Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Lady Vanishes by Alfred Hitchcock (1938)



Talk about murder mysteries on trains, the first one that pops up in my mind is the movie and the book “ Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie. ‘ The Lady Vanishes’ reminds me of the same, though both are unique in their own way. The murder is committed in a moving train and most of them know that the murderer is still on the train. The excitement intensifies when the mystery has to be solved before the train reaches its destination.

To begin with, a moving train is a limited space for a murderer or a culprit to escape after committing the crime. But even with such faint chance, when the characters who are into investigating the incident encounter bottlenecks in their moves ahead, it becomes a real challenge not only to the investigating characters but the readers and spectators as well.

Without a speck of doubt, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘ The Lady Vanishes’ easily fits into the above-mentioned category. Called as “ One of the greatest train movies from the genre's golden era" by The Guardian, it is based on Ethel Lina White’s novel  ‘ The wheel spins’, though with slight alterations in the plot to make it tighter.

The backdrop of the story is the political situation existed then which eventually gave way to the Second World War. The mystery begins when an old woman called Miss Froy disappears from a moving train. Iris, one of the protagonists met the old woman who calls herself a governess when another inmate, a musician named Gilbert disturbs their sleep by playing the music loudly in an inn where they all stayed for one night as the railway line was blocked by an avalanche.

The next day at the railway station, Iris gets hurt in the head when a big flower pot falls on her head. The attack was originally intended to hurt Miss Froy. Iris blacks out once she boards the train and the ‘lady’ helps her. Once she regains her consciousness, both women go to the cafeteria on the train for a cup of tea.  After a short nap in her coupe, when Iris opens her eyes Miss Froy has just vanished. The real mystery begins when the magician and family travelling with her in their coupe denies there was any old woman.

To Iris’ shock, her fellow passengers - the two gentlemen - Charters and Caldicott obsessed with Cricket, Mr Todhunter and Mrs Todhunter in fact, his mistress denies seeing any older woman with her though they have seen her. The denial is to due to several reasons - the first two just because they do not want to miss cricket and the second to avoid a possible scandal as they are involved in a clandestine relationship. Within a few hours into the journey, Gilbert with whom she had a ruckus in the previous night joins hands with Iris in search of the woman once he was sure she was not hallucinating.

To speak about the casting, it was perfect. Iris played by Margaret Lockwood and Gilbert by Michael Redgrave who were relatively unknown actors, then became International stars instantly once the movie was released. The chemistry between them was great. I fell in love with Miss Froy played by Dame Mae Witty, the moment I saw her on the screen.  Not for a single moment, I felt that the movie was shot 79 years ago. The emotions were universal and displayed well by the characters all through the movie that made me as a spectator to instantly connect with the character irrespective of being a foreigner.

The characters of cricket-loving Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott became so popular as comedians that other writers and directors included these two characters in some of their films.

Humour was displayed brilliantly, especially in the scene when Iris and Gilbert come across a dingy room which supposedly belongs to the magician who was travelling with Iris in her coupe. The fight then ensues is utterly humorous and the actors did it perfectly without overdoing it.

The project, at the outset, was initiated under the name ‘The Lost Lady’ directed by Roy William Neil. But it had to be shelved as the Yugoslavian police accidentally discovered that they were not portrayed in the film in a positive way. This happened when the crew were in Yugoslavia for the shoot. Later, Hitchcock took up the project, which became an instant. The only thing which I did not understand was the scene where a hand comes from the behind and strangles a singer who was singing a song which the Miss Froy was listening from her room.

Before I conclude, I would add that like most of his several films, he had a cameo appearance in this movie too.

-  Shalet Jimmy