The second to last film of Hitchcock's British period is probably the film that got him to America – though it was one of a string of international hits he directed during this period. Along with THE 39 STEPS it is my favorite of his films from the British Period, because it is witty and fun and has some great suspense sequences and a clever storyline. I think one of the reasons why this film is beloved is that it's a two-fer – it's a great romantic comedy *and* a great thriller, complete with the standard Hitchcock big spectacle end. There's a TAMING OF THE SHREW vibe (the female lead is a spoiled rich girl) and the rom-com scenes *are* the thriller scenes – there's a great, *fun* scene where the couple is battling one the the villains and she kicks the male lead instead of the badguy. That scene is filled with fun, breezy dialogue – and it's an *action scene*! Most of the scenes do double duty – and it's difficult to imagine someone not liking this film. It's just a great time at the cinema. I probably first saw it at the old Telegraph Theater in Berkeley, which was upstairs from a laundromat. They once showed every single Hitchcock film, from silents through PSYCHO, and I was there for every single film. The funny thing was the number of people who only stayed until Hitchcock did his cameo – then they just got up and left! You know, Hitchcock shows up in the first ten minutes of many of his films. In LADY VANISHES he doesn't show up until the end, so those people saw almost the whole movie... and probably loved every minute of it. If you haven't seen it, the film is now public domain and there are many cheap (but good quality) versions out there, as well as a Criterion Edition... and many FREE copies online that you can stream.
Nutshell: Spoiled rich girl Iris Henderson (hottie Margaret Lockwood) and her bridesmaids (Googie Withers and Sally Stewart) have taken over a hotel for a bachelorette party on skis when an avalanche strands the passengers of a train in the very same hotel. Though many of the passengers are strange Eastern European types, there are a pair of British businessmen named Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) plus a “honeymoon couple” the Todhunters (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers). When a group of dancing elephants keeps Iris awake, she meets her next door neighbor Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) an elderly nanny. After bribing the hotel manager to throw the upstairs guest out, she meets him: flat broke music and dance historian Gilbert (Michael Redgrave – father of Lynn & Vanessa), a fellow Englander who becomes her nemesis/love interest in the film. Much of the charm of this film comes from his witty dialogue and their relationship.
The next morning when the train boards, Iris gets knocked on the head trying to help Miss Froy with her bags, and when she wakes up after a nap partway through the train journey Miss Froy has vanished and no one in the compartment or on the train remembers seeing her. Is Iris crazy? Did she *imagine* Miss Froy on the train? Or is there a conspiracy around the disappearance of this kindly old woman? With the help of Gilbert (who isn't riding in the coach section... he's riding in the baggage car) they try to solve the mystery of the vanishing lady.
Experiment: Though all but the first act of the story takes place on the train – a confined location – and this film might be seen as the predecessor for films like LIFEBOAT, the fun experiment wasn't Hitchcock's... it was the screenwriters Gilliatt & Laundner's. The witty writing team created these two businessmen, Caldicott and Charters, who are the R2D2 and C3PO of the film – we follow them into the story even though it is not about them, and like those two robots in STAR WARS they become our favorite characters in the film, showing up in scene after scene on the sidelines of the main story. Kind of a Greek Chorus. Though all of the characters in THE LADY VANISHES are witty and fun (even the villain!) these two characters steal the show... So Gilliatt and Launder carried them over into other scripts – and they show up in several films by the pair.
In NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) they are once again on a train... with always hot Margret Lockwood again (playing a different role) in the early days of World War 2. When the Germans invade Czechoslovakia (a great scene of planes turning the daylight sky dark), top scientist Dr. Bombash escapes to England... but his daughter Anna (Lockwood) is captured by the Nazis and sent to a Concentration Camp... where she meets handsome rebellious prisoner Karl (a sometimes shirtless Paul Henreid from CASABLANCA) and they escape together... and fall in love along the way. Once in England, Karl and Anna try to find her father – who has been hidden away by the British government. Once they find him, Karl reveals that he is a Nazi agent who set this whole thing up in order to find Dr. Bombash and kidnap him back to Germany! Now Anna must team up with actor turned spy Gus Bennet (Rex Harrison... yes, Dr. Doolittle as a spy) and they go behind enemy lines into Germany to rescue her father with Bennet pretending to be a Gestapo agent and Anna pretending to be his mistress. But that means they have to convince Karl to release him into Bennet's custody – love triangle complications ensue – and all of them end up on that night train to Munich... along with Caldicott & Charters who are trying to get the hell out of Germany before England enters the war and they end up POWs. The two bickering businessmen end up pretending to be German soldiers and are part of a big action ending on an elevated tram car over a snowy mountain canyon. Caldicott & Charters become action heroes!
In MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) they are soldiers in World War Two – supporting players in a story about British women on the homefront. I got this film because I'm a Caldicott & Charters completest, and really liked it. Gilliatt & Launder not only wrote it, they directed as well. It's a story of three sisters and their widower dad during World War 2, while all the men are off fighting the war. Patricia Roc plays Celia, the middle sister, who ends up working in an aircraft factory while her older sister works as a secretary to a Colonel and the youngest sister stays home with dad... in a practically deserted town. Celia has never been away from home before, and is taken under the wing of a more worldly gal living in the barracks named Jennifer. The story focuses on the women living without men, doing “Rosie the riveter” type work, and constantly having to scramble for the bomb shelter when their plant is attacked by German bombing missions. One of their “duties” is to be bused to the nearby Air Force Base for dances with the young men... and Celia falls in love with a young pilot Fred (Gordon Jackson from one of my favorite films IPCRESS FILE) and the troubles of a wartime relationship... and eventual marriage. This is one tear-jerking movie, with all three sisters falling in love and dealing with various types of heart breaks... and dad back home trying to be needed in time of war when he is really too old to do anything. Caldicott and Charters are soldiers (on a train!) in a scene where people are being sent to fight and probably die.
Gilliatt & Launder created these two great characters and kept putting them in screenplays that were made into films... where they cast the same two actors to play the roles! These characters became so famous they ended up in a film they didn't write (CROOK'S TOUR) and had a TV series in the mid-1980s (played by different actors as Wayne and Radford were dead by then). Today I don't think you could write an original screenplay and reuse the characters in another script, let alone have them played by the same actors. The closest we get to something like this is Michael Keaton playing Ray Nicolette in both OUT OF SIGHT and JACKIE BROWN – both based on novels by Elmore Leonard.
Hitch Appearance: In Victoria Station near the end of the film, dressed in a black overcoat and smoking a cigarette.
Hitch Stock Company: Basil Radford from YOUNG AND INNOCENT and JAMAICA IN, Dame May Whitty from SUSPICION, Cecil Parker from UNDER CAPRICORN, and Mary Claire from THE SKIN GAME and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.
Bird Appearance: There's a bird in a cage in the hotel lobby, and no shortage of doves once they discover the magician's equipment in the freight compartment.
Screenwriting Lessons: There are so many great things about THE LADY VANISHES it's difficult to know what *not* to talk about! So I've picked a handful of things the script does particularly well... and some of you who are fans will complain that I've left other things out. This film is *also* one of the four main examples on my WRITING THRILLERS audio class, and I'm going to try my best *not* to duplicate any information from there. The lessons I've decided to concentrate on are the film's unusual Act One, the great Supporting Cast, the crackling Dialogue (some great rom-com exchanges), and the use of Clues.
Unusual Act One: Probably *because* this story is a mystery at its core, it has an unusual Act One... they don't even get on the train until 25 minutes into the film, and the thing we might call the “inciting incident” - Miss Froy vanishing – doesn't happen until 32 minutes into the film. Usually Act One introduces the conflict, but here we don't get to the conflict until Act Two. So what the heck is Act One? It's a not-so-grand-hotel comedy that sets up all of the suspects, plants some important elements of the thriller plot while you aren't looking; and moves so fast you never notice the plot hasn't kicked in yet.
The film begins with a great overhead shot of the train buried in the avalanche and moves down to the village, to the hotel, and through the window... without a cut! It's a great combination of very detailed and realistic miniature and set – with a dissolve in there somewhere. Hitchcock films always have amazing miniature work, and we'll talk about that in more detail in the YOUNG AND INNOCENT entry (coming soon). Once inside the hotel lobby, the very first thing we see is Miss Froy heading down the stairs to the front desk – the lady who will eventually vanish is in the first shot. When Miss Froy opens the front door to leave, it blows wind into the room and Caldicott and Charters close it... and like R2D2 and C3PO in STAR WARS, we follow them for the first half of Act One. They are our identification characters at this point in the story, and serve to introduce us to the other characters. Act One is based around the hotel, as if there will never be a train in the film.
Caldcott & Charters are sitting in the hotel lobby with a huge group of people when the manager (Emile Boreo) announces that the train will be delayed and anyone who needs a room should register now. This gives us a chance to meet some of our suspects, as Caldicott & Charters end up at the very back of the line at the front desk. The honeymooning couple Mr. & Mrs. Todhunter have a quiet disagreement – he insists on two separate rooms. What's up with that? A little character mystery that becomes an element in the conspiracy later. Before Caldicott and Charters can secure their room, wealthy Iris Henderson and her two bridesmaids blast into the hotel and the manager jumps from behind the desk to help them... leaving C&C standing in line wondering why she is more important than they are. Iris tells the manager to send up some champagne and food... When he returns to the front desk he tells C&C that there are no more hotel rooms, but he can let them sleep in the maid's room.
All of the dialogue in LADY VANISHES is great, and in Act One (the not-so-grand-hotel comedy) much of the humor comes from the language barrier between C&C and the hotel staff. The manager tells them the maid will have to come up and remove her clothing... and that the room has no 'eat. Though, after a great deal of confusion wondering about food in the room, they figure out that the room has no *heat*... they really aren't sure what to expect from the big-boned but attractive maid. Are they sharing a room with her? Will she be naked? They aren't interested in any hanky-panky.
Usually in order to remove confusion it's a good idea to have one character “introduce” the next character in an ensemble script, and this film is a good example. Caldicott & Charters act as an “introduction device” in Act One – as well as being hysterically funny. They climb the stairs to the maid's room, passing the middle aged waiter bringing the champagne and food to Iris and her bridesmaids... and we follow the waiter inside. Um, the scene in that room is something right out of THE HANGOVER! All of the gals are in their underwear, and Iris is standing on a table hanging her wet clothes on a chandelier – and it's like an obstacle course of half-naked women for the old waiter. He is not comfortable – and that's before Iris asks for help to help her down from the table and he has to touch her half naked body with her crotch in his face. While the waiter pours champagne, we find out that Iris is marrying a man she doesn't love, but is wealthy and will provide her with stability. It's *strongly* hinted that she's sowed a pile of wild oats in her past and is ready to settle down. When the waiter leaves the room, he bumps into the maid on her way up to remove her clothing...
The maid speaks no English, and when she comes into the room C&C have no idea what she is there for. When she grabs clothing for a night out, Caldicott explains she can not change in the room... and she smiles and proceeds to strip. C&C face the wall while she changes. There are a bunch of gags in these scenes with hangers and hat boxes and clothing articles. C&C go down to dinner – and find the restaurant PACKED. People are fighting over tables. When they see a couple leaving a table they make a run for it, and end up sitting across from... Miss Froy. Because they all speak English, they have a conversation which is 90% Miss Froy boring them to death with her life's story. Because this scene is from C&C's point of view, it's everything that could possibly go wrong *to them*. So instead of a pleasant conversation with Miss Froy, they get the worst possible conversation... which is funny, but also a great way to disguise an exposition dump from Miss Froy. After they order steaks and baked potatoes the waiter says something they don't understand, and Miss Froy translates – due to the avalanche the restaurant has no food left.
When Miss Froy leaves, we follow her – the baton has been handed off to her character – as she goes upstairs to her room... which is next door to Iris. Iris is in the hallway, saying goodnight to her bridesmaids and says hello to Miss Froy. Now we get to the dancing elephants. Miss Froy hears a guitar player serenading on the street below her window and goes to listen... but suddenly there is a pounding in the room upstairs. Miss Froy steps into the hallway just as Iris does. Iris tells Miss Froy that she will call the manager and get rid of whoever is making all of that noise. The Manager goes upstairs to an attic room where Gilbert is recording the dance moves while three hefty villagers dance. Now we've been introduced to our male lead – each character introducing the next (C&C to Froy, Froy to Iris, Iris to Manager, Manager to Gilbert). After some complications, the manager evicts Gilbert...
But meanwhile we go back to Caldicott & Charters in the maid's room sharing a pair of pajamas (Caldicott wears the bottoms) and the bed and that old newspaper... as the maid enters. Charter's cover's Caldeiott's naked chest from her view. She grabs her nightgown, and when she leaves Charters gets up to lock the door... when she enters to grab something from her dresser. Charters is undressed from the waist down and this gets milked for humor.
When the maid leaves, closing the door behind her...
Iris' room door opens and Gilbert enters, with his luggage. Iris is in bed, in her negligee, and we get the beginning of our rom-com story (about 20 minutes in). Some great dialogue here as Gilbert asks which side of the bed she wants – because he no longer has a bed for the night, he's *forced* to share hers. He unpacks some clothes, puts his toothbrush in the bathroom, runs a bath, starts to strip! This is the perfect rom-com couple – she's rich and beautiful and used to getting what she wants... and smart. He's a poor professor who is easy-come easy-go... and smart. All of the external, society things are at odds with each other, but underneath they have a lot in common. This is their “meet cute” and it is filled with sexual innuendo and some outright sexual comments. Margaret Lockwood is hot and sexy and smart – and in her negligee. He crawls over her in bed to get to the other side. The attraction is there – but both are pushing it away, because each is what the other *hates*. There's some great banter here, and even though a couple of the funny lines miss their mark, there are so many amusing lines that it really doesn't matter. From the other side of the closed bathroom door (naked?) Gilbert tells her that if she calls the manager to complain, he will tell *everyone* that she invited him into her room for the night... but if she tells the manager to give him his old room back he'll have a place to spend the night... other than her bed. Iris grabs the phone.
Next door, Miss Froy can now hear the man serenading below her window again, and hums along with the tune. What she doesn't know is the reason the music ends is that someone *kills* the man serenading. WTF? Hey, we're in a thriller! The next morning, as Caldicott and Charters are boarding the train, Miss Froy drops her glasses as she goes to get her bag and Iris picks them up to return them... but after giving them to Miss Froy someone *purposely* drops a planter from an upstairs window and it hits Iris in the head. Later we realize it was intended for Miss Froy – but we are definitely in thriller territory as a woozy Iris boards the train and says goodbye to her bridesmaids. As the train leaves the station, she passes out...
Supporting Cast: Iris comes to in a compartment with Miss Froy sitting across from her and most of the rest of our supporting cast in the other seats. We have the regal Baroness (Mary Clare) – who is a minister of culture for whatever country she is from. Senor Doppo (Phillip Leaver) and his wife (Zelma Vas Dais) and their little boy. We will later learn that Doppo is a magician whose famous trick is The Vanishing Lady. Because each of these characters is a potential suspect, they are fleshed out and distinctive.
The Baroness Atona is aloof and keeps to herself – but *doesn't* interact with others to such an extreme that we can feel how remote she is. This is an interesting character because it's what she *doesn't do* that defines her – while the little boy is cute and playful and Iris and Miss Froy watch him, the Baroness looks out the train window. Later, when she is questioned, it takes her a moment to turn away from the window and respond. She is above everything that happens in that train car.
Senor Doppo is one of the great minimal dialogue characterizations on film – he's got wild, expressive eyes and theatrical gestures and a massive smile. He always seems like he's having fun. Early on we see him doing a magic trick for his son (making something disappear!) and he looks as amazed as his child that the object has vanished. Throughout the film, Doppo has very little dialogue but manages to light up the screen whenever he's on – a flourish-wave and big smile are a threat in a later scene. This character may turn out to be one of the bad guys, but he doesn't let that stop him from smiling and having a great time in every scene that he's in. Characters like this are one of the reason this film is a favorite – he is *not* a traditional villain at all – you really like him and want to see him in more scenes... even if that means our heroes may get hit on the head a few more times.
Senora Doppo and the boy are almost symbolic of wholesome family – and their apparent honesty is the most lethal weapon in the film. Again – instead of the cliché, the characters in this film take characters who are up to no good and makes them wonderful people we wouldn't mind spending more time with. This makes it difficult for us to figure out who to trust – and who might be in on the conspiracy.
When Iris wakes up, Miss Froy says she looks like she could use a cup of tea, and helps her into the dining car... in the hallway Iris falls against Miss Froy pushing her through an open door into Mr. & Mrs. Todhunter's compartment, and when they slam the door and pull the shades Miss Froy says that honeymooning couples can be so shy. We eventually find out this married couple are married to other people – having a *six week* affair/vacation while their spouses are back in England not suspecting a thing. Cecil Parker does such a great job of playing a manipulative stuffy prick that you hate him even before you find out he's a lawyer... and has no plan to divorce his wife and marry Linden Travers... he just told her that to get her into bed. The great thing about this character is that he has a logical story trajectory that plays through until the end. He's like Ellis (Hart Bochner) in DIE HARD – that guy who thinks because he's controlled everyone around him he can also control the bad guys... not realizing that he's completely out-matched.
Linden Travers has a great role as “Mrs” Todhunter – the bad girl who has been used and is about to be tossed aside and finds a way to get redemption *and* revenge in the same act! Though this is a subplot – and their reason for not wanting to get into any police inquiry about a missing woman, these scenes are incredibly well written and acted – and Travers' ability to show a brave face while we can see her crumbling within is amazing acting. This is a character who should *not* be sympathetic, but the script takes you inside her character and shows the scenes from her side – as she tries to out maneuver Todhunter's manipulations. He ends up bouncing her back and forth and she ends up emotionally battered every time she does the right thing. This is a Gloria Grahame type role, and she plays the hell out of it – giving you a strong impression in a handful of scenes.
The dining car is empty except for... Caldicott and Charters – our old friends! They are sitting at a table, discussing sports, and using all of the sugar cubes as little players as Charters tries to explain a play to Caldicott. One of the two waiters comes over, and Miss Froy pulls a box of tea and tells another of her endless stories – this one about how her elderly father and mother drink this tea every day, as do a million Mexicans. There's also a signature scene here where Iris asks Miss Froy her name, and the train whistle blows at the same time... so she writes her name in the dust on the window. Though we'll get to the clues in a moment, when you are writing a mystery based script it's important to make the clues *visual* and not call attention to them. When Miss Froy writes her name in the dusty window it is so natural that we never think it's going to come back later. Once the tea is served Miss Froy needs the sugar – and this ruins Charters' sports story... ruining his day *again*.
When they return to the compartment, the gentle rocking of the train puts Iris to sleep... and when she wakes up, Miss Froy is gone. She asks the other passengers in the compartment where the English Lady went, and they look at her like she's crazy – what English Lady? You were alone. The more insistent Iris is that there *was* and English Lady, the more they give her the funny looks and tell her she was mistaken, she came back from the dining car alone.
We are now 32 minutes into the film and the conflict has kicked in.
Iris goes to look for Miss Froy, stopping to ask the Waiter in the dining car if he has seen her. He has no idea who the heck she is talking about. She says: she gave you special tea – Harriman's Herbal. The Waiter says they serve their own tea, no special tea was made for anyone. They check the bill – Tea For One. Though the Waiters are bit players in the back of the scenes (except for this one) they still manage to have *characters*. The main Waiter has a perpetual snear and you aren't sure if he's up to no good... or is just pissed off at all of these pushy people he has to wait on. Why is Iris bothering him with this crazy story about an old woman and special tea? He has better things to do!
When you are writing a mystery, or any screenplay for that matter, you want to make sure the supporting characters are well drawn and memorable. Pat Duncan (COURAGE UNDER FIRE) once told me that the less time a character is on screen, the more vividly they need to be drawn... or they just become part of the scenery. In a story like this where some of these people may (or may not) be part of a conspiracy, they need to be memorable and fully formed even if they are only in a couple of scenes. We need to *know* these people, so that we can wonder if they are part of the conspiracy... or just people on a train. The mistake you might make in a mystery type screenplay is to create well drawn characters who are *guilty* but make the characters who will later be innocent sketchy and underdeveloped. Um, dead give away! One of the mistakes on my crappy film CROOKED is they *cut* the scenes with the innocent suspects (hey, why do we need scenes with these guys?) and then cast Gary Busey as the secret villain and cast *nobodies* in the other suspect roles. No secret there. They also changed everything else on that script including the *concept* - imagine THE LADY VANISHES without a lady who vanishes! So make sure even the innocent suspects are fleshed out and have real characters, some form of character arc or emotional conflict, and a subplot story in the background of the main story so they aren't just props.
Most of the supporting characters are also partially defined by their relationships, which helps with the rom-com aspects. Senor Doppo and his wife, Miss Froy who has never been married, the Todhunter “honeymoon couple”, the two long time bachelors Caldicott & Charters, Iris is going home to be married, and there's a Nun who comes into a film a little later. We'll look at her character and the Doctor who specializes in brain surgery in a moment...
Iris searches the whole train for Miss Froy, ending up in a baggage car at the end... which is filled with colorful singing and dancing hobo-types (poor villagers)... and her nemesis/romantic interest Gilbert. He says if he had known she was going to be on this train he would have stayed another week at the hotel. He hasn't seen Miss Froy and doesn't know who she is talking about...
Dialogue: One of the great things about this film is the clever dialogue. I can never understand why some people want boring realistic dialogue when you can have fun people saying fun things – imagine a comedy film filled with all of the “funny” things your co-workers say... would you really pay to see that? Part of what makes a film entertaining is crackling dialogue, and LADY VANISHES gives every character some juicy lines. Our male lead, Gilbert, has some great lines – smart ass responses to what everyone says. Hey, maybe this film is a *three-fer* because it works as a clever comedy in addition to a thriller and a rom-com.
Iris tries to get the heck away from Gilbert, but feels woozy and almost collapses. Gilbert comes to her aid and asks “What's the trouble?” “If you must know, something fell on my head.” “When? Infancy?” Iris is the straight man for Gilbert's banter – and he has a zinger for everything. “Can I help?” “Only by going away.” “Oh, no. My father taught me never to desert a lady in trouble... he even carried that as far as marrying mother.” So at 35 minutes in, the two team up to find Miss Froy – the train has not stopped, she must still be here somewhere.
In the hallway they see Senor Doppa talking to a distinguished gentleman, the brilliant brain surgeon Dr Egan Hartz (Paul Lukas) - Gilbert is impressed. “You flew over to England the other day and operated on one of our cabinet ministers.” “Yes.” “Tell me, did you find anything?” “A slight cerebral contusion.” “Well, that's better than nothing.” Dr. Hartz says he's picking up another case at the next station and accompany them to the hospital where he will operate.
You would never know that Dr. Hartz is the villain in this film – he's charming and witty and distinguished. If Gilbert wasn't the romantic lead, he could easily fit the bill (except he's a bit old) – he seems like he just stepped out of a country club cocktail party... somewhere in Prague. Lukas was a Hungarian actor who would win the Oscar for Best Male Actor for WATCH ON THE RHINE in 1943. His character is sympathetic to Iris, and wants to help – but also mentions that a knock on the head can create delusions. It's not that he doesn't believe Iris about Miss Froy, but that Iris may have imagined Miss Froy based on meeting her at the hotel... and Miss Froy was never actually on the train. Iris got knocked on the head, basically *dreamed* having tea with Miss Froy, and woke up in the compartment. The great thing about this character is that he's nice and polite and trying to be helpful... and what he says makes sense. Iris doesn't want to believe she *imagined* Miss Froy on the train, but it's possible.
When Gilbert questions the passengers in the compartment, they haven't seen her. When Dr. Hartz asks Iris what she looked like, she says that it's hard to describe her – she was a middle aged woman in oatmeal colored tweeds... and gives an amazingly detailed description, to which Gilbert quips that she must not have been paying attention. But the problem is, Miss Froy's description is kind of a generic middle aged woman wearing what generic middle aged women wear.
Dr. Hart offers to help Iris and Gilbert find her, but when they question Mr. Todhunter he says he has no idea who she is talking about. The reason why? Well, he doesn't want to get mixed up in any missing persons police business that might reveal his affair. Iris argues with him, but Mr. Todhunter doesn't back down, and Iris says *loudly* that she'll find Miss Froy if she has to stop the train to do it. This is overheard by Charters standing outside the restroom – Caldicott inside – knocks and enters and tells Caldicott that Iris is looking for Miss Froy. “Well, she's not in here.” The two realize if Iris stops the train they will miss seeing the big game, and decide to claim they never saw Miss Froy. Again, a character-related reason to deny Miss Froy's existence – which makes Iris look crazy. Dr. Hartz believes it's all an hallucination, thinks this is “Most interesting!” (his catch phrase) and excuses himself because they are about to stop at the station where he will pick up his patient.
Since this is the first time the train has stopped, Iris and Gilbert each take a side of the train to look for someone trying to smuggle Miss Froy off... but no one gets off the train. Instead only Dr. Hartz's patient (head wrapped in bandages, on a gurney from an ambulance, with a Nun/nurse in attendance) boards the train.
Though there is one more character who plays a pivotal role in the story (a woman dressed *exactly* as Iris described, but *not* Miss Froy), the Nun is the last important supporting character in the story. She is a deaf-mute – making communication impossible. But she also could not have seen Miss Froy, since she boarded the train *after* Miss Froy vanished. Later we will discover that the Nun is half-English/half-Eastern European – and this character has to make some tough decisions. She's what I call a *Pivot Character* - someone who starts out on one side and slowly changes to the other side. I've got a new chapter in the Action Book revision about this type of character – people like Tommy Lee Jones' Lt. Gerard in THE FUGITIVE. There are good guys who give in to the dark side and bad guys who see a chance for redemption. And the Nun is the latter – she is part of the conspiracy but slowly comes to realize she's on the wrong side and not only *helps* Iris and Gilbert, she eventually does what all bad guys who do good things (but still have an evil past) does – sacrifices herself so that others can live. Because of this change, the Nun is an interesting character with real depth. All of the supporting cast in LADY VANISHES are really well written.
There's a great dialogue exchange between the Todhunters where each tries to outsmart the other and gain the upper hand in their relationship – and the twists and turns in the conversation are amazing, and the wordplay is clever. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” “On the contrary, I've come to them.” These are two intelligent people battling each other with words – and these words are sharper than any sword and maybe just as deadly. A pair of supporting characters who get dialogue fit for a lead.
Clues: Now that Iris has been convinced that there was no Miss Froy, clues begin popping up that hint that maybe there *was* a Miss Froy. The great thing is that a bunch of clues have been planted already, and you didn't notice any of them! Remember Miss Froy writing her name on the dusty window? At the time there was a very good reason for that – the loud train whistle prevented Iris from hearing Miss Froy when she gave her name. You never suspected it was a clue, or that it would ever pop up again. It's was just a *visual* way for Miss Froy to relate information. Well, Gilbert and Iris are seated for lunch at the same table... but Gilbert lowers the window and we see the writing sink below their field of vision! This creates some great suspense, because *we* can see Miss Froy's name written in the dust but they don't notice it. We want to yell at the screen that the proof that Miss Froy exists is right there!
But they are engaged in a great conversation – because part of this story is a rom-com, and they are opposites (that attract) we get their first real conversation. Each lets their guard down and they reveal their true selves to each other. Iris is going home to get married to a man she doesn't love, but is dependable and financially secure. Gilbert is flat broke – when his parents died they left him straddled with their debts, and that is getting in the way of his dreams (his book on historical folk dance). Both are faced with unappealing futures – their common ground. And they genuinely enjoy each other's company. This is the key scene for the romantic subplot – after this scene, even though they each still have the same future (she's still going to get married) but they (quietly) acknowledge their attraction to each other. They end the scene as friends. All of this going on while that danged clue is right there on the window behind them! And just when Iris spots the writing on the window, they go into a tunnel and the smoke from the train engine obscures the writing forever.
In my Mystery & Noir Class, I explain many ways that clues can work in mysteries so that they are “invisible” the first time the audience sees them. The method used in LADY VANISHES is to give the clue a reason to be part of the story *before* it becomes a clue. Remember when Iris returned Miss Froy's glasses to her at the train station? Those glasses come into play later in the story when Gilbert finds them on the floor of a baggage car... and even then they don't seem to be a clue. He's fooling around, trying to cheer Iris up by doing impersonations using the things sitting around the baggage car as props. There's a Sherlock Holmes style deerstalker hat, there's a graduation cap, there's a pipe, there's a pair of glasses – he does an impersonation of a famous person with each prop... But when he gets to the glasses, Iris recognizes them as Miss Froy's. So she was *here* and she lost them in a struggle!
Remember Harriman's Herbal Tea? You thought that clue was finished when the Waiter said they did not serve her any special tea in that earlier scene. But later in the film Gilbert is standing by a window when the cook throws out the garbage... and a tea package sticks to the window – Harriman's Herbal Tea! This is actually the moment where Gilbert completely believes Iris – believes that Miss Froy exists, was on the train, was kidnapped (or worse), and there is a conspiracy involved to make Iris look crazy by denying that Miss Froy ever existed. The great thing about this clue is that the moment we see it, *we* know that Iris wasn't imagining things... without any clunky exposition. It's *visual* storytelling.
They realize the one person who can help them is Dr. Hartz, and go to his compartment, open the door, but only the Nun is there caring for the sick patient. Then Iris notices something odd - the Nun seems to be wearing high-heels. Is that allowed? Maybe she's not a nun after all? This leads them to wonder who is really under all of those bandages in Dr. Hartz's compartment? They go in and start to unravel the bandages when Dr. Hartz returns – busted! Hartz tells them this patient has no face – just raw flesh! That removing the bandages would *kill the patient*. And Gilbert and Iris realize they've gone too far and leave the compartment... But a Nun with high heels?
Okay, the biggest clue of all: Remember that guy serenading under Miss Froy's window who was murdered? Probably not – that was a long time ago. Well, he wasn't killed because he was singing off key or singing while people were trying to sleep – he was killed for the same reason Miss Froy was kidnapped (and will eventually be killed unless they can find her). That tune he was playing, the tune that Miss Froy hums in the train car while Iris is drifting to sleep? That is really a secret code and Miss Froy is a spy and Dr. Hartz is an evil villain and war is going to break out unless Miss Froy can get that code back to England! The tune is the MacGuffin! You just thought it was catchy as hell and kind of exotic. But it's actually what the whole film is about – a musical code.
And that's where you realize that Gilbert is an expert in traditional dance and music and that very first scene of his where he is playing a clarinet and taking notes on the overweight villagers dancing around his room was a set up for this pay off – eventually they will find Miss Froy who will hum the tune for him and he must memorize it... during one of those huge Hitchcock set pieces – in this case, a huge shoot out on the train between bad guy military types lead by Dr. Hartz and the passengers (our supporting cast). Caldicott and Charters are crack shots – they were in World War 1 – and trade quips while trading shots with the bad guys. All of the supporting characters fulfill their “story destiny” as Todhunter tries to manipulate and deal with the bad guys (like Ellis in DIE HARD), but first Mrs. Todhunter turns the tables on him and shows how tough she really is, the Nun risks her life to do the right thing, etc. Whether it's an arc or just a decision – each of the supporting characters is an important part of that big end scene... where Miss Froy is shot at while running from the train and falls down *hard* - probably dead. Now it's up to Gilbert to remember the tune in order to save the world!
Sound Track: That tune was written by Louis Levy, who does a great job of scoring the film. It's a little “big” at times, but not too obtrusive... never reaching Full Korngold status. Levy also wrote the music for THE 39 STEPS (another catchy tune that figures into the story), the original MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, SABOTAGE, THE SECRET AGENT... plus NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH and MILLIONS LIKE US. This guy composed the music for almost every British film you can think of pre-1958!
THE LADY VANISHES is a fun film that holds up pretty well today due to its humor, zippy pace, and sexual situations (PG, but lots of lingerie)... and because it's public domain, you can easily find a free copy online or a cheap DVD version. Check it out!
The other Fridays With Hitchcock.
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