Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 96 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Release Date: November 20, 2007
Review Date: November 13, 2007
Even the most casual filmgoer has likely seen one or two Alfred Hitchcock films, possibly The Birds or Psycho. And even fans of the late great master of suspense generally point to many of his slick Hollywood films as among the best ever made. One should never discount his English period, however, as he produced during that time some movies that can stand with the very best of the movies during his thirty-five years in Hollywood. Such a film is The Lady Vanishes, one of the great masterpieces of English language cinema, and one of the most influential movies ever made.
The story has been copied, stolen from, and pilfered for almost seventy years: a sweet, tweedy English lady goes missing on a moving train yet only one person on board claims that there was ever even such a person there. Was she actually there or was her acquaintance suffering from a concussion and merely imagining the lady in question ever got on the train? From such a small seed grows one of the great movie entertainments, as much fun and filled with as many thrills as any current picture. Sure, the techniques look a bit dated now with the miniatures that look like miniatures, and an over reliance on rear projection which can sometimes look thrillingly real and other times look completely bogus. Always one to eschew location filming when he could get what he wanted within the controlled environment of a studio, Hitchcock was still using these same artificial techniques at the end of his career, too, but none of it matters. What does matter is that the film is howlingly droll, stupendously suspenseful, and wonderfully manipulative in the best sense of the word. We put ourselves in Hitchcock’s hands, and let him take us anywhere he wants. The ride is everything.
Margaret Lockwood is Iris Henderson, a young English girl returning to London on a train for her wedding. In her compartment is Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly governess who came to her aid when a flower pot fell on her head right before the train departed. Putting her head back to ease the throbbing, Iris is surprised to find upon awakening that Miss Froy is not there. Not only that, but none of the other passengers in the compartment have ever seen such a person. Everywhere she turns, no one has any recollection that any such elderly lady ever boarded the train. So, halfway into the film we’re left with a dilly of a mystery. Was there a Miss Froy, and if so, where is she now?
Hitchcock really didn’t deal much in mysteries as his stock in trade. Suspense was more to his taste, and in order to generate that, the viewer has to be given information, the very antithesis of the way classic mysteries function. And what makes The Lady Vanishes so sensational is that the first third is a comedy of manners with no intrigue whatsoever and the last third of the film, once the mystery of Miss Froy’s disappearance is solved, features an even more thrilling set of circumstances that our protagonists must deal with if they want to survive. And all of this in 96 minutes! It’s truly an amazing achievement. No wonder Hitchcock won (for the only time in his career) the New York Film Critics Best Director Award for this movie.
Legendary stage and screen actor Michael Redgrave made his starring screen debut in The Lady Vanishes playing a good-time Charley who comes to Margaret Lockwood’s aid. She’s pert and persistent as Iris, and the two of them make great foils for Paul Lukas playing Dr. Hartz who’s also anxious to help with the search. Dame May Whitty, of course, makes a memorable Miss Froy, all fastidiously and cheerily British but possibly not being exactly as she appears to be. And who could be more thoroughly British than that pair of British buffoons Caldicott and Charters played by the invaluable Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford? So popular were their characters that they began their own series of radio and film adventures.
Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s concise script is a model of construction for this type of missing persons thriller, and coupled with Hitchcock‘s unerring eye for an offbeat touch here or a surprising twist there, we‘re kept guessing until the very end. Whether one has ever seen this sensational film before or is watching it for the umpteenth time, it never disappoints, and its comic verve coupled with its galvanizing pace make for a real film treasure.
The DVD features the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is slightly window boxed on widescreen monitors with no overscan. The grayscale is pleasing enough for most of the film, but early scenes feature a slight haze over the image that limits black levels rather badly. There are also two black scratches and one white scratch that crop up during the film. However, the transfer looks much improved in the climactic shootout scenes from previous video releases and is sharp throughout. The last Criterion release of The Lady Vanishes in 1998 featured a slight greenish tint to the image and was not window boxed. In rewatching this DVD, I found it just a bit more pleasing to my eye than the new transfer and without the light haze that comes and goes on the new transfer. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The film’s low budget and low fidelity are reflected in the Dolby Digital 1.0 track contained on this release. There’s a very low level of hiss, but it’s not bothersome. The flat recording, of course, is typical of British films of the period, so this is probably the best it can ever sound.
The first disc in this two disc set contains an audio commentary by critic Bruce Eder. Most of this is a carryover from the 1998 DVD release, but Eder has recorded a couple of new passages to replace previous comments, and it’s pretty obvious where they’ve been edited in as the recording levels are slightly louder and the recording studio has a little more open sound. It’s an outstanding commentary giving background information on all the principals both before and behind the camera and offering some analysis and even some backstage gossip here and there.
The majority of the bonus features are on disc two.
First up is Crook’s Tour, the 1941 film that reunited supporting characters Caldicott and Charters in another comic story of espionage, mistaken identity, and a slight romance. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne once again play the cricket-loving duo. The 4:3 film runs 81 minutes.
“Mystery Train” is a 33-minute audio critique of the movie by critic Leonard Leff using film clips, poster art, and stills. The narrator’s tone and comments are dry and less interesting than Bruce Eder’s analysis on the commentary track, but it‘s worth hearing once.
“Truffaut/Hitchcock” contains 9½ minutes of excerpts from the interviews film director Francois Truffaut conducted with Hitchcock in 1962 in preparation for his 1967 book on the great director. If you have the book, it’s better to read the comments there as in these interviews a translator is present, and her translations interrupt Hitchcock’s train of thought occasionally and make communication a bit hard to follow.
A fairly brief stills gallery contains stills and behind the scenes shots from the movie, a nice selection of tinted lobby cards, and poster art from around the world for the film.
The enclosed 20-page booklet contains tinted stills and two essays: an appreciation of the film by author Geoffrey O’Brien and a discussion of the political insights of the film by film professor Charles Barr.
The Lady Vanishes is one of the greatest movie suspense adventures ever made. Its influences on the missing persons genre of films, books, and television can’t be overestimated, and it’s a pleasure to have it once more available in a worthwhile special edition.