For belated Thanksgiving, my family and I did the usual stuff — ate turkey, gave thanks, talked incessantly about my continued lack of a boyfriend — as well as more fun stuff, like watching old Alfred Hitchcock movies.
It’s a fun, little movie, and I enjoyed watching it. But the plot really doesn’t bear much in the way of scrutinization.
SPOILERS. I actually tried writing this without spoilers, purely out of respect for Alfred Hitchcock, but it was just driving me crazy, and I abandoned the notion. Anyway, this movie was made over seventy years ago and there really isn’t one Big Giant Twist, so I think you’re okay.
While on a train to England, Iris (Margaret Lockwood) realizes that Miss Froy, a friendly, elderly woman, has vanished into thin air. But, for some reason, nobody else on the train seems to remember the lady. Conspiracies!
1. It’s honestly amazing that I like this movie at all.
I didn’t really know what this film was about when I chose to watch it, just that the extremely vague summary I heard sounded more interesting than the extremely vague summary I heard about The 39 Steps. When I realized I had inadvertently chosen to watch a thriller where there’s a good chance the protagonist is going crazy, I was just crushed. Not only was I watching one of my least favorite types of movies, I had done it to myself.
But The Lady Vanishes proved to be the one — and possibly only one — exception to the rule. Part of it, I’m sure, is that Iris isn’t questioning her sanity for the entire movie. That portion of the plot is relatively short: we find out that Iris isn’t crazy after fifteen or twenty minutes at the most. So that’s nice. Also, this movie is less of a super serious psychological thriller with twists upon twists upon twists — it’s really more of a madcap rom-com mystery adventure. Which actually made me like it a whole lot more. Conspiracy stories are a hard fucking sell sometimes, and a sense of humor goes a long, long way with me.
2. Of course, a light-hearted tone can be something of a double-edged sword. While I like this movie for its comedic elements, the overall tone is shaky as hell.
For instance: there’s a time to flirt and try on Sherlock Holmes hats and laugh gaily about life, but that time is probably not when you’re stuck on a train with a bunch of people who might have killed some little old woman and are likely coming after you next. Iris (and Gilbert, the love interest) are in something of a serious situation here, but you wouldn’t know it by how they act half the time. There is very little tension in this movie, and that’s something of a problem for me. I want this to be a funny movie, but some sense of actual stakes wouldn’t be totally amiss.
3. About that love interest though . . .
Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, and he kind of makes the whole movie.
Michael Redgrave — father of Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, grandfather of Natasha and Joely Richardson — is just charming as all hell in this movie. He’s got a great, little smile and a delightful sense of comic timing. He basically steals every scene he’s in.
He also seems to have decent chemistry with our leading lady, Margaret Lockwood . . .
4 . . . who is mostly enjoyable, even if her character does faint twice. (Oy.)
Iris is decently gung-ho for a woman in the 1930’s. Which is to say that while she’s a fainter and a useless fighter and probably wouldn’t get anything accomplished without Gilbert’s help, she absolutely refuses to give up on Miss Froy. Something has happened to this woman, and she’s going to figure out what, dammit. I can admire that.
5. There are a number of smaller characters in this movie — the adulterous couple, the nun who mysteriously wears high heels — but the most popular characters at the time were apparently Charters and Caldicott.
Charters and Caldicott are two Englishmen who only care about one thing: cricket. (Seriously, it’s pretty much all they talk about the whole movie. Their determination to get home to see this big match in the midst of all this bigger conspiracy stuff is pretty funny.) And these guys were so well beloved, they popped up in movies such as Millions Like Us and Night Train to Munich — completely separate films that otherwise had nothing to do with The Lady Vanishes. Even when Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne were not playing Charters and Caldicott, they appeared in several films together and even did radio shows.
6. There are some pretty clever things in this movie, as well as some ridiculously huge plot holes. As far as clever things go: the musical code is pretty cool.
So early in the film, before anyone even gets on a train, Miss Froy stands at her window and smiles as she listens to some musician guy playing below. About ten minutes later, that musician guy gets strangled.
Which, on first glance, seems kind of unnecessary and mean. After all, Gilbert is also playing music, and he’s being a lot more obnoxious about it. Why does no one try to strangle him?
Well as it turns out, the musician is actually passing along a secret code to Miss Froy, who is not quite the harmless old lady that she first appears to be. She’s actually a spy, and the tune she’s carrying has all sorts of spy secrets coded in. Besides this just being kind of a cool concept, it’s neat how the musician’s death is actually significant instead of just seeming like a weird loose end as it first appears to be.
7. That being said . . . weird loose ends and other silly problems? This movie’s got more than a few of them.
A. First, Mystery Hands tries to attack Miss Froy before she even gets on the train by pushing a handy flowerpot on top of her head. Unfortunately for Iris, the flowerpot hits her instead.
Now this actually happens so that everyone in the film can blame Iris’s supposed hallucinations of Miss Froy on head trauma, but as far as the story reason it happens . . . er . . . hard to say. It’s either a very, very poor attempt to kill Miss Froy — which would be stupid, considering the elaborate plan they have to switch her out on the train — or it’s simply a means to incapacitate her. Which also seems a little silly because they clearly have very little trouble doing that on the train in a more direct fashion than gee, I hope this flowerpot actually hits the intended target. It feels like an improvisation except that, at this point, there was no need to actually improvise. So it just comes off as an exceedingly convenient plot device.
B. Also, just the whole plan to get rid of Miss Froy seems a mite overcomplicated, and the plan to convince Iris that she’s just been imagining Miss Froy is verging on the ridiculous. I mean, who even thinks that? I know it’s the plot of the movie and all, but it seems like an exceptionally bad plan, trying to convince a sane woman that she’s crazy. It would probably have been easier just to kill Iris and stow her body somewhere. (You’d think stowing a dead body on a train might be hard, but when almost the entire train staff appears to be in on the conspiracy, I think they might have managed.)
For that matter, it wouldn’t have hurt to make it more apparent that Iris wasn’t supposed to be sitting in the Car of Doom with Miss Froy and three bad guys. Or what Dr. Hartz’s motivations were, for that matter: is this guy just pretending to be a famous neurosurgeon as part of the ruse, or is a famous neurosurgeon really a part of this vast conspiracy, and if so, why? I don’t need to know the motivations for every villain, but when it’s someone the heroes implicitly trust because he’s so well-known and respected, well, then it’s more important.
C. Although there is one other villain I’d like to know more about as well, and that’s the evil fake nun who conveniently switches sides and decides to help out our heroes because she finds out that Miss Froy is English.
Come on. English solidarity aside, you can’t just introduce a token bad guy in a habit and heels and have her conveniently switch sides when you need her to without giving any kind of real motivation or character development.
Also, seriously. How bad do you have to be at your job to wear high heels when you’re disguising yourself as a nun? I could see forgetting your nails were painted or something, but high heels? Please.
D. Finally, here’s just the funniest thing: near the end of the film, Gilbert and Charters are driving the train after all the engineers have been conveniently shot. Meanwhile, the others are trapped in a car with a bad guy who has a gun on them. The reformed, high heel wearing nun manages to sneak out to uncouple the cars to get away from all the other bad guys, which is awesome but there’s still this pesky matter of the one guy with the gun . . .
. . . or not because then the movie just cuts away to everyone in England. Let me repeat: Hitchcock completely forgets about that one guy who’s holding a gun on most of the cast, including our leading lady.
Wow. That’s pretty bad.
8. Some quotes:
Charters (after getting shot in the hand): “You were right.”
Iris: “You’re the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in all my life!”
Gilbert: “Confidentially, I think you’re a bit of a stinker too.”
Gilbert: “What’s the trouble?”
Iris: “If you must know, something fell on my head.”
Gilbert: “When, infancy?”
Gilbert: “Can I help?”
Iris: “Only by going away.”
Gilbert: “No, no, no. My father always taught me ‘never desert a lady in trouble’. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.”
Gilbert: “Stop hopping like a referee! Do something!”
9. I forgot to mention before: Miss Froy is kind of an awesome character.
While I doubt she’s the sort of badass who secretly knows kung fu or how to use a machine gun, she’s kind of an impressive old lady. After all, the work she’s doing is clearly dangerous, and it’s not like she gets a bodyguard or anything to protect her. And once Gilbert and Iris rescue her, she’s pretty much off again, running through the woods on her own because her intel (whatever it actually is) is worth the risk. I’m really interested in tough older female characters right now, possibly as a direct result of reading awesome stories with older female protagonists by Blythe Woolston at Clarion West, and I think this sort of qualifies. Especially from a movie made over seventy years ago.
10. Finally, at the end of the film, when Gilbert suddenly can’t remember the Secret Spy Tune (lame), a piano starts playing said tune, and who should be sitting at that piano but Miss Froy. See? Miss Froy made it out alive because Miss Froy rocks.
Still, though, if I were remaking this movie . . . which I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few days . . . Gilbert wouldn’t suddenly forget the tune because that’s dumb. He could just whistle it as they’re going up to the Secret Spy House and then stop in surprise when he hears it already coming from inside where Miss Froy is.
Totally enjoyable mystery-comedy-action-spy story . . . but it’s also relies pretty heavily on serious plot conveniences and the charm of Michael Redgrave. I think it might be kind of interesting to see a remake. (Actually a remake was already done in the 70’s, but I’ve heard mostly crappy things about it, so we’ll ignore that for now.)
Any plan that depends on trying to convince a perfectly sane person that they’ve been wildly and vividly hallucinating for the past hour is probably a fairly flawed plan.