Cinema Classics: “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)

Sadly, Turner Classic Movies’ annual Classic Film Festival, which was to take place in Hollywood this month, had to be cancelled due to the current situation surrounding COVID-19.  But in its place, the station is having a TCM Film Fest: Special Home Edition this weekend, which kicked off tonight with the 1954 version of “A Star is Born.”  There are a lot of great movies and specials on the schedule this weekend, so I thought I’d highlight a couple of them.  First up is one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, 1938’s “The Lady Vanishes.”

The Lady Vanishes” was the second-to-last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Britain before moving to Hollywood, and it’s one of the best out of his whole filmography. Even Francois Truffaut, who famously interviewed Hitchcock, claimed that this was the favorite of his movies and the best representation of his work.

The plot concerns a young English lady named Iris (Margaret Lockwood), who is traveling Europe by train. She makes the acquaintance of an elderly lady called Miss Froy (stage veteran Dame May Whitty). Iris wakes up on the train one day and discovers that her companion is gone. She asks her fellow passengers but they all claim to not remember seeing her at all, and believe Iris has been hallucinating. Iris is finally able to enlist the help of musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) in finding the woman, and they become embroiled in all sorts of action and intrigue.

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood in a publicity still for “The Lady Vanishes”

Some Hitchcock films are more dramatic, or scary, or thrilling, or funny than others, but “The Lady Vanishes” really is a perfect blend of all those elements. Set almost entirely on board a passenger train, Hitchcock makes use of the confined setting to add another layer of tension. Lockwood was not well known at the time, and this was Redgrave’s first film, but they make a great pair to follow through this mystery. This film is also the debut of the cricket-obsessed characters Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), who provide much of the film’s comic relief. The characters proved to be so popular that they were featured in a few more films (not relating to Hitchcock) and appeared in a series of radio serials.

“The Lady Vanishes” became the highest-grossing film in the UK at the time, which was particularly good news for Hitchcock. After a series of box office failures, this film convinced producer David O. Selznick that Hitchcock would do well in Hollywood.

“The Lady Vanishes” is airing on Turner Classic Movies as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival at Home on Sunday, April 19th at 2:30 AM EST.  It is also currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. Runtime: 96 minutes.

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