Every once in a while, something arrives that is not only more interesting than you expected, but is also quite altogether different than you expected. That’s what happened with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes for me.
It’s the last film he made in England before running off to Hollywood in order to not get caught in the War (although he must have been anticipating doing so, given the release date followed the production itself), and you can see great chunks of the work to come from him: seemingly slow-moving plots, careful examination of characters (often in trains), story-driven narrative with bits of dialogue that mix specific information as well as ‘slice of life’ elements of the moment, and then a bunch of action that stems from a plot that’s actually moved pretty quickly but you didn’t notice that originally. It’s all there, folks.
The first reel takes place in a hotel in the middle of a mountainous country of Europe, where – Goodness Gracious! Such a remote and wilderness place – news about what’s happening in England, and specifically the Cricket Tests, cannot be had with any reliability! There is talk of a war, but the Great Decision has not yet been made (but really, it’s the decision of the Bowler that really matters, wot?). There are a number of groups of characters we follow in this chunk of the story, and it’s probable that if it was made today the whole first third of the film would be hacked out because “it’s too confusing. Who’s the hero? What’s the problem that he’s going to solve? Who’s the dame he’s going to win? Who’s he going to have to kill? If it’s not there in the first twenty pages, you’ve lost everything.” Or, at least, so is the wisdom of William Goldman, the man who declared he’s right about everything.
The funny thing is, all of it is there in the first twenty pages or so, but it’s not presented in bullet-list form, nor exclusively so; there’s a whole bunch of extraneous stuff in there to distract you from the ‘essentials’ noted above. That’s what’s called “entertainment” and “colour”, folks. It’s supposed to be “fun” and something you can “enjoy for the sake of”. Remember that? Remember when we had that opportunity for more than the length of one ‘witty’ line about someone’s sexual prowess or reference to a sponsoring corporate product? Not that I’m pooh-poohing the newer films for the sake of that, I’m just acknowledging that things were different back in 1938, and everyone seems to do things the same these days, instead of using as many different styles of story-telling as are available. Nothing is “wrong”, it’s merely “different”, and we need more “different”. As it is, films are so frequently in such a head-long rush to get to the music-swelling ending that we’ve sacrificed the “getting to know you” bit of the stories, it’s refreshing to see one again and it reminds us that we shouldn’t rush to the ends of our lives either.
But back to this film.
Hopefully by the middle of the film you’ve given-up trying to work out where it’s headed in the end, because there’s a great deal to enjoy by simply letting it get there in its own time. This journey is wonderful in its own right as are its the stops along the way as we get to know people, the question of the tale to be answered, and then the matter of how to solve the problem by the end. As with life, it’s not the conclusion that matters, it’s how you get there and the direction in which it takes you that is more appreciable.
Spend some time with this one, and see just how good a smart mystery /thriller can be, and how it can be done with a mixture of people (as opposed to a bunch who are seemingly all equally good-looking and thin). It’s wonderful. You can even watch it for free by heading to THIS PAGE on the Internet Movie Archive!
Gainsborough Pictures presents
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Ethel Lina White (for her story “The Wheel Spins”),
screenplay by Sidney Gilliat (credited as ‘Sidney Gilliatt”)
and Frank Launder
I’ve been watching DVDs from the library for a number of reasons, mostly to do with a combination of “filling in the gaps in my ‘pop culture’ knowledge”, as well as a concerted effort to better understand story editing by both watching a film and then re-watching listening to people who have studied that particular movie for years in order to better appreciate the themes, plot construction, symbolism, and so on.
The process would be nothing without the secondary audio tracks. Sometimes it’s like having actually been through the film-making process with the people involved.