A Review of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes
Cast of Characters
The Lady Vanishes
1 hr 33 min Drama 1938 7.9 stars
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Margaret Lockwood - Iris Henderson
Michael Redgrave - Gilbert (His first major movie role)
Paul Lukas - Dr. Hartz
Dame May Whitty - Mrs. Froy
This movie came to us in 1938 to critical acclaim, a masterpiece of directing by the masterful Alfred Hitchcock. The Lady Vanishes is based upon a book called “The Wheel Spins By”. It is a delightful movie a little more than an hour and a half long (96 mins)
The first third of the movie involves primarily character development and scene placement. The scene is a small town in the fictitious alpine nation of Mandrika. Due to an avalanche the railroad is temporarily shut down and guests will need to stay overnight in the local inn. The innkeeper is heard speaking fluent Italian, German and English. Whenever I hear of a story set in a fictitious tiny alpine country I can’t help but ascribe it to the one tiny alpine country that really does exist – Liechtenstein.
Dame May Whitty
Among the characters introduced are two English gentlemen Caldicott and Charters who are characterized by being very proper Englishmen and by being obsessed with the sport of cricket. They are in fact are in a hurry to return to England to see the test matches taking place and are quite put out by the delay.
Another couple – Mr. and Mrs. Toddhunter are a feuding unmarried couple who are in the midst of an adulterous affair hoping to obtain divorces from their respective spouses upon their return to England so that they can marry each other. Mr. Toddhunter is a lawyer aspiring to advance to the position of judge and as such he wants to avoid any scandal such as a divorce that might impede his aspiration so he’s not ready for a divorce just yet.
Iris Henderson and her two friends are at the inn. Iris is engaged to a man named Charles back in England and is returning there to be married but she is not happy about this impending marriage and is resigning herself to it. She is somewhat high-maintenance and gets special service at the inn as she appears to be a frequent visitor.
Gilbert is also staying at the inn. He is writing a book hoping to capture the musical culture of the tiny nation. In that capacity he has some locals performing a dance in his room as he takes notes, but it is a noisy event and his room is directly above Iris’s and she is desperately trying to sleep. When she asks the innkeeper to evict him Gilbert attempts to move into her room. He’s very pushy and boorish about it and she develops an instant dislike of him. However she relents and allows him to return to his room; she’d rather have his noise than his presence.
Finally there is Mrs. Froy. She is a kindly older English lady who is returning home to England after many years as a governess. She will miss the beauty of the country and especially its music. She is also annoyed at the loud upstairs dancing that Gilbert is studying because it spoils the music of a serenader outside her window as she appears to be trying very hard to remember the serenader’s tune. She commiserates with Iris over Gilbert’s dances.
Then a pair of hands reaches for the serenader and strangles him.
The next day the avalanche has been cleared and our cast of characters is set to depart on the train. Outside on the platform a hand pushes a flower box from the second story in an attempt to kill Mrs. Froy but instead it conks Iris on the head. She’s injured but not too severely and they all get on the train. Iris passes out due to her injury and when she comes to Mrs. Froy offers to take her to the dining car for tea. She has a particular brand of tea that is unique and very healing, very healthy. Here they get to know each other a bit and develop a friendship. Once back in their compartment Iris again falls asleep. When she awakens later Mrs. Froy is gone and the mystery begins because no one seems to have seen her or to have every seen her. Iris is told that the conk on the head has caused her to only imagine that there was a Mrs. Froy.
So here the mystery starts. Iris is at first concerned about the disconnect between what she remembers and what everyone is telling her. A famous brain surgeon aboard the train, Dr. Hartz, tells Iris that it is totally normal for her to have seemingly real memories that are in fact false after the sort of head injury she sustained. Iris doesn’t believe him and pursues a train-wide search for the missing Mrs. Froy.
She finds an unlikely ally to aid her in the search, Gilbert. Gilbert vacillates back and forth as to whether he believes her or not, but he is supportive of her which is different from the boorishness that characterized her first acquaintance with him. The two search the train thoroughly and come up empty. Gilbert again begins to doubt Iris’s story until he sees a tea bag in the trash. It is the unique tea brand that Mrs. Froy got for Iris. Thus convinced of the veracity of Iris’s story Gilbert lends his full support to the search. Gilbert had known Dr. Hartz by reputation and completely trusted him, but now he suspects that there is some wider conspiracy afoot and he suspects Dr. Hartz of being involved. The doctor has a patient in his compartment whose face is bandaged; they are going to a hospital where he will perform surgery. Gilbert reasons that the bandaged patient is really the missing Mrs. Froy so he and Iris go into the compartment when the doctor is not there to test their theory. The patient, however, is being guarded by a nun so directly entering the compartment would not work. Gilbert is at a loss as to whether his theory is right. Perhaps that patient wasn’t Mrs. Froy after all. Perhaps he’s looking in the wrong place entirely. But then Iris points out that the nun guarding the patient is wearing high heels. So they conclude that she isn’t a nun at all but part of the conspiracy. In a daring move to get into that compartment Gilbert climbs out the train window and into the doctor’s compartment window which he does successfully. He removes the bandages from the patient and lo and behold it is Mrs. Froy! He then takes her back to his compartment and hides her there.
A Mrs. Krummer, who was dressed by the conspirators to look like Mrs. Froy, and help to further confuse Iris, comes into Gilbert's room and is subdued by him. He bandages her and puts her in the place of Mrs. Froy.
When the train stops in the next town Dr. Hartz takes his patient, who unbeknownst to him is now Mrs. Krummer, off the train and into an ambulance. Thinking it is Mrs. Froy he intends to kill her; but as he takes the bandages off he realizes that a switch has been made. He orders the train to be diverted onto a side track where it can be attacked by gunmen.
Mrs. Froy decides to confess to Iris and Gilbert that she is a spy and that she has a piece of information encoded in a simple tune. She gives the tune to Gilbert with instructions that he is to take it to the foreign office in London, and then she escapes the train hoping she is not killed in her escape. This way the information can get to London by either her if she survives or by Gilbert. The train is being assaulted on one side by armed men. Mrs. Froy leaves out the other side. At one point a shot appears to fell her but we, the audience, can’t be sure.
Eventually the train pulls away from the gunmen and gets away.
Once back in London Iris sees her fiancé, Charles and gives him the slip. After this adventure and team work she has chosen Gilbert over him.
Gilbert and Iris go to the foreign office but Gilbert has a lapse of memory and he can’t remember the special tune. He is frustrated at his forgetfulness at this crucial time, but just then from the other side of the door they hear the very tune being played on a piano. Gilbert and Iris go in to find Mrs. Froy there alive and well a happy ending!
The Search for the Missing Lady
A Few Analytical Comments
The movie featured some subtle commentary on human behavior. Charters and Caldecott were in a position to help when the search for Mrs. Froy first stared but they were too concerned that any delay in the train would derail their plans to get back to England and their coveted cricket test matches. During the scene, however, when the train is stopped and a gun battle takes place both stopped their indifference and helped a lot. As it turns out when they did arrive in London they learned that the matches had been cancelled due to flooding anyway.
Mr. Toddhunter played the role of an indifferent pacifist not wanting to get involved, always trying to avoid scandal. His girlfriend wanted him to fight and participate in protecting the train. He instead steps off in an effort to surrender only to be shot dead right away saying. “I don’t understand”. He had refused to accept the gravity of the situation and step out of his own world to help in the securing of Mrs. Froy.
The nun who was not a nun became sympathetic to Gilbert, Iris and Mrs. Froy and helped them. She had realized the error of her ways, changed and had started doing the right thing.
When Mrs. Froy was explaining her spy role to Gilbert and Iris then left the train shots were fired and the audience didn’t know if she was hit or not; this happened several times – good cinematography.
Iris fell in love with Gilbert in the adventure despite his initial boorish behavior. - 1st impressions can change and she dumped Charles whom she didn’t want anyway.
The Station Scene
You can watch the full movie by using this link: https://archive.org/details/lady_vanishes