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The Guardian (11/Jan/2008) - The Lady Vanishes

(c) The Guardian (11/Jan/2008)

The Lady Vanishes

In 1938, master chef Alfred Hitchcock brought together the ingredients of mystery, comedy and suspense with sublime ease in this prewar classic. In fact, he invented the dish, and presented it topped it off with that superbly elegant, enigmatic title. Rereleased now, 70 years on, it doesn't creak at all, whereas a movie like Jodie Foster's 2005 thriller Flightplan, which pinched from it wholesale, has deep vein thrombosis.

Margaret Lockwood plays headstrong young debutante Iris Henderson, who has completed her finishing school in the fictional central European country of Bandrika and must now return to London to be married to some well-off bore. Like everyone else, she finds herself snowed in before her train can depart, long enough to establish her character and that of other important players: Michael Redgrave's maddeningly handsome musicologist Gilbert Redman, and two phlegmatic English coves, Caldicott and Charters, played by the great double act Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford. Getting aboard the train, Iris is befriended by a gentle old lady Mrs Froy (May Whitty) who later disturbingly vanishes. Is Iris going crazy? Or is the old lady's disappearance part of a fiendish crypto-Nazi espionage plot?

Wayne and Radford's badinage is still a treat as they fret and worry about getting back for the Test match. At the end, there is a great visual joke, showing that Basil Radford could take a bullet with more sang-froid than any hard-boiled tough guy. Like the train they're aboard, Hitchcock's movie rattles along without ever losing momentum, and the final image of Cecil Parker's cringing pacifist coward, shot even as he attempts to flutter his white flag, carried an irresistible message to 1930s Britain - and to 1930s America. It's as if Hitchcock sprinkled a little western into his generic mix. A pleasure.