The Lady Vanishes (1938) 4.29/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 88.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas

One of the great mystery thrillers, The Lady Vanishes is an impeccably constructed tale of suspense set on board a train in continental Europe during the heightened climate of suspicion that preceded the outbreak of WWII. Margaret Lockwood stars as a young woman who wakes up from a knock she received to the head and notices that the kind and elderly lady who had helped her right before she passed out has disappeared. On insisting as much to the other passengers, she encounters one curious denial after another. However, with the help of Michael Redgrave’s charming but mischievous musician she presses the issue and begins investigating what if anything happened to this lady.

It seems like a simple premise and there’s not a whiff of complexity in how it comes across but this is as intricate a story as Hitchcock has tackled. But so accomplished is its execution and so enjoyable is its unfolding, that we barely stop to notice it, never mind appreciate it. The set-up is unusually protracted as the various soon to be passengers are introduced and fleshed out in one humour-filled (and not in any way suspicious) sequence after another as they hold up overnight in a hotel while the track is cleared of snow. Even when things take a turn for the strange, and that familiar Hitchcockian genre shift happens (along with the concomitant switch in leads), the film doesn’t skip a beat and so the experience feels quite singular.

Balancing a breathless tension with the essential British comedy of the 30’s, would not seem the easiest of tasks but thanks to Hitch’s fearlessness, he makes it look that way. Thus, as Lockwood and Redgrave make their way through the train dealing with philandering judges, mistresses, quintessential English cricket fans, magicians, wives of propaganda ministers, and a world famous neurosurgeon, their steady stream of wisecracking interchanges are interrupted only for the most thrilling of incidents. The pinnacle of those also just happens to be one of the best external train scaling shots ever thanks to a seamless use of rear projection and sound. Lockwood and Redgrave are wonderful together and due to a nice pretext, they have all sorts of romantic tension to play with. May Whitty puts in a delightful turn as the eponymous lady and adds richly to the whimsical tone of the film. The shot of her belting through the forest handbag in tow on its own makes the film worth watching. Best of all are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s double act as the upper-middle class cricket fans who seem awfully put out by the search for the lady lest it delay them from their match.

It’s the characterisations that make this story so special, not only for how those characters are acted but for how they are written. Each character has their own unique motivation which ties in deviously with the overall plot and in the process adds substance to the unusual mystery at the centre of the film. Combined with the maestro’s sublime technique and overall delicacy, this makes The Lady Vanishes one of the very best mystery thrillers, if not the best. Truly.

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