Before Alfred Hitchcock struck gold with such well known films as "Vertigo" and "Psycho," he made films in his native country: England. It was in the UK that he filmed such 1930s classics as "The 39 Steps," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Sabotage." Among these was another slightly forgotten classic, 1938's "The Lady Vanishes." It starts as a cheery lightweight romp, it becomes a suspense-filled mystery, and it ends as an engaging thriller. Most movies nowadays get stuck in a rut and become nothing more than a run-of-the-mill action extravaganza set in a simple plot which serves as the way to get the characters on screen. Hitchcock did something else: He cared about the plot, stretched it out and made it elaborately intriguing, and then filled it in with the characters afterwards.
There's a mastermind behind this, and it belongs to that big horror master himself. "The Lady Vanishes" is one of his best early films (and it would be his last British film), a true sign of what was to come in the later years of his life. It was remade in 1979 with Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd, but lacked the freshness and striking narrative that the original contains.
In Germany, prior to World War II, a young woman travels cross country in a train, with an eccentric woman known as Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) as a companion. Froy is a short little woman who reeks of naivety and innocence. But perhaps not everything is as plain and simple as it seems--after falling asleep on the train for a short time period, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), the young traveler, awakens to find Miss Froy absent from her seat opposite herself.
The worst thing of all is that no one recalls having seen a little old lady aboard the train. Iris looks like a delusional loony, and she even starts to doubt the story herself, when odd clues start to turn up throughout the train. Enlisting the help of Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), a goofy man who is crazy enough to believe Iris' story, the two search in a frantic race before their train meets its arrival and Miss Froy is unloaded--if she's even still on the train.
The fundamentals of the story lie in its plot, and also in its characters. They're all lovable, from Gilbert to Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Redford), two traveling men looking to get back to England for a cricket tournament. After the train is stopped towards the end of the film and a band of Germans tries to board the plane, one of the men quips to the other something to the effect of, "We'll never be back for the cricket match, now."
It's interesting how so many mysteries make so much sense by the end, but you can't for the life of you guess the ending ahead of time. Sometimes this is not the case (I guessed the "surprise" ending of "Identity" from the trailer), especially nowadays with each mystery film being a retread of "The Sixth Sense." But back in the Hitch days, most every mystery was a complex one that had a totally unexpected climatic ending.
Filmed on an extremely low budget, "The Lady Vanishes" surprisingly boasts some amazing special effects in some areas, at least for the decade the movie was filmed in. One of these is when Gilbert climbs the exterior of the train, and on the opposite tracks another train swooshes by, knocking him backwards. You find this type of low-budget effect nowadays in homemade movies, but then it was quite good.
But other scenes are not quite as exquisite. The opening scene post credits, in which the camera swoops down into a small German village, is filmed well but the background and foreground are both models. If you look closely, you can see that the village folk walking along the street aren't actually walking at all--they're miniature figurines! Look for the little toy car that drives by behind the building--stuff like this is classic! But even with a horrible budget Hitchcock manages to control the scene the way he wants. It shows that even with a minimal amount of money he still tried to make everything intriguing and mysterious.
And that he did. Not only is "The Lady Vanishes" one of the best mysteries of all time, it's one of the best films of all time, too. It takes a while to start, but once it does, does it ever! It's low budget, yes, but not nearly as hard to make out as "The 39 Steps," one of Hitch's earlier British films. There are a lot of Hitchcock fanatics out there, and they may not have even heard of some of his earlier, lesser known films. Plus, they may be turned off by how hard it is to make out dialogue and scenes. ("The Man Who Knew Too Much" is notorious for being hard to understand.) And so for interested Hitchcock fans, your journey starts here.
Note: Towards the end of the film, look for a quick Alfred Hitchcock cameo. He's the man at Victoria Station who walks by with a cigarette.