Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Lady Vanishes

In case you haven't noticed yet, I like watching movies from all time periods (although I am still leery of most silent films).  As much as I enjoy Alfred Hitchcock's most famous movies, I have only seen a few of what I would consider his "album tracks," if he was a musician.  I recently reviewed The 39 Steps and that turned out to be pretty good, so I thought I would give The Lady Vanishes a try.

The movie opens with a group of stranded travelers in a fictional Central European country.  Since their train cannot leave that day, all the passengers have to take rooms in the town's only inn, and that place is inn-adequate.
Puns.  Aren't.  Funny.
Anyway, while in the cramped inn, a few things happen.  The first is that a local street musician is strangled in the night, after the spinsterly Miss Froy (May Whitty) listened to his song from her room.  The other incident of major importance is that Iris (Margaret Lockwood) and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) establish an antagonistic relationship.  She comes off as being uptight, he comes across as a bit of a cad, but there is no harm done, aside from preventing the audience from watching a traditional folk dance from the historical region of Madeupia in Central Europe.  The next day, everybody's boarding the train, but it becomes apparent that somebody is trying to kill little old Miss Froy; they try to drop a flower pot on her head, but miss and his Iris instead.  Dizzy, but not too hurt, Iris boards the train and ends up sitting with Miss Froy and taking tea with her in the dining car.  When they return to their passenger car, which is filled with seemingly oblivious foreigners, Iris takes a nap.  When she wakes, Miss Froy is missing, and nobody has seen her.  To be more specific, nobody claims to remember her at all.  Is Iris crazy, or has something sinister happened to Miss Froy?  Well, it's a Hitchcock movie, so I'll give you a wild guess.  But that would mean that everybody is lying about remember Miss Froy, wouldn't it?  Why would they do that?  Just as odd, the only person who is willing to believe Iris is the one man that exasperates her most: Gilbert.

If this plot sounds a little familiar to you, that's because it probably is.  The movie was remade in the late 70s as a critically reviled movie with the same title and was later updated as the Jodi Foster vehicle, Flightplan.  So, if you have seen a movie with a character vanishing from a moving vehicle, or somebody that is looking for a missing person is considered crazy, or if a clue is written on steamed glass, that movie owes a debt to The Lady Vanishes.

What struck me most about this movie is how scattered its focus is early in the film.  While they are in Fictionalvania, the first characters we notice are a couple of confirmed British bachelors that are obsessed with cricket.  In fact, they later lie about seeing Miss Froy just to keep the train from being stopped, because that might keep them from missing the game they want to watch.
"I say, old chap, why not tell a pointless lie for trivial reasons?"
I thought that folk dancing may have been important, too, because it is an odd thing to see in an old movie.  There is a lot of misdirection before the film gets going proper on the train.  I like that in a mystery, but it seems a little unnecessary here, especially since much of it offers trivial insights to the characters and darn little plot significance.

The acting is pretty solid in this film.  I don't think there are a lot of strong female roles in movies, but Margaret Lockwood did a good job balancing the characteristics of a lady in distress with a determined woman.  She could have been a little less helpless at times, but this is over seventy years old.  This was Michael Redgrave's first major film role, and he was pretty good.  He was better at playing up the comedy in scenes than in the dramatic ones, but he wasn't bad.  This movie launched the careers of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who played the cricket-loving characters Charters and Caldicott; they went on to reprise these supposedly comedic characters (or ones similar to them) in a number of British movies and radio programs.  I don't see the appeal, but British humor is often baffling.  May Whitty was pretty good in the character role of Miss Froy --- she is certainly one of the better spinster actresses of her generation.  Paul Lukas also turned in a respectable performance as a doctor.

The real draw of Alfred Hitchcock movies is the man's direction, and he doesn't disappoint here.  British films at the time were (and, let's face it, are still today) lower-budgeted affairs than the typical Hollywood movie.  As such, it was interesting to see how Hitchcock handled the first scenes of the film; they look like a crane or helicopter shot of a small European town, but if you're paying attention during the slow zoom in, it is not a vast European landscape, but a miniature set.  That was kind of neat.  While I didn't particularly care for the seemingly pointless scenes at the inn, I did enjoy this movie once it got rolling.  I was impressed by how well the puzzle of the disappearing lady was laid out; you can definitely feel a sense of claustrophobia as Iris begins to panic, with so many witnesses in such a small space, and all of them insist she is imagining things.  The basic idea behind this movie, that of a crazy narrator vs.a conspiracy is an intriguing one.  The most memorable scenes are the ones where Hitchcock shows off a little bit, like the scene with the writing on the window condensation, and the little things that Hitchcock does add up to make this a more enjoyable movie.

My primary critique of this film has to deal with its tone.  I realize that many movies at the time, British ones in particular, thrillers are often filled with comedic parts.  I understand it, but I'm not a huge fan of it.  Maybe I just haven't seen it completely pulled off yet, I don't know.  I really enjoyed the middle third of the film, when there was still a question of whether or not Iris was crazy, but that semi-goofy tone bookends the movie.  I can't be the only one who thinks it feels awkward for characters like Gilbert to crack a joke while grappling with a villain.  And I don't think Hitchcock was much of a comedic director, either.  Sure, it was tolerable in the inn scenes, but none of it was really funny, so much as it was clever.  Speaking of clever, I wish the story had come up with a slightly more reasonable explanation for the missing lady.  It works, sure, but did it have to involve a magician?  That's a little weak.  The basic plot behind this film is a great one, but the mixed tone detracts from the film's tension.

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