The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes was one of the last movies that Alfred Hitchcock made before he was poached by American film studios.  It was certainly the last great movie that he made before he moved across the Atlantic, and it seems like a fitting goodbye to his career as a British film director.

Indeed the movie seems almost like a celebration of the British character, both for good and for bad. The British characters in the movie are often stupid, insular and slow to take sides, but once roused they show stoicism and heroism in the face of danger.

The story concerns the spoilt and wealthy Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood). She is used to having things her own way. Witness the friendly but peremptory manner with which she addresses the hotel manager. She is preparing to return to England to marry a ‘blue-blooded cheque chaser’ whom she clearly does not love.

Right now however, she is one of a number of British travellers who are stranded in a hotel in the country of Bandrika after an avalanche has blocked the railway line. Regrettably in the room above hers, there is an annoying musician called Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave). He is seeking to learn the traditional dances and music of the country, which apparently involves asking a number of locals to clomp heavily on the floor.

Iris bribes the manager to remove the offender, but he responds by hijacking her own room until she agrees to talk the manager into returning him. “You’re the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in all my life!” cries the outraged Iris. Gilbert responds, “Confidentially, I think you’re a bit of a stinker, too.”

No prizes for guessing that these two antipathetic individuals will end up falling in love with one another. The Lady Vanishes has all the ingredients of a good romantic comedy, complete with the requisite abominable fiancé who will be superseded at the end. There is a splendid chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave that ensures that their scenes together are enormous fun to watch.

However this is not merely a romantic comedy. It is a thriller, and there are other guests who have been forced to stay here too. There are a couple of cricket bores and boors called Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). They are travelling back to England to watch the test match, and seem unable to talk about anything except cricket.

Their attitude towards the natives of any other country is xenophobic, and they are rude to anyone who doesn’t share their love of cricket. The exact relationship between the two men is unclear, but we assume they are only friends. It is hinted that the hotel staff think otherwise, and there is some humour to be got from the knowing smiles of the maid, and the men’s obvious embarrassment as they are forced to share a bed for the night.

Charters and Caldicott went on to have a life of their own outside of The Lady Vanishes. The characters appeared in a few other movies, and on radio. They were great comic creations, and people loved them in spite of their narrow and stupid Englishness. When the gravity of the situation finally permeates through to these two dull Englishmen, they prove capable of rising to the occasion and acting with courage and resolution.


On a less reputable level, there is also a couple whose secretive manner causes them to be mistaken for honeymooners. Actually they are pursuing an unsatisfactory affair which is unlikely to lead to the divorce that the woman wants, as the man is an ambitious lawyer who cannot afford a scandal.

Finally there is a whimsical lady called Miss Froy (May Whitty) who passes herself off as a governess and music teacher. Perhaps she is, but there is something more to her than that.  We see her memorising a tune that is being played outside her window by a local musician. As we watch, a sinister shadow appears behind the player. A hand reaches out, and he is strangled.

Up until this point the movie has contained nothing that would not fit equally well in a romantic comedy. Suddenly the movie has taken us into slightly darker territory than it has so far, and we are reminded that the film is also an exciting thriller.

The thriller part of the movie begins in earnest when the train resumes its course. While they are boarding, Iris offers assistance to Miss Froy, but she is struck on the head by a pot that is dropped from a height, intended to brain Miss Froy. The injury gives Iris a convenient concussion that will be exploited throughout the movie to cast doubts on the veracity of her claims.

Miss Froy takes the injured Iris under her wing, and they spend time together. However after Iris wakes up from a short rest, she finds that the lady has vanished. What is more nobody in the carriage admits to having ever seen her, and the train staff are equally unhelpful. From here, Iris will be severely tested by events as she tries to find out the truth.

As ever in Hitchcock, the plot devices that drive the narrative are the least important part of the movie. When Gilbert discusses the cause of the disappearance with Iris he vaguely suggests that it is, ‘Some political thing’, and Hitchcock is equally uninterested. The MacGuffin here is the musical notes that Miss Froy memorised, and which apparently contains coded information that she needs to take to the Foreign Office.

While the movie is essentially a fun one, it reflects the environment of Europe and indeed Britain just before World War Two broke out. The movie is set in the fictional country of Bandrika, but it does not take too much imagination to see it as a country that is under the control of Fascism, by occupation or by tyranny.

Perhaps it is meant to stand in for Germany, which would explain why the hotel manager says ‘Dankeschon’ There is a sinister Germanic baroness who is the wife of the Minister of Propaganda. Another passenger is an Italian magician who appears to be assisting in the sinister conspiracy on the train.

Most of the local people are harmless, but they are cowed by the sinister Fascists who control their government into saying that they have not seen Miss Froy. Miss Froy regards Bandrika as a country of simple music-loving people. She tells Iris: “I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?”

The representatives of the government are not harmless however. Aside from the sour-looking Baroness, there is a friendly passenger called Dr Egon Hartz (Paul Lukas). He offers support to Iris, but insists that her head injury has caused her to hallucinate, and that Miss Froy does not exist. His polite mannerisms and habit of saying ‘Most interesting’ may seem comic, but he appears to be a charming and trustworthy man.

In fact he is another one of Hitchcock’s likeable criminals, and a ruthless operative. To prevent Miss Froy from passing the code on to the British Foreign Office, he has had her kidnapped. She is wrapped in bandages and is being passed off as a seriously injured patient, until she can be removed from the train and eliminated.

Dr Hartz is the movie’s villain, but he is not especially evil. He wishes to dispose of Miss Froy, but contents himself with trying to drug Irene and Gilbert when they get too close to the truth. Perhaps that is the reason that Hitchcock permits Dr Hartz to escape the movie alive at the end. Indeed as Dr Hartz watches our heroes escape he even wishes them good luck.

These are the enemies that the British will soon face in the next World War – people who may be individually decent, but who are working by choice or compulsion for an oppressive and authoritarian regime. One of the movie’s key focuses is on how the British passengers will respond to this threat.

To begin with, their response is disappointing. When Iris tries to draw their attention to Miss Froy’s disappearance, nobody wishes to help her and they too deny seeing her with Miss Froy, even though they clearly did. In the late 1930s too, Britain was doing all it could to stay out of fighting a war with Nazi Germany. “Never climb a fence if you can sit on it. Old Foreign Office proverb,” Gilbert comments.

The British characters refuse to help Iris for a variety of selfish reasons. Charters and Caldicott fear that her nonsense will cause them to miss their cricket match. The adulterous couple do not wish to draw attention to themselves. There is clearly something wrong here, but everybody chooses to bury their head in the sand until a crisis finally forces them to take the situation seriously.

After the authorities divert their train down a side line, and armed guards shoot Charteris in the hand, they finally realise that they must act.  From this point, their behaviour is splendid. Charteris and Caldicott bravely help to keep the soldiers at bay while the train is started up again.

The exception is the adulterous husband who wishes to surrender to the Nazis. He is dismissed by the others for his naïve pacifism, and he finally dies whilst waving a white flag at the merciless soldiers. It is hard not to think of Neville Chamberlain who waved a piece of paper that he thought promised “peace in our time” with Nazi Germany.

There is another British character who changes her mind when she realises the full extent of what is going on. When Iris and Gilbert look in on the supposed patient, they are surprised to see a deaf and dumb nun who wearing high heels. In fact she is not deaf and dumb, and she is not a nun. She settled in Bandrika after marrying someone there and is working for the authorities. However when she learns that they are planning to kill one of her countrywomen, she changes sides and helps to protect Miss Froy.

Only two characters remain consistent in the attempt to stand up for justice – that is the hero and heroine of the movie. In their more subdued way, both characters possess the same characteristics as the other British characters. They are insular and suspicious of foreigners, but they possess a similar stoical courage that carries them through. They differ from the others only in that they are intelligent enough to realise that something is seriously wrong, and to act more quickly on this.


Iris is the more persistent of the two. She refuses to be daunted by attempts to persuade her that she was hallucinating about seeing Miss Froy. Later there is an attempt to put a nasty-faced woman in place of Miss Froy, so as to convince Iris that this is the woman she saw, but Iris insists that she is right.

Gilbert takes more persuasion. He only helps the ‘stinker’ because she nearly faints, and he says that his father told him to always help a lady in trouble. To begin with, he is open-minded about Iris’s claim, but inclined to accept the doctor’s view that she is hallucinating. However his mind is changed when he sees the crew throwing items out of the train window, including a box of special tea that Iris claimed Miss Froy drank.

As so often in a Hitchcock movie, our attention is diverted from the story by the fun of watching the relationship between the two leads. This started off badly in the hotel, but they soon begin to warm to each other on the train. Gilbert begins to feel attracted to her, and jokingly remarks: “You have the great qualities I used to admire in my father. You’ve no manners at all, and you’re always seeing things.”

He looks visibly disappointed when he learns that she has a fiancé, and the attached Iris is somewhat slower to return his attentions. “Do you like me?” Gilbert asks hopefully. “Not much,” responds Iris.

Naturally their adventures will bring them closer together. At the end of the movie, as they arrive back in London, we catch a glimpse of her supercilious fiancé as Iris prepares to say goodbye to Gilbert. Instead they end up climbing into a cab to avoid the fiancé, and kissing one another – the first openly romantic scene between them in the whole film.

Soon Alfred Hitchcock would be working in America on a much larger budget, but here he was working on cheaper sets. The hotel, station and train were made in a studio, and the opening tracking shot appears to be a toy model. Extra dimension was added to scenes by the use of back projections, a trick that Hitchcock would use for many years. What causes The Lady Vanishes to stand out is the meticulous care that Hitchcock uses to build up the suspense scenes.

The camera work may be limited but it is used to the full. Iris’s dazed state of mind is conveyed through technical trickery.  As Iris says goodbye to her friends, the camera point of view splinters into several images of her friends just before she faints. When the fake Miss Froy is substituted for the real one, Iris’s confusion is shown when the faces of all the passengers in her carriage morph into the face of Miss Froy.

Perhaps the most effective scene is that where Dr Hartz put something in the wine that Iris and Gilbert are drinking. It is only a drug, and the nun has not even added that, but we do not know this at the time. We are kept in an agony of suspense as we wait to see if they will swallow the spiked drinks. As we watch, the camera is carefully framed to ensure that our eyes are always on the wine glasses, and on Hartz’s face as he encourages them to drink, which they take some time in doing.

It was touches of this kind that explain how Alfred Hitchcock’s career was able to go from strength to strength. Few directors have worked out the knack of skilfully fusing great art and popular cinema so that we can hardly tell whether the scenes were artistically crafted for commercial purposes or whether crowd-pleasing methods were used to attain high art. The Lady Vanishes is one of the best movies that Hitchcock made in Britain and among the best that he ever made.


7 thoughts on “The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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