#119. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Margaret Lockwood, the young star of The Lady Vanishes, is staying at a lodge with some friends when the movie begins, it’s a barebones kinda bed-and-breakfast situation, before setting off on a train for England where she’s prepared to marry a man she doesn’t love. Her friends are both giving her a hard time about the forthcoming wedding and she defends her decision by citing the exotic things she’s done in her life already. Eating caviar at Cannes, for example. Shit like that. Fancy. She says that she’s done “everything” and then, with a sigh, suggests that the only thing left to do is get married.

lady vanishes pair
Our stars, Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood


Hitchcock himself, devoutly married to his greatest collaborator, Alma, for most of his life (despite his conspicuous obsessions with various stars and his total willingness to run off with [and sexually harass] Tipi Hedren), also has what feels like a monogamous relationship with his movies. He’s committed to the projects entirely, to realizing the characters, the stories, the photography, and even though he was directing a picture each year (this, incidentally, is what Scorsese says was the reason for Vertigo being overlooked by critics: it was just the annual Hitchcock film) his biography suggests a deeper immersion in the material than a typical director might show, a keener eye for the telling, a craftier hand.

This is my second time through The Lady Vanishes in the space of a couple of months and even though the movie is all about a woman disappearing from a train, and the hero’s effort tot find out where she went, it spends the first fifteen minutes or so at this bed and breakfast-type place where she gabs with her friends and where we meet most of our cast. The movie, I was surprised to be reminded, is only 90 minutes long. I remember the story seeming like it’d be too complex for anything less than two hours.

Watching it again, I was looking for clues, in this lodge scene at the beginning, for what’s to unfold over the rest of the movie, thinking this might be one of those mystery stories that rewards a second viewing with a greater rounding-out of the story. But Hitchcock uses the lodge setting only to set up his characters, to have them cross each other’s paths, show their true colors.

He’s focused on making it enjoyable, not clever.



hitchcock lady vanishes
Hitchcock and Lockwood on the set of Lady Vanishes.

I’ve been thinking lately of older modern filmmakers like William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, the later George Romero and Tobe Hooper, the chainsmoking John Carpenter (somehow coming up on 80). What strikes me about seeing these older filmmakers is the simple fact of how many movies they’ve made. All the work that goes into securing a project, all the work on the script, consideration of the story’s every angle, the casting and rehearsals, location scouting, storyboarding, blocking, shooting, editing, promoting. Such a process. So much creative energy, so much labor, so much time.

And then it’s finished and they move on. Do it all again in the service of some other movie that’ll be consumed in two hours and maybe lauded or denounced or ignored. It hardly matters, because afterward they’ll move on to something else.

Hitchcock’s movies seem airtight. The story has been so carefully sculpted, the characters’ motives are figured, its pacing crafted so’s to complement the content and dictate an audience’s reaction – it’s the product of somebody who was completely immersed in his work. Or that’s how it seems. I’m clearly having a hard time getting at exactly what I’m so hung up on in relation to this but I think it’s got something to do with the vibe that I get when, for instance, I’m working on a big writing assignment, usually fiction, and it seems so outlandish to imagine – when you’re at the beginning or middle of that project – what it’ll be like to reach the end, to be able to sit on it, have this massive undertaking in your past as like a mountain that was not only conquered but maybe just a prologue to the next adventure.

Then you look at these old guys’ filmographies and they’ve got twenty to ifty titles under their belt. The process of even just scouting locations, let alone managing a cast and crew toward the realization of a good feature, makes me wanna shrivel up, it’s so intimidating.

Not sure why I’ve snagged my belt on this issue but I’m in something like a trance about the idea of a director’s work ethic, the obsessive eighteen-hour days. The fevered thirty or sixty-day shoots.

lady vanishes shootout.JPG

Anyway. As concerns this movie, it’s great. Definitely the funniest Hitchcock movie I’ve seen tod ate, and seems, of Hitchcock’s work up to ’37, the one that’s most interested in giving the viewer a good time. The mystery is legitimately puzzling, the revelation is both believable and kind of laughably ridiculous, and, an added perk, we’re made privy to the most English gun battle imaginable in the last act.

It was at least good enough to watch twice. Not my favorite Hitchcock movie, not even in my top five, but still a good time.


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