Categories
British Mystery/Noir Romance

The Lady Vanishes

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As the British phase of his magnificent career was winding down, Alfred Hitchcock turned in a film as entertaining as anything he would make in America: 1938’s The Lady Vanishes.

For the first 25 minutes, the movie is a light-hearted romantic comedy featuring an utterly charming Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as, respectively, a wealthy American heiress bound for a loveless marriage with a penurious but titled aristo and a footloose music scholar manqué who clearly has some growing up to do. That they will fall in love is never in doubt, but intrigue and murder intrude as they make a train journey across the fictional central European country of Mandrika. An elderly, kindly, British-as-Sunday-roast governess named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty, effortlessly fine) is at the center of events. After our heroine is coshed on the head by a falling flower pot, Miss Froy befriends her. But soon Miss Froy vanishes without trace and everyone denies that she ever existed! As in so many other films of this sort, the central character must struggle with whether her fears are real or are imagined (as everyone around her keeps saying).

As you might guess from the above description, the plot contrivances in this film are many, even by Hitchcockian standards. Most notably, if you watch the final few scenes carefully, you may wonder why the film wasn’t titled “The gun-toting bad guy vanishes”. But Hitchcock was aiming for a romp, not a piece of cinéma vérité, and a tremendously entertaining romp it is. Even some of the wonderful visual effects seem as much intended to invoke mirth as tension (e.g., the opening miniature shot). Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (who also scripted another of recommendations, Green for Danger) produced a pearl of a script, with laugh out loud humor, cleverly constructed comic bits and suspenseful situations, cute late 1930s style sexual innuendo, and some lovely character sketches.


The most famous of the latter are Caldicott and Charters. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford were born to play the parts of the two cricket-obsessed, faintly barmy Englishmen abroad and they just about made a career of it from here on out, both in movies and television. Their timing is on the same level as Bob and Ray, but their sensibility is unmistakably English (not British mind you, English). It’s a testament to the actors and the writers that they were able to create characters that audiences could laugh at even though they were themselves being mocked to some extent (Decades later, The Simpsons would pull off the same trick on American television).

Hitchcock fans argue over whether this film or another of my recommendations, The 39 Steps represents his best British work. I tend toward the latter by an eyelash, but why choose when both hold up so well three-quarters of a century after they were made? If you like one, you will like the other as the plot elements are similar and in both cases, the heroes have none of the darker shades that Hitchcock favored more as he aged. Lockwood and Redgrave are uncomplicated young people who are brave, smart, funny and in love.

The Lady Vanishes was such a success that the same writing team and a number of the actors were reunited to make another movie of the same sort, this time directed by Carol Reed. My recommendation of that movie is here.

The Lady Vanishes is in the public domain, and there is a a perfectly nice print from The Internet Archive you can watch here. The Criterion Collection version, available for purchase, looks even better and also includes some wonderful extras.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

My Name is Julia Ross and Dead of Winter **Double Feature**

The 1941 novel The Woman in Red has been used as the basis of a film twice, with a four-decade gap between versions. As a special double feature, I recommend both adaptations: 1945’s My Name is Julia Ross and 1987’s Dead Of Winter.

My Name is Julia Ross was a modestly budgeted Columbia production with a 12-day shooting schedule. But at that point in his career, director Joseph Lewis was used to churning out a C-picture a week on Poverty Row. To have a B-movie budget was for Lewis a major upgrade in resources that allowed him to show how much talent he had. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film serves up noirish gothic suspense and a career-best performance by Nina Foch as the title character. She’s an American living in London who answers a job advertisement placed by a seemingly gentle old woman (a deliciously evil Dame May Whitty). Julia thinks she will be working as a personal assistant, but instead is promptly drugged, kidnapped and moved to a remote mansion on the Cornwall coast where everyone calls her by a different name and acts as if she’s married to a knife-obsessed weirdo (George Macready, who was made for these sorts of roles)! But the villains have not figured on how brave and resourceful is their prey…

My Name is Julia Ross is often cited by critics as being the perfect demonstration that you can make a fine movie on a low budget. The script and performances are solid and the brisk pacing keeps the viewer engaged throughout. Burnett Guffey, a future Academy Award winner, contributes moody and at times even eerie photography, and Lewis’ influence on shot selection is also easily evident (He loved to shoot actors through wagon wheels and fences, here there are shots through the newels of a staircase and the iron bars of a secured window). It is not surprising that the movie more than returned its modest budget and put Lewis on the path to even greater successes (Most notably, the simply amazing Gun Crazy, which features a central character with a fetish that resembles Macready’s here).

Many years after My Name is Julia Ross was released, Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone re-imagined the story considerably in Dead of Winter, making the lead character an actress desperate for work (Mary Steenburgen, who has fun playing three different characters). She is interviewed for a role by an inordinately polite and at the same time somehow disturbing assistant (Roddy McDowell, who steals the film) to an alleged film producer (Jan Rubes). In the midst of a raging, isolating winter storm, they bring her to a remote New England mansion and ask her to shoot a scene in which she impersonates Julie Rose, an actress whom they claim has had a nervous breakdown and needs to be replaced on a major film production currently underway. But as the audience we know that Julie has been murdered, and our heroine is falling into a web of danger.

Some of the plot twists and shocks in the film are anticipatable, but others are complete, effective surprises. As you would expect from a modern film, there is more graphic violence than in the original, but it’s not at all overdone. As in the original, it’s rewarding to see a strong, smart female lead character and also have a few moments of black humor. The one significant weakness of Dead of Winter is its length. If director Arthur Penn had to work with Joseph Lewis’ budget, I suspect he would have cut the first 11 minutes of set-up and character backstory and opened the film instead with the Steenburgen’s first meeting with McDowell. That would have made a better movie because the film as made can’t keep the audience in suspense throughout its 100 minute running time, even though the climax is truly nail-biting.

As a set, the two versions of this story make an entertaining and suspenseful double feature. Also, for film buffs, watching these films back to back is a chance to appreciate how the production of movies has changed over the decades.

p.s. Some trivia for you: Gene Wilder’s 1984 film The Woman in Red was based not on the book but a French movie).

p.p.s. Steenburgen’s husband in Dead of Winter (William Russ) is apartment bound because his broken leg is in a cast, but he can at least look out his window and take photos with his high-end camera…I think we know to which classic movie this is an allusion!