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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

DVD Review: Hitchcock Mystery Pillories Complacent Brits With The Lady Vanishes

Lockwood, Whitty, and Redgrave

The Lady Vanishes, out now in a typically top-notch new print with loads of extras on Criterion DVD, contains many of the elements that director Alfred Hitchcock would spin into trademarks in later films. There is suspense and intrigue, the question of identity and reality, spies, trick camera shots, a hint of sexual perversity, even a director's cameo.

Yet for those familiar with his better known American films The Lady Vanishes is first and foremost eminently British. The plot, what there is of it, is woefully hole-y and the central conceit is flimsy. Essentially this is an idea that would be remade later on in films like Bunny Lake is Missing and Flightplan.

Fetching young upper-crusty Brit Margaret Lockwood encounters likable dowager Dame May Whitty after getting clunked on the head. Whitty then disappears on board a train with Lockwood. When Lockwood asks if anyone has seen her she's met with shrugged shoulders and denials.

Later Hitchcock films would have stretched out the delicious suspense of identity loss and confusion but there is never any doubt in The Lady Vanishes that Lockwood is being lied to. One of the implausabilities in the plot is that the deception relies on some of the deniers to go along based on reasons of their own that the bad guys could have no knowledge and little expectation of.

They do reinforce a political subtext, one that was only beginning to find favor in the Britain of 1938 in which the film was released. Among the fellow Brits on the train who initially support the contention that Whitty never existed are two prototypically oblivious gentleman who hilariously represent the Blighty equivalent of the ugly American. "What's going on in England?" They want to know. But it's not the political scene they care about it transpires. Rather they want to know the up to the minute cricket scores.

The other members of the Empire who go along with the scheme for their own selfish reasons are an adulterous politician and his mistress. The craven politician would do anything to avoid being embarrassed with a woman who is not his wife, or to avoid a fight.

Hitchcock is saying that the politicians like Neville Chamberlain, aided by self-absorbed citizens who would rather watch cricket than watch Europe burn, were allowing Nazism to spread. For make no mistake, the unnamed Central European country where the action takes place is a stand-in for fascist Europe.

While this description makes The Lady Vanishes sound terribly portentous, it is in fact a frothy, funny mystery romp. Lockwood matches wits with ethno-musicologist (!) bon vivant Michael Redgrave and their chemistry and fast one-liners are charming. Our two cricket fans, Caldicott and Charter, were so popular that they spawned their own film, included on Criterion's two-disc set.

I did mention the sex. There isn't the deep damaged sexual psyches of Hitchcock masterpieces like Rear Window or Vertigo. Instead there is a comically erotic scene of a bellhop bringing a meal up to Lockwood's hotel room where she and her girlfriends are in various states of provocative undress. This is 1938 so there's nothing that would raise a modern eyebrow and yet the loving, fetishtic photography of the scene and the bellman's obvious distress are powerfully sexy. Then there is a scene much later on, where Redgrave and Lockwood are cornered by one of the chief plotters. As they sit at crotch level a bulge suddenly tents at his waistline beneath his overcoat. Of course it's a gun but it's hard to believe Hitchcock wasn't up to his smirking psychological games here.

Though it isn't a masterpiece on the level of Hitch's best, The Lady Vanishes is quite fun to watch. It's a solid four out of five Neville Chamberlains:

Here's a clip featuring the abovementioned scene of the poor flummoxed bellman surrounded by those devilish young ladies -- naughty! Note Lockwood's position and that of the champagne bottle, careful that table now Maggie.

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