit on it."

Oh, I could go on. Glorious dialogue throughout!!

This was a script which was pretty much finished by the time it was handed to Hitch so there was little for him to add or change. Much credit is due to the screenwriters who did a fantastic job.
Hitchcock himself has lots of fun with the train sets (if you pardon the expression) throughout, shooting from many different angles. He also elicits superb comic performances from his main stars. Lockwood and Redgrave are superb and their chemistry is apparent from the first time they are on screen together.

Many people criticise the use of model shots, particularly at the beginning of the film - and yes, it does look a bit like Camberwick Green - but I think we have to look past this and remember the era from which it came. I watch modern films and I flinch every time I see overtly obvious computer generated images, but we accept these in our contemporary society. In seventy years time I imagine we'll be smirking at the likes of Avatar.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Basil Radford is back and this time with his soon-to-be frequent partner, Naunton Wayne (they made twelve films together). The addition of these characters to the script is quite simply the icing on the cake. Their selfishness and pompousness is quite hilarious and sends up the certain ilk of British society so perfectly but also affectionately. I also mentioned 1945's Dead of Night last week which features these two, but also Michael Redgrave and Googie Withers!. I love the way the world of actors in the early days of cinema felt like a tiny repertory company.

My Verdict
The overall winning factor is the script. It's sharp, witty and spry. If one can accept and forgive the 'special effects' for their contemporary era, this film is flawless. 10/10

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