Friday, April 18, 2014

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Lady Vanishes" by Alfred Hitchcock

The first time we see Miss Froy wander into the frame of “The Lady Vanishes,” she is merely a static object in a scene without a focal point. Hers is the first figure that makes any sense of movement in a room of relaxed players, but the moment is brief and indistinct; it’s as if her passing inquiry at the front desk of a train station exists to simply emphasize the space between the camera and the untroubled actions of seeming commoners. What follows for the next several minutes certainly does not negate that notion, either. Innocuous voices carry over others in rooms brimming with routine. Names are uttered, but they aren’t delivered with any noteworthy emphasis. And then there are the faces: some suspicious, others lively, all collectively exaggerated by dialogue that arranges only comical insights. To us, nothing that goes on in these prosaic scenes is even close to suggesting menace; to Alfred Hitchcock, the man who would go on to become the most influential director of the 20th century, these are gradations brimming with intrigue, made all the more powerful because of how coy they play with their audience in creating the fallacy of lightweight farce.

But “The Lady Vanishes,” the last of the master’s sweeping British endeavors before he transitioned to America, is so much more than what its surface insinuates. Widely viewed as his “audition,” of sorts, to a Hollywood caught up in the allure of new overseas talents, it remains the most complex and enlivening of his earliest films, eternally cast in a veneer of influence that trickled down to not only modern movie thrillers, but even to much of the director’s more famous later work. Intricacies of technical and artistic prowess overwhelm a story of scrupulous goals here, all while the youthful ambition of its filmmaker divulges familiar touches that are rough and still evolving. As observed by film historian Bruce Eder, “(The movie) struck just the right balance, the right density, of plot, characterization, clues and the sheer number of characters to bridge the gap between the brisk clean sparseness of Hitchcock’s British thrillers and his more opulent Hollywood pictures.”

The premise was equally inspired. Set in the late 30s when political unrest is abundant in the thick of Europe, a train station in a mountain pass becomes a point of origin for the gathering of countless colorful characters. Two of the first we meet are Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), a droll pair of men who first seem distraught by the goings on of their environment and anxious to get back to Britain – until they start obsessing over cricket scores, at which point they are established as comical interludes. Next are two that are referred to passively as “Mr. and Mrs. Todhunter” – one is, apparently, a politician, and the other may or may not in fact be his real wife (they exchange glances as if hiding more than identities). Then there is Iris (Margaret Lockwood), a tourist travelling the countryside on the spoils of family wealth, who occupies her time at the station exchanging colorful stories with beautiful friends and filing noise complaints about a musician in the attic (Michael Redgrave). And then Miss Froy emerges: an elder woman, intelligent and worldly, who at first is simplified in fluffy dialogue exchanges with strangers that view her as a kindly sort of inconsequential importance on the journey ahead. Or is she? Her existence as the important “vanishing lady” aboard the train helps fuel what Hitchcock referred to as the “MacGuffin,” a device in fiction that drives characters to pursue something of great importance (although its primary function is to create a thrilling chase, not necessarily result in all-important reveals).

The first act is literal, and saunters at a leisurely pace. The tone is broken when a street singer, serenading guests under the moonlight, is strangled by hands that creep up from the shadows – and he is standing underneath Froy’s window when this occurs. The next day, all of the key faces from the previous night (including that obnoxious musician Gilbert) gather to step into a train that will take them to undisclosed destinations. Before boarding, however, another foreboding moment occurs when unseen hands push a flower pot off a high spot nearby, and it falls onto Iris’ head (was it meant for her, or Froy, who is standing next to her?). Hitchcock uses this twist to undermine the certainty of Iris’ conviction, just as she will come to admire the worldly Miss Froy in diner conversations before she collapses from a headache and awakes to find the elderly lady completely missing. A doctor on board implies that her concussion caused her to hallucinate having such a friend, and the unfortunate silence of others – many of whom saw and spoke to Froy themselves but opt to remain quiet to protect their own hidden agendas – assist in suggesting that prospect. Early audiences might have contemplated the uncertainty of her existence themselves, but our hindsight keeps our awareness in check, and the movie’s use of the “incriminating object” – a famous Hitchcock staple – sets Iris and her new confidant Gilbert on a hunt through the train in search for the whereabouts of the vanishing lady.

90 minutes of thickening doubt envelops the movie’s narrative. We suspect the screenplay, written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, was just as inspired by the early Agatha Christie yarns as it was by “The Wheel Spins,” its direct source. There are no swift cuts between scenes, and brief traces of music are almost nominal in context with the sound of the train shuffling down tracks. As much dialogue that is exchanged between characters – particularly Iris and Gilbert, whose verbal exchanges gradually suggest romantic chemistry – it is the unnerving sight of solemn faces staring back at the camera that are more informative. One, belonging to a mute but colorful magician, walks a line between ridiculous and ominous that Hitchcock thrives on; are we to believe he knows something more about Froy’s disappearance, or is he simply a red herring? When the enigmatic Dr. Hartz (Paul Lucas) continues to offer explanations on Iris’ delusions despite evidence to the contrary – the name “Froy” written into a dirty window by her own finger, a package of her Mariman’s Tea being spotted in a flash of disposed garbage – is he really thinking about the best interest of this seemingly confused woman? What details is he keeping hidden? The strength of the movie’s characterizations is that almost no one (save for the two protagonists) is trustworthy, and the intentions of others are only revealed incidentally through evolving plot circumstances.

In casting characters in his early films, Hitchcock often turned to the theater to find his resources. The marvelous Dame May Witty, who plays Froy, was perhaps the most well-versed in both mediums; acting in front of audiences since the 1880s, she was already fluent in the language of film as far back as the silent era, when early English filmmakers utilized her in roles that highlighted the warm and inviting nature of her face. The great Michael Redgrave, meanwhile, was new to movies when Hitchcock persuaded him into the role of Gilbert; conflicted by the urgency of motion picture productions (and disheartened by his inability to shift style in front of a camera, as he could on stage), there was an intensity in his approach that nonetheless made him the perfect fit for this kind of urgent story – it helped establish a prosperous career thereafter. Paul Lukas, who took the role of the menacing but distinguished Dr. Hartz, also thrived from his association with the great Alfred Hitchcock, and six years later he would collect an Academy Award for his performance in “Watch on the Rhine,” which he starred in opposite Bette Davis.

Some luxuries are given without qualm. Hitchcock earned his by working in the flanks of early financial limitations. In observing a movie like this, one must marvel at the great filmmaker’s ability to operate under limitations with emphasis on creating believable spaces of ambitious scope. The movie was shot on a set only 90 feet long, and though much of it occurs in an enclosed area where it might have been easy to bypass mere establishing shots, it pays remarkable attention to details – first in miniature at the start of the picture, in which our view moves from the mountains to a small little town with a train station at the middle, and then later with the landscape rushing past big windows. Certain artistic freedoms also permeate from the images. Because Britain did not have a rigorous ratings code like the United States did in those years, implications made in his early films didn’t appear to be out of step with any cultural standard. A studio movie like “It Happened One Night,” in contrast, had to be yanked through countless appeals in order to prevent an innocuous scene containing Claudette Colbert lifting her skirt while hitchhiking from being left on the cutting room floor; here, censors didn’t bat an eyelash when it came to a scene in which Iris and her girlfriends are totally exposed from the knee down, or another where ambitious shootouts in the climax result in an on-screen death. And though it was perhaps never obvious to the audiences of that time, an early sequence in which Charters and Caldicott share a bed – one without a shirt and the other without pants – inspires added layers of behavioral speculation, even though the scene’s intentions are lighthearted. Were they gay, or just overgrown schoolboys? To answer that question conclusively, alas, would invalidate a fascinating mystery that unconsciously weaves its way through many of Hitchcock endeavors, including “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train.”

All the great film directors find their voice by walking in the shadows of their heroes. Martin Scorsese looked to Stanley Kubrick as one of his inspirations when he took to the mean streets of New York. Lars von Trier studied the hypnotic tendencies of Andrei Tarkovsky as a passage to his own cinematic existence. Hitchcock, driven perilously by the desire to play with human minds and emotions from within celluloid, found camaraderie with the architects of surrealism in the silent era, including F.W. Murnau and Luis Bunuel (the latter of whom, some would argue, singlehandedly popularized the vivid dream sequence with his “Un Chien Andalou” in 1928). Though their ideas were utilized no more than as rough experiments until much later, some notable touches scattered through “The Lady Vanishes” are like the beginning ripples of a wave of revelations. The cinematographer Jeff Cox, as an example, suggests fragmentation in the female protagonist through a series of disorienting images that rotate in a kaleidoscopic affect (after she is struck with the falling flower pot); Hitchcock would utilize this technique much later in “Vertigo” as a way of highlighting a character’s unravelling psyche. And just as that technique is inspired by Bunuel, Murnau’s influence is obvious in Alfred’s knack for applying restraint in the story’s primary setting – just as “Nosferatu” isolates its victims in castles and claustrophobic parlors, “Vanishes” uses a train to confine people, “Rope” an apartment, “Psycho” a motel, and “Lifeboat” a tiny vessel floating aimlessly on the open seas.

What the director himself perceived in looking back at “The Lady Vanishes” offers, perhaps, the defining statement of the career that would follow: in his eyes, the movie represented “the peak in one’s instinctive ideas of working in a certain genre of material.” Because the British Isles were more content to focus on genre pictures, it was inevitable for him to make the transition to Hollywood, where the moviegoers were just discovering their thirst for his kind of jolting narrative sensibilities. And so began the most consistently influential career in the industry, in an era of time when the movies were like lumps of clay being carved by the utensils of artists thirsty for something unseen. Amusing to recall, even now, that the European critics dismissed him at the time as little more than a “thrill maker,” often citing his work as melodramatic and forgettable. History, to our benefit, would prove otherwise.

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which exist to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at

"The Lady Vanishes" is the eighth article in this series.

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