LADY VANISHES, THE - DVD review

The greatest pleasures of the film have little to do with plot, and more to do with the details.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

Criterion has re-released "The Lady Vanishes," one of the first films to appear in the Criterion collection, with a newly restored transfer and a two-disc set with several extras not found on the original release. The following is a review of the re-release.


When Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) awakens in her train compartment, she finds that her new friend Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has disappeared. The people sharing her compartment insist there was never a Miss Froy. Iris remains determined and marches through the train, trying to find someone to back up her story, yet she is foiled by one coincidence after another. A couple who wish to remain secretive lie about it to protect themselves; two British cricket enthusiasts evade the question because they don't want to risk any delay on their way to a cricket match. Later, Iris tries to convince Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) by drawing his attention to the name which Miss Froy had written into the rime-crusted window, but as soon as he turns to look the train rumbles into a tunnel and the name disappears from view. Poor Iris just can't catch a break.

It's almost enough to make you want to put your fist through the screen. Any of these tricks used in a film today would inspire charges of lazy writing, but for some reason Hitchcock always gets a free pass for the awkward and implausible coincidences that power some of his stories. Actually, it's not just "some" reason, but a very good reason. The plot tricks that look tired and transparent today only look that way because Hitchcock helped to introduce them into the language of cinema. If that's too grandiose a claim, let's just say that the last 80 years of the suspense genre were shaped largely by Hitchcock and his writers.

Still, I still find myself frustrated by the excessive cleverness that sometimes reads as cutesiness in many of Hitchcock's earlier suspense films, and that definitely holds true for "The Lady Vanishes" (1938). François Truffaut claimed that every time he tried to watch Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) for its camera movements he became too absorbed by the plot to notice. I don't share that problem. However, the greatest pleasures of the film have little to do with plot, and more to do with the details. And oh what details they are.

Take the moment when the hotel porter walks into the room occupied by Iris and her two bachelorette friends. Iris, who will soon board the train to meet with her "blue-blooded check-chasing" fiancé, is reciting her future wedding vows. Hitchcock, already a "dirty old man" at the mere age of 40, breaks the scene into a series of fetishistic close-ups: one of Iris' friend half-dressed, another of Iris' bare legs and slip as she stands on the table, holding court. He dials up the fetish factor another notch when he shows us a nun in high heels, but that's another story.

Then there's the extraordinary way that Hitchcock stages a scene already ancient by 1938 where the villain tries to slip the heroes a poisoned drink. Here, the director and screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder turn convention on its ear. Instead of having the heroes toy with their drinks only to stop just short of actually knocking one back, the film holds on a long shot of the glasses sitting on the table. The conversation runs its natural course, everyone gets up to leave then, boom, and Iris downs her brandy in one swift motion. The next scene provides yet another twist on the formula.

Oh, and let's not forget that outrageously staged fight between Gilbert and Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver). Obviously neither the proper Englishman nor the Italian magician have the slightest idea how to fight, so they grapple like fifth graders wrestling at recess, neither making much headway. They battle to a standstill so literal that Iris is able to position a step-ladder so she can reach up to bite Doppo on the hand.

Hitchcock and cameraman Jack Cox also work wonders with a tiny space. Hitchcock claims the studio was only ninety feet long, and that it was all filmed in a single coach car. The miniature town looks phony as hell, and intentionally so, but once we're in the train car the setting is completely convincing. Rear projection creates the illusion of cross-country train travel, and Hitchcock finds so many different ways to explore this cramped set that it never once grows tiresome.

The film affords many other pleasures as well. "Hetero life-partners" Caldicott and Charters (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) nearly steal with the show with their dry, uninvolved color commentary on the film's occurrences. Michael Redgrave excels in his first film role (aside from an uncredited cameo in "Secret Agent") as the multi-faceted Gilbert, whose British pluck and wry humor bowl over all obstacles and win the heart of the fair Iris.

"The Lady Vanishes" was one of the first Hitchcock films that succeeded in America. Just a few years later Hollywood came a-callin' and Hitchcock moved to the States to film "Rebecca" (1940) as well as a few other films that you might have heard of in the ensuing decades.

Video

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full-screen releases, the image is picture-boxed, meaning some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right side of the screen. The restored transfer shows hardly any signs of wear or tear, which is pretty remarkable for a 70 year-old movie. It's another great job by Criterion.

Audio

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras

For a two-disc collection, this set is somewhat light on extras.

Disc One includes the restored transfer of the film as well as a commentary by film historian Bruce Eder. Eder's commentary is heavy on background information, but light on analysis. His constant fawning over this "perfect" film also gets a bit tiresome, but he provides an extraordinary amount of information. This is the same commentary track

Disc Two includes the rest of the extras.

"Crook's Tour" (1941, 82 min), directed by John Baxter, is an "adventure of Charters and Caldicott," a comedy featuring the duo that played a supporting role in "The Lady Vanishes." The pair became such a hit from the film that "Lady" screenwriters Frank Sunders and Sidney Gilliat used them again in other films as well as in a popular radio serial. This film is based on one of the radio programs.

"Mystery Train" is a short (33 min) feature in which film scholar Leonard Leff discusses the film in more detail, placing emphasis on its political subtext.

The best feature of all is the all-too-brief (10 min) excerpt of a 1962 audio interview between Hitchcock and Truffaut which is accompanied with scenes from the film.

The insert booklet includes essays by Geoffrey O'Brien and Charles Barr.

Film Value

"The Lady Vanishes" isn't my favorite Hitchcock film, but it's still a superb example of the way the master focused attention on the tiniest details in order to spice up an otherwise routine sequence. It's a thoroughly enjoyable film even despite the occasional clunkiness of the script.

This is a re-release by Criterion and still uses the old spine number "3." I do not have the original to compare it to, but the new transfer is excellent. The second disc of extras is probably the main reason to consider an upgrade. On that front, you have to decide how much you value the inclusion of "Crook's Tour." The excerpt of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview is a great addition, but not reason enough alone to buy the new version.

Ratings

Video
9
Audio
9
Extras
7
Film Value
8