' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Steven Hyden deemed “Boxer”, The National’s 2007 album, as one “of its time: living in America in the waning years of the second Bush administration.” He continued: “Things had gotten bad, but most of the worst of it was far away geographically, our economy was a year away from collapsing completely, and if you were having an easy life to begin with, you could continue to do so and calculatedly shut out the rest of the world.” He tied it to the words of the album’s remarkable opening cut: “half-awake in our fake empire.” I kept thinking about “Fake Empire” as I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate British film, “The Lady Vanishes”, released in 1938, a year before Central Europe was rocked with war, though his film opens, deliberately, with a flight of visual fancy, a toy train and a miniature alpine village. It’s a reminder of how effects need not evince realism to be special, yes, but it also evokes the place, Bandrika, a fictional Balkan country, making it look like as much like a Lubitsch fairytale as a Hitchcock thriller. And even if you know what’s coming, the rhythms of the opening remain, a comedy of manners in which all the preeminent characters gather at a scenic inn before embarking for a cross-country train trip It’s not a feint so much as an evocation of, well, living half-awake in a fake empire. Listen to Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), the English tourist headed home to be married, as she says: “I’ve no regrets. I've been everywhere and done everything. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?” She may as well be, to paraphrase The National, tiptoeing through Bandrika with diamond slippers on.

Hitchcock makes the idea of drowsy England waking up to the era’s brewing truths explicit through Iris, after the whimsical yet wistful prologue, embarking for the train and getting hit in the head by a falling flowerpot, knocking her out, as if she’s being roused into reality. Indeed, once on the train, after a conversation with Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), “rhymes with joy” as she explains, and which is what Whitty’s performance embodies, rendering their becoming fast friends believable, Iris dozes off and then wakes up, this time to something like a nightmare, evoked in the frightening close-ups of the passengers across from her – a leering gentleman, a disapproving woman, shown in the kind of straight-on close-ups that put you immediately at unease. That unease furthers when she realizes Miss Froy is not across from her, as she was when Iris fell asleep, and especially when Iris goes searching for the old woman and not only can’t find her but is told she was never on the train in the first place.

Gilbert Redmond (Michael Redgrave), the mischief making ethnomusicologist who begins at comical odds with Iris to help facilitate their romance, comes to her aid when everyone else on the train think she’s off her rocker. That, however, does not necessarily mean he believes her, at least not at first, the chemistry between Redgrave and Lockwood neatly intertwining their burgeoning love with his realization that she is telling the truth, their eventual mutual spark sort of suggesting Nick and Nora by way of Errol and Olivia. And though events turn dire and Hitch turns up the suspense, especially in a sequence where a key piece of evidence appears written in the window, just out of sight of the characters but completely in the audience’s line of vision, making us want to point and scream – RIGHT THERE! – like it’s the end of “Marathon Man”, “The Lady Vanishes” never entirely abandons its initial comedy of manners air. In fact, that air is intertwined with the mystery in order to proffer commentary by way of cocktail chatter, or something.

Iris and Gilbert’s fellow passengers don’t so much disbelieve their pleas as actively ignore them. Todhunter (Cecil Parker), a lawyer, is concerned getting involved in a missing persons case will damage his reputation and keeps his trap shut, imploring his wife to do the same, while Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Nauton Wayne), concerned an investigation will delay their arrival at a cricket match choose to stay out of it too. Let me be more emphatic on the last one: these two men are so afraid of missing the start time of a freaking cricket match that they pretend not to have known Miss Froy was on the train even though we pointedly see them see her on the train. It’s like a pre-WWII version of Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where selfishness outweighs being a Good Samaritan.

The selfish characters do not emerge as Good Samaritans, exactly, but nevertheless become sort of conscripted into duty anyway when Iris and Gilbert refuse to give up Miss Froy to the baddies and gunfire erupts. And though the situation gets mighty real, it never descends into full-on darkness, Hitchcock allowing his characters to maintain their pithiness even as he exhorts them – and England – to get up and show some pluck. It’s a shootout, alright, but let’s call it a shootout with their diamond slippers on, metaphorically speaking, which just goes to show one need not pull the wool over his or her eyes; you can enjoy yourself and admit the world is burning.

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