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
Action/Adventure British

Night Train to Munich

I love The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of suspense and romance. If you share my affection, you’d do well to watch a quasi-sequel made without The Master, who had by then decamped to Hollywood: 1940’s Night Train to Munich.

Released two years after The Lady Vanishes, the film features the same female lead (Margaret Lockwood), the same scriptwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same setting (a European train journey taken on the brink of war), and even two of the same supporting characters (Charters and Caldicott). The director this time around, Carol Reed, was clearly to some extent aping Hitchcock’s style, but Reed’s distinctive touches are in evidence throughout.

Relative to The Lady Vanishes, the major disadvantage of Night Train to Munich is that it doesn’t give the talented Lockwood enough to do beyond looking lovely and in peril. On the other hand, that omission gives more screen time to Rex Harrison, in a remarkable example of off-beat casting working shockingly well. Sir Rex, who would later be credible as Dr. Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, carries off a Nazi uniform with panache. The ease with which he infiltrates Nazi headquarters through sheer bravado is one of the film’s many funny observations about bureaucracies: Everyone thinks that someone else must have authorized this unknown German officer’s mission, so they don’t question him for fear of angering a superior somewhere else in the organization.

Night Train to Munich | Trailers From Hell

The world had gotten much darker between the making of the two films, and Night Train to Munich reflects that by having more suspense and less humor than The Lady Vanishes. The film opens grimly with the people of Prague being terrorized by the arrival of German storm troopers. Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt), whose scientific expertise can aid the war effort, must flee the Nazis without his daughter (Lockwood), who is subsequently interned in a concentration camp. She is befriended there by a handsome, idealistic Czech national (Paul Henried, then called Paul von Hernried, in a strong performance that almost surely led to him being cast later as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca). The two flee to London and reunite with Professor Bomasch, but he and his daughter are almost immediately kidnapped back again to Germany! Enter a brave, resourceful spy (Rex Harrison!!!) who goes undercover in Germany to rescue the Professor and the lovely daughter whom he clearly fancies.

The film took advantage of Charters and Caldicott’s (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) reputation as comic, out of touch Englishmen. Initially, they are played for laughs, but in a key scene they are humiliated by a German officer and realize that the time for joking is past and they must become engaged in the fight. They then perform bravely in the struggle against the Germans, who have clearly underestimated them. All of this was no doubt a stirring message for British audiences in 1940.

After a series of Hitchcock-level plot contrivances, the film concludes with a nail-biting closing act in which our heroes try to escape using a cable car across a Swiss gorge. What the climax lacks in realism (those 15 shot pistols only run out of bullets when it would be maximally agonizing to do so) it more than makes up for in thrills. I also loved the final shot of the key bad guy (whose identity I will not reveal) which is sympathetically done. It’s a moment that shows how Reed’s artistic sensibility was different than Hitchcock’s, and establishes that despite being to some extent an homage to Hitch, this superb movie is at the same time very much Reed’s own.

Although not quite in the same class as The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich is an exciting and enjoyable film. If you have the stamina for a double feature, it’s tremendous fun to watch it back to back with the movie that inspired it.

Categories
British Mystery/Noir

Green for Danger

If Lt. Columbo had been Scottish, he would have born a strong resemblance to Inspector Cockrill, as wonderfully played by Alastair Sim in 1946’s Green for Danger. In the film role that helped make him a huge star, Sim perfectly essays the role of the dowdy looking, socially clumsy police detective who has a razor sharp mind and a relentless desire to snag his prey.

The setting is a wartime British hospital, where doctors and nurses treat the victims of the German doodlebugs that are wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. When an injured local postman mysteriously dies on the operating table, everyone looks like a plausible suspect. Which member of the surgical team did it? Is the killer Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the lothario head surgeon? Sister Bates (Judy Campbell), the woman he most recently discarded? Or perhaps it’s Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), the doctor with a stain on his medical record?

Particularly if you have the Criterion Collection version, this film is not just entertaining but very easy on the eyes. Much of it was shot indoors, but Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper makes the most of the exterior scenes to give us eye-catching and haunted-looking backdrops that maximize the tension of the story (He had Oswald Morris and Thelma Connell on the team, whose also collaborated on another of my recommendations). With all the wind, trees and shadows, the mood created is reminiscent of horror films in which a small group of desperate people are locked inside a remote and spooky mansion where violent events unfold.

Despite being a murder mystery, the film has many funny moments (especially Sim’s wry dialogue and voiceovers). Sidney Gilliat had already shown his gift for comic thrillers by co-scripting Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Here he also takes the director’s chair, from which he skillfully keeps the tone right as the story moves from hospital soap opera to murder investigation to amusingly Columbo-esque moments between Cockrill and the suspects. Gilliat gets solid performances from every member of his cast, who do a nice job humanizing characters that might otherwise lapse into stereotype. Gilliat’s script (co-written by Claude Guerney based on Christianna Brand’s novel) invokes a number of coincidences to make everyone look like a suspect and offers a somewhat rococo ultimate explanation for the crimes. But these are time-honored and enjoyable elements of the locked room mystery genre, right down to the climactic re-staging of the crime by Inspector Cockrill.