It’s been a long time since I reviewed a film by one of my favourite directors, so I decided this one merited a rewatch. Like The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early British suspense films. I saw it first when I was about 12 years old; but in the years since, I’ve never forgotten the story – I still remember almost every twist and turn of this film. And I still think that it’s one of the best train journey films ever made.
Not that it begins in a train. The story opens in the snowy, mountainous landscape of a fictitious Western European country named Bandrika.
Here, a small hotel has suddenly found itself inundated by tourists, most of whom have had their travel schedules disrupted due to an avalanche. The hotel’s so small, its manager Boris (Emile Boreo), is having a hard time dealing with all the requests for rooms.
Among the people clamouring for space – and barely getting it – are Mr and ‘Mrs’ Todhunter (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers). From their tense, tight-lipped conversation, it soon becomes clear that the lady is not actually Eric Todhunter’s wife. Instead, both of them have left their respective spouses and are in the process of initiating divorces so that they can get married.
Another twosome that needs a room consists of a pair of cricket-crazy Englishmen, Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford). These two are frantic to get back to England because the Manchester test match is in progress, and if they’re delayed any longer, they’ll miss whatever’s left of the match.
Caldicott and Charters are among the unlucky ones who aren’t able to get a room; all Boris can scrounge for them is the maid’s room; the maid herself will shift out.
There are the luckier ones, though. Most privileged of the lot is a wealthy English girl named Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood). Iris, along with two friends, has been hiking about the countryside. The three girls have their rooms at the hotel, and are on a first-name basis with Boris and the rest of the staff.
Iris will be catching a train the next morning, headed back home to London to be married.
Over the course of the evening, we are also introduced to a motherly, chatty and somewhat Miss Marpleish character named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). Miss Froy tells a disgruntled Caldicott and Charters – with whom she shares a table in the very crowded dining room – that she is a governess and music teacher, now on her way back to England.
While they’re still at the table, a folk singer outside the hotel begins singing a ballad. Miss Froy, who’s finished her dinner, says goodnight to Caldicott and Charters (in any case, they’re preoccupied with worrying about making it to Manchester). She goes up to her room, opens the window, and immerses herself in the song of the folk singer below her window…
…when a boisterous burst of loud, foot-stomping music from upstairs drowns everything out. Miss Froy goes out into the corridor, where she runs into her next-door neighbour, who happens to be Iris. Miss Froy is merely a little upset; Iris is boiling mad. She immediately goes back into her room and phones Boris to shut up whoever is making the din.
The room is occupied by an Englishman named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, in his debut role). Gilbert is writing a book on disappearing folk music, and is engaged in some research:
Boris tries to plead with Gilbert, but is smartly sent back. Boris, when he reports back to Iris and admits his inability to evict Gilbert, finds her offering a bribe – which he happily accepts.
A few minutes later, a hot-headed Gilbert strides into Iris’s room with bag and baggage, intent on staying here, since he’s been thrown out of his own room.
Iris has to capitulate, and Gilbert is reinstalled in the attic. The folk singer below Miss Froy’s finishes his serenade. Miss Froy, who has been listening appreciatively and intently, throws him a coin before she shuts the window and draws the curtains.
… and a pair of hands reaches out and strangles the singer.
Next morning, the train is ready to leave. Besides Iris, there are a bunch of other familiar faces on board: Caldicott and Charters, Todhunter and his mistress, and Gilbert.
Iris’s friends have come to see her off. The three girls are chatting when Miss Froy comes by, and in the course of some woolly-headed chatter about a lost bag, drops her spectacles. Iris goes to return them to Miss Froy – who’s bending over the pile of luggage outside the station window – when a pair of unseen hands pushes a large flowerpot off the upper window.
The flowerpot hits Iris on the nape, just as the train signals its imminent departure.
Miss Froy immediately takes Iris under her wing, reassuring Iris’s friends that she’ll look after the girl. She gets Iris onto the train, just before Iris blacks out.
When Iris comes to, she’s in a train compartment. The kindly Miss Froy is beaming at her from the seat opposite. There are four other people in the compartment: an Italian magician named Signor Doppo (Phillip Leaver) with his wife and four-year old son; and an imperious baroness (Mary Clare).
Miss Froy suggests a cup of ‘good, strong tea’ to help make Iris feel better, and Iris agrees. They go to the dining car – Miss Froy inadvertently stumbles into Mr Todhunter’s compartment on the way.
When they’re seated at a table, Miss Froy places the order. She also gives the waiter her own packet of tea – it’s a special herbal tea, the only tea she ever drinks, as she informs Iris. “A million Mexicans drink it,” Miss Froy chirrups, quoting the advertisement of the tea.
The two women chat as they have their tea. Iris introduces herself; so does Miss Froy – or, she starts to. Just as she’s saying her name, the train’s whistle blows, loud and long, drowning out Miss Froy’s voice. So Miss Froy uses her fingertip to scrawl her name – FROY – on the steamed-up window pane next to them.
They also encounter Caldicott and Charters. Miss Froy discovers that the waiter’s forgotten to provide sugar with their tea tray, so she requests the two Englishmen for the sugar bowl at their table. They (and this is no surprise to anyone) have emptied the sugar cubes onto the table – Charters has been describing the field placement of a certain cricket match to Caldicott. They’re not at all happy to have to put the sugar cubes back into the bowl and hand it over to Miss Froy and Iris.
Eventually, though, tea is over. Iris and Miss Froy return to their compartment. Miss Froy encourages Iris to sleep a bit; she’ll feel better. Iris complies.
And when she wakes, she is feeling better – and the seat opposite her is empty. Where is Miss Froy?
When Iris asks the other people in the compartment, they deny even the existence of Miss Froy. Signor Doppo and his wife look puzzled; the baroness looks down her nose as if questioning Iris’s sanity.
Iris goes out of the compartment and begins looking for her friend. In the dining car, the waiter who served them insists that Iris was on her own. He even offers to show her the bill: tea for one person.
Now thoroughly distressed and certain something awful has happened, Iris goes rushing through the train, looking for Miss Froy.
Instead, she bumps into Gilbert. He’s inclined to be sarcastic and to resume their quarrel from the previous night. But Iris’s obvious anxiety makes him finally agree to help search for Miss Froy, if only to humour Iris – Gilbert firmly believes that this Miss Froy is a figment of Iris’s imagination.
… a theory confirmed by a brain surgeon, Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas) whom they meet on the train. Dr Hartz is understanding and supportive, assuring Iris that the concussion she suffered because of the falling flowerpot could easily lead to this.
Dr Hartz mentions (with somewhat bloodcurdling excitement) that a new patient of his – the victim of a terrible accident, suffering from severe concussion – will be put aboard the train at the next stop, the first time the train’s going to halt since its journey began.
Gilbert and Iris resume their questioning of people.
Mr Todhunter, when confronted, says he doesn’t remember anyone answering to Iris’s description of Miss Froy. [A conversation between him and his mistress, just before, reveals that Todhunter hopes to be appointed a judge once he’s back in England. He’s scared that even a hint of a scandal – like his infidelity – will spoil his career].
A similarly selfish reason makes Caldicott and Charters deny Miss Froy too. Charters has overheard a panicky Iris saying that she’ll have the train stopped unless Miss Froy is found. The train can’t afford to be stopped; they’ll miss their connection, and they’ll never make it in time for the last day’s play at Manchester… so when Iris confronts them about Miss Froy borrowing the sugar bowl, they deny it.
Todhunter, Caldicott and Charters have their own warped reasons for not admitting the truth – but what about everybody else? Why is everybody saying there is no such person as Miss Froy? And where on earth has Miss Froy disappeared? The train hasn’t stopped even once since it started; but Miss Froy is nowhere to be found.
Where has the lady vanished? And why?
The way it builds up. The first 20 minutes or so of The Lady Vanishes are slow and innocuous: the excitement of Iris and her three friends; Caldicott’s and Charters’s single-minded obsession with cricket; Miss Froy’s sweet, slightly fluffy-minded meanderings; and Gilbert’s run-in with Iris. All seemingly the makings of a run-of-the mill romantic comedy. But it’s not, really, if later in the film you start looking back at those first 20 minutes. They establish the characters, and if you pay attention, you’ll see the bases of people’s motives building up right here – and you’ll come across a few interesting details that affect the story later on in the film.
I also love the very ‘stiff upper lip’ English sense of humour that sparkles through in places – especially when it comes to the conversations between Caldicott and Charters (who do take themselves very seriously!). Gilbert and Iris are witty, too, when they’re at daggers drawn.
What I didn’t like:
I’m passing this up. Nothing.
Little bit of trivia:
Interestingly, three elements of The Lady Vanishes came together in another suspense-thriller film, made just two years later: Night Train to Munich (1940). Margaret Lockwood was the heroine in that film too (opposite Rex Harrison). Like The Lady Vanishes, it is partially set on a train – though The Lady Vanishes is more of a train movie than Night Train to Munich, despite the name of the latter. And, in Night Train to Munich too Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprised their roles of Charters and Caldicott.
Personally, though, I think Night Train to Munich is very forgettable in comparison to The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock is Hitchcock: in a class by himself.
Note: You can watch The Lady Vanishes legally online, through this link (on IMDB) to the Internet Archive: