The satisfyingly thick liner notes to Criterion’s superb new DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes call it "not a slice of life, but a slice of cake." A commentary track and a "video essay" on Disc 2 then go a long way to refute that, and illuminate all of its subtext. So is it the pure, escapist entertainment that a "slice of cake" implies? Or is it something more, layered with hidden meaning and symbolism? Like most Hitchcock movies, it’s both. It’s a richly layered cake!
The Lady Vanishes was one of Hitchcock’s last English films before decamping to Hollywood, and a key bridge between his somewhat stagier early British productions and his glossy, high budget American ones, notable for their intricate setpieces. Unlike Foreign Correspondent or Saboteur, this isn’t one setpiece on top of another. Instead, most of the movie is a single setpiece (prefiguring more radical experiments like Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window): a suspenseful, romantic spy adventure entirely confined to a train.
Well, not entirely. First we have a lengthy set-up at an Alpine hotel (its exact whereabouts disguised by the gibberish language its staff speak, assembled from odds and ends of various European dialects) introducing us to all of the characters. This portion is played mostly for comedy, although (as commentator Bruce Eder points out), here we are also unknowingly introduced to the film’s MacGuffin.
Primary figures include wealthy socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her frivolous companions, elderly (and ever-so-proper) British nanny Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), playboy musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), adulterous couple Mr. and "Mrs." Todhunter, and the comic duo of cricket-obsessed "overgrown schoolboys" (to borrow a phrase from Eder) Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). All of these vacationers are trapped in the hotel overnight while they wait for snow from an avalanche to be cleared from the train tracks.
Amidst farcical hijinks about overbooked rooms and noisy neighbors and an It Happened One Night-style "meet-cute" between Iris and Gilbert, there is an incongruous and rather alarming murder, but we’re not remotely privy as to why. And as it goes unnoticed by all of the characters, it’s purely for the audience’s benefit, reminding us that we’re in Hitchcock territory (even if it doesn’t quite feel like it yet) and that there is something sinister lurking beneath all this frivolity. Kind of like prewar Europe, still partying on the eve of strife. You see? The cake has layers! And like all of the director’s work of that time, they’re not particularly subtle.
Everyone boards the train the next day, and it isn’t until the thirty minute mark (roughly a third of the way into the film) that the lady in question actually vanishes. That lady is the nanny, Miss Froy. After helping Iris onto the train following a nasty bump on the head, and treating her to tea in the dining car, Miss Froy disappears. Iris awakes to find her gone, their compartment filled with severe Teutonic faces. All of the occupants claim to have no recollection of any English woman. Neither does the porter, or the waiter who brewed Miss Froy’s unique tea. Against all evidence to the contrary, Iris insists on her friend’s existence, leading neurologist passenger Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) to diagnose her as suffering hallucinations following her head trauma. Gilbert agrees to help her in her search, on a lark at first, but then more seriously as clues start amassing that suggest she’s telling the truth.
The brilliance of this part of the movie is that Hitch and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder provide separate, plausible reasons for all of the characters we’ve gotten to know to lie about having seen the governess. The adulterous couple doesn’t want to risk exposure should there be an official inquiry. Charters and Caldicott don’t want to do anything that might delay the train for fear of missing a crucial cricket match back in England. Even a stage magician traveling with the apparatus for his trick "The Vanishing Lady" has his reasons for lying.
It’s difficult to discuss the final act of the film without revealing too much, but when one of the characters turns out to be a British agent, the film becomes a rare early example of the "hero spy" genre. Spy films of this era (including many of Hitchcock’s) tended to portray spies (usually German) as the enemy, fifth columnists thwarted by an everyman hero. While The Lady Vanishes adheres to that everyman (or, in this case, "everywoman") tradition for heroine Iris, the actual spy is a good guy too, and a very atypical sort of movie secret agent.
The train eventually ends up in unfriendly territory, surrounded by the Gestapo-like secret police of a foreign power. All the British characters are gathered in the dining car (for tea, of course!), and wind up rallying around their nation’s agent, shooting it out with the enemy to provide cover. This scene exemplifies the sort of propagandist themes Hitchcock would infuse most of his wartime films with: patriotism (in this case British, and not American as in Saboteur), international responsibility and anti-isolationism. The film’s pacifist (a term at the time more associated with cowardice and Nazi collaboration than with a legitimate peace movement) abandons his British brethren, exiting the car waving a white flag. For his efforts, he’s gunned down. Everyone else, men and women, rich and poor, risk everything to escape. Even the comic bumblers Charters and Caldicott prove themselves refreshingly handy with firearms. This final scene, confined not just to the train, but to a single car, represents a uniquely Hitchcockian blend of humor and suspense. The situation is a real nail-biter, but the "veddy English" stiff-upper-lip resignation of the characters about the whole bothersome affair lightens the mood.
Film historian Bruce Eder discusses the more obvious symbolism of this scene and more subtle touches throughout the film in his solid, highly informative, wall-to-wall commentary. The guy never even pauses to take a breath! He’s well-prepared, and he knows his subject, making for a good track. (Although he does occasionally inject some personal opinion not directly related to the film, particularly about current US foreign policy!) Throughout the commentary, Eder gives plentiful production tidbits, delivers a plausible origin for the term "MacGuffin" (generally attributed to Hitchcock himself), and makes an interesting comparison between the opening of this movie, in the hotel, and that of Rear Window. In The Lady Vanishes, we’re introduced to all the characters by briefly eavesdropping on snippets of each of their conversations; in Rear Window, we’re similarly introduced to Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors via his own voyeurism, but mostly sans sound. (It should be noted Hitchcock makes excellent use of sound and music throughout The Lady Vanishes, something various other directors coming from a silent film background were never able to master.)
Disc 2 includes a "video essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. This is basically another, shorter commentary, delivered over a thirty minute montage of scenes from the movie cut together with behind-the-scenes stills and posters. While it covers some of the same ground as the audio commentary (both men discuss the framing of a scene in which someone’s glass is poisoned in the dining car, for instance), it also offers a nice counterpoint to it. Leff and Eder disagree on certain interpretations, particularly with regards to the Charters and Caldicott characters. Leff believes that they’re supposed to be gay, while Eder refutes that and argues that they’re essentially overgrown schoolboys, representative of a certain class of British men of that period. Both make plausible cases for their points of view.
Of particular interest to spy fans, Leff takes a whack at defining the "spy picture," a task I’ve pretty much concluded is impossible after rethinking every definition I ever come up with. Leff calls it a "subgenre of the crime picture" and states that it came out of fiction. (Didn’t pretty much every film genre?) One phrase he uses to describe spy movies that I quite like is "just inside the borders of the possible." He postulates that Hitchcock’s sextet of British thrillers leading up to and including Lady all fall within the spy genre, but after further consideration concludes that they’re something different: "The Hitchcock picture." I think that both labels are apt, but I do agree that Hitchcock is essentially a genre unto himself. I’d love to pinpoint Foreign Correspondent as the genesis of the contemporary "action movie," but since it failed to spawn any serious and successful imitators on an equivalent scale (besides others by the director himself) until... probably Dr. No, I cannot identify it as the genesis of anything. One inescapable conclusion, however, is that Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely integral to the development of the spy genre. The video essay is both instructive and thought-provoking, and leaves a viewer with plenty to ponder.This disc doesn't include any of the making-of documentaries we're used to from the Warner and Universal Hitchcock sets, and lacks the welcome comments from the ubiquitous Pat Hitchcock and Peter Bogdonovich, but, while I miss those, the alternative is frankly preferable. Those featurettes do start to run together a bit after you've watched so many of them, and they become somewhat repetitive. The "video essay" is less than a full-on documentary featurette, but really much more than the printed essays, or text features, that Criterion loves so much. A featurette might tell you about the making of the movie, but a video essay tries to interpret it for you, like a film school lecture. At least they offer a few different interpretations to choose from! And it does offer some behind-the-scenes info: it goes into detail about what Hitch himself added to the existing script, which was adapted from a novel.
We also get to hear from the auteur himself, in an eight-minute excerpt from Francois Truffaut’s "legendary 1962 audio interview" with Hitchcock. Even he discusses the much-mooted "poisoned drink" scene, and offers a few unique insights on the film while attempting to talk over a French translator.
By far the biggest extra on Disc 2, if not the most instantly captivating, is the inclusion of an entire other movie, Crook’s Tour. Crook’s Tour is a spin-off from The Lady Vanishes, featuring the popular Charters and Caldicott characters (who also appeared in Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich, again supporting Margaret Lockwood, and their own radio serial) in starring roles. Crook’s Tour is definitely not Hitchcock, and clearly much lower budget, but it’s a very generous inclusion nonetheless, and a film that’s never been available on DVD before. The transfer is also superb for a B picture of its vintage, if not up to the quality of the truly remarkable picture and sound on the main attraction.
The Criterion disc is rounded out by a comprehensive gallery of international poster art and behind the scenes stills (featuring young Hitchcock with lots of hair!) and two interesting and very readable essays (by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr) in the aforementioned booklet. All of this is wrapped up in a very handsome package. Not many DVD cases compel me to write about their beauty, but everything about this design–from the vintage poster artwork to the colors to the attractive spine to Criterion’s relatively new logo, which has finally grown on me–is so pleasing to the eye that it bears mention. It’s the kind of DVD that you’d be happy to add to your collection even if it didn’t contain such a wonderful movie just because it looks so good on the shelf! This is one of the best Hitchcock DVD releases to date, and a must-purchase for fans of the director.