Alfred Hitchcock’s Letter to Pre-War Britain

Margaret Lockwood (centre) celebrates her last day of freedom. Image: Streamline

Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Lady Vanishes (1938) is more “just” a mystery or thriller, in our opinion.

The film centres on a train journey from a fictional European country to England. We first meet the train’s passengers while they are stranded in an alpine town due to an avalanche.

This town shows little evidence of winter, let alone a close proximity to an avalanche zone, but never mind. We’re here to observe the passengers because, as we all know, not everyone in a Hitchcock film is who they Appear To Be.

The passengers are mostly British – holidayers and business folk – returning to the U.K. from various parts of Europe. One passenger is a young woman (Margaret Lockwood) who is reluctantly terminating her continental adventures to go home and Get Married.

However, she meets another passenger – a handsome, unconventional young writer (Michael Redgrave) who is researching European folk dances. The two clash: She thinks he’s careless; he finds her inflexible. This, of course, is moviespeak for Love At First Sight.

One of the more surprising passengers is Dame May Whitty, a kindly and aging governess who befriends Lockwood, asks her to tea on the train, then disappears.

She disappears from a moving train.

Lockwood reports Whitty’s disappearance and discovers none of the other passengers will admit to having seen the governess. “There has been no English lady here,” insists one woman.

A prominent European brain specialist (Paul Lukas) suggests Lockwood suffers from hallucinations caused by a minor head injury before she boarded the train. Lockwood herself starts to wonder if she’s Losing Her Marbles.

Fortunately, Redgrave decides to humour Lockwood by making inquiries on her behalf. But he soon realizes Lockwood isn’t Confused, and he tries to help her figure out how – and why – Whitty vanished.

Michael Redgrave and Lockwood are in Danger. Image: Derek Winnert

A train is always superb environment for a mystery. Characters are confined to a small space, and there’s No Escape until the train stops. However, in The Lady Vanishes, Lockwood and Redgrave face pressures from inside – and outside – the train.

First, let’s examine the country in which the train has been stalled by the avalanche. We can assume, by the dress and accents of the locals, the country is Germany, possibly Bavaria.

As it turns out, the train never does cross the border of this country.

Next let’s look at the passengers. The British travellers are, by and large, self-absorbed, oblivious to circumstances around them. It’s not until Whitty disappears that Lockwood realizes things are Not As They Seem.

There are German and Italian passengers, as well and, without saying so outright, Hitchcock shows us there’s something faintly sinister about them. They appear cordial, but after Whitty’s disappearance, they insist she was never on the train. This makes Lockwood, and we the audience, Very Uneasy.

Soon Lockwood and Redgrave discover the truth, but – as is often the case – it only makes the Situation worse. When the train makes an unscheduled stop, local authorities are waiting and they Mean Business.

Dame May Whitty and her Incredible Vanishing Act. Image: New York Times

The Lady Vanishes was released in 1938, little more than a year before the declaration of WWII. With that in mind, it almost feels like a letter to a country on the eve of war. When you compare it to the history of WWII, it strikes us as a bit chilling.

The film is loosely based on a novel by British novelist Ethel Lina White, and it was the second-last film Hitchcock made in Great Britain before he left for the United States. He would release Jamaica Inn in 1939 before going to Hollywood to make some of his best-known films.

The Lady Vanishes is kind of a mess in places. There are some awfully convenient plot developments, and the Bad Guy is revealed too soon. But it’s a fascinating postcard from the past, with interesting characters, clever lines and menacing undertones.

Plus, Whitty’s disappearance is truly a mystery, and it leads to one of the biggest surprises in the film. But we won’t say anything more; you’ll want to discover it for yourself.

This post is part of the MYSTERY MANIA BLOGATHON hosted by Pop Culture Reverie.

The Lady Vanishes: starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Gaumont-British Picture Corp., 1938, B&W, 96 mins.

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35 comments

  1. It is easy to see why this was such a hit for Hitchcock. I have been continually entertained by its atmosphere, characters and, humour for decades. It is the sort of movie I think I know inside-out, yet your eyes gave me fresh things to consider.

    Fave line from Miss Froy: “I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that it’s “a bit of mess” and overrated when compared to Hitchcock’s other British films of that period (e.g., THE 39 STEPS, YOUNG AND INNOCENT). Still, it’s a modestly entertaining picture with a good cast.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for participating. I enjoyed The Lady Vanishes the first time I saw it. I even put it in my top ten list for 1938. Revisiting it recently, however, I was disappointed. I found the time spent before boarding the train to be tedious. I like how you connect the film to the European political situation at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I felt the film was a little slow to get started, as you had mentioned, but things started to liven up once poor Margaret Lockwood was clunked on the head.

      I keep meaning to look for Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo at the train station, but always forget.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I see The Lady Vanishes as a thriller-comedy. I agree it’s slow at first, you could just begin watching when they are on the station platform, as hardly anything important happens in the opening 30 minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

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