The Lady Vanishes (1938)


On a train ride through Europe, a young woman (Margaret Lockwood) discovers a fellow passenger (Dame May Whitty) has gone missing. No one remembers seeing the old woman, not even the people who shared a cabin with them. A rogue musicologist (Michael Redgrave) is sympathetic to Lockwood’s dilemma, and together they uncover a conspiracy behind the woman’s disappearance. But will they be able to unmask whoever’s behind this scheme and find the old woman alive?

The Lady Vanishes is a highly entertaining comedy-thriller from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. There are two reasons this mystery engages. The first is the on-screen chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave, who fall in love over the course of their adventure in an easy, convincing manner that avoids the dreadful confessions that so often wreck this sort of romance. In fact, they start out as adversaries, with Redgrave’s clarinet playing keeping Lockwood up at night. Even when they finally acknowledge their mutual affection, they never talk about it. Hitchcock knows the best love is unspoken — show it, don’t tell it.

The second key to the story’s success is that the mystery isn’t abstract, it’s personal. Lockwood’s character is being gaslighted by others and she’s desperate to find anyone who will believe her. We invest in the mystery because we believe in her, and also because Dame May Whitty leaves such a warm impression on the viewer in her limited screen time. We can also depend on Hitchcock to deliver a few memorable set-pieces, the best of which is when Lockwood and Redgrave battle a magician in his prop car. Other colorful characters include Paul Lukas as an imposing doctor, Catherine Lacey as an allegedly mute and deaf nun, and radio-comedy duo Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as two British gentlemen who want nothing more than to get home so they can catch up on the cricket scores.

A lot of films are marketed to appeal to all viewers for all reasons. But The Lady Vanishes actually comes close to delivering on that sweeping promise. It’s a well cast, well directed, well written blend of everything you could ever want in a movie. It’s an adventure, a comedy, a drama, a romance, a mystery, and a thriller. It’s a good time at the movies.

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