Monday, November 08, 2004

#3: The Lady Vanishes

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Seven Samurai will unfortunately have to wait: Netflix sent me a different, non-Criterion edition (a real Japanese edition, from the looks of it). Oddly, the sleeve still said "The Criterion Collection," so I think that someone has been taking the Criterion editions and replacing them with cheaper editions of the same movies. So:

The Lady Vanishes (1938, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a novel by Ethel Lina White). This is a weird one: it starts as a comedy, turns into a thriller and ends up an action movie, albeit an early, pre special-effects and choreography action movie. The beginning is genuinely funny and the suspense part is genuinely creepy, but the end is kind of a drag. Margaret Lockwood stars as Iris, a young woman returning from a central European country to England to get married. Michael Redgrave is a music theorist; they're taking the same train back. Dame May Witty plays Mrs. Froy, the Lady in the title. As you might have guessed, at a certain point in the movie, she vanishes.

You could never get away with the structure of this movie if you were writing it today: the first twenty-three minutes are straight comedy, with a crazy ethnic hotelier, a pair of cricket-obsessed Englishmen, a hotel room full of scantily clad (well, for 1938) women, and lots of slapstick. Nothing even vaguely ominous or suspenseful happens until this long comedy section is finished: I can't imagine a script reader making it far enough to realize that this wasn't a comedy. And what McKee would call the "inciting incident" doesn't happen until later, at least thirty-five minutes in. Not to say that the beginning isn't funny: it is. Margaret Lockwood and Mrs. Froy hear odd banging noises from the room above them and send the hotel manager up to get the guest up there to shut up: he enters to find Michael Redgrave lying in bed loudly playing a clarinet while four elderly natives of the country perform a peasant dance with lots of stomping and clapping. He keeps stopping them to take notes (he's working on a book about native dances or something). Anyway, the scene is exactly what you expect is going on when people a floor up are making weird noises.

Once Mrs. Froy disappears, the movie really takes off. Iris takes a nap on a train; when she goes to sleep, Mrs. Froy is in the seat facing her. When she awakens, Froy is gone, and everyone on the train denies ever having seen her. It's creepy, and the other people on the train are all really grotesque. There's an Italian magician named Doppo who has this very threatening grin all the time, a bride-of-frankenstein looking Baroness who's always looking disapprovingly, a brain surgeon from Prague who has kind of a Dracula look about him; none of them are travelling companions you'd want. After Margaret Lockwood has been searching for Mrs. Froy a while, she reappears in the same sleeper car. Only it's not her, it's a woman who looks nothing like her. You see her first from behind annd she looks like the missing woman. The shot of her turning toward the camera is really striking; it's Freud's uncanny in action. There's also a really bizarre sequence where Mrs. F's face is superimposed on the face of the other people in the sleeper car.

Once the mystery is solved, there's a long, pretty much unnecessary sequence with a shoot-out and a train / automobile chase. It goes on too long and it doesn't really add anything. As train chases go, it's much worse than The General. All the major plot stuff has been resolved by this point. There are a lot of surprises and reversals until this sequence but this part is just straightforward. According to the commentary, this section was added by the screenwriters at Hitchcock's request. Maybe he really, really wanted to shoot something with trains and the production had some money left over; along with the comic opening, this part is really strange structurally.

The last weird thing about this movie from a plot perspective: nothing bad happens to the villians, which is really a shame; they're not exactly complicated characters, so they don't need a big realization of what they've done. But you would expect at least Paul Lukas's brain surgeon to meet some terrible fate: he really is a great villian and the story just kind of drops him. Everyone escapes, but that's it. Also, the bad guys are really terrible shots.

Despite the slow opening and unnecessary action ending, the movie's worth seeing for the middle part, which is ace suspense. I'd recommend steering clear of the DVD extras, though. There's a terrible demonstration of the restoration work, which (a) they didn't do a very good job on; there are a lot of visible hairs and scratches on this version and (b) the demo itself is terrible; it's just four sequences played in gradual faster motion, with no explanation of how the work is done, what print they were working from, or anything. The commentary is all right, but focuses more on the careers of the various people involved in the project than on the actual movie that's showing. Which is really all I'm interested in.

Final note: Margaret Lockwood and Linden Travers: stone cold foxes.

10 comments:

Chowbok said...

It's not really remembered today, but The Lady Vanishes spun off a series of comedies with Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford reprising their roles as the clueless Englishmen wandering about. I'd love to see them but none of them are currently on DVD.

Matthew Dessem said...

Chowbok,

That's hilarious; I'd love to see them, too. Were they ever on VHS?

Troy said...

For what it's worth, the reissue of the Criterion Collection, coming in November '07, of the Lady Vanishes will include one of the Wayne and Radford comedies as a bonus feature.

Matthew Dessem said...

Troy,

Can't wait!

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to comment on the strong comedic opening. I recently saw Poltergeist in the theatre and it too was full of laughs for the first 30 minutes or so. I kind of admired the way it crossed over in tones.

Matthew Dessem said...

Yeah, you don't see that kind of tone-shifting much anymore.

Lewis Saul said...

Charters and Caldicott appear in Night Train to Munich.

http://imdb.com/title/tt0032842/

It is available on VHS.

Directed by Carol Reed...

LS

Matthew Dessem said...

Lewis Saul,

I'll check it out. Odds are Video Journeys has it.

Actuarius said...

Radford and Wayne did appear in a number of films together but I would baulk at the description of Charters and Caldicott as "clueless." Rather they embody what we would like to think of as being the greater traits of the British. Unruffled by adversity, maintenance of dignity in all situations, a sense of fair play but steely resolve when required. Over all this though is an unwavering focus on the important things in life. After all, what does it matter if you are holed up in a carriage swapping bullets with Nazis except that you may never find out the result of the Test Match?

Matthew Dessem said...

Actuarius,

Well, it matters to the Nazis...