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Film / The Lady Vanishes

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Iris: You're the most contemptible person I've ever met in all my life!
Gilbert: Confidentially, I think you're a bit of a stinker, too.

The Lady Vanishes is a 1938 British mystery thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.

Iris Henderson (Lockwood) is a young English socialite who's returning home to get married after a "last-fling" vacation tour with her friends. After receiving a nasty bump on the head, she meets the kindly, middle-aged Miss Froy (May Whitty) while aboard a train travelling through Bandrika, a fictional country somewhere in central Europe. They get on nicely for a while, when suddenly... the lady vanishes (what a twist). Iris tries to locate her, assisted by the caddish-yet-loveable Gilbert (Redgrave) — but nobody else on the train seems to remember having ever seen Miss Froy. Did Iris merely hallucinate her? Or is there foul play at work?

As a matter of fact, there is foul play. But there's also a Screwball Comedy relationship between Iris and Gilbert. And two hilariously over-the-top Englishmen obsessed with Cricket. This is consequently one of Hitchcock's more lighthearted films — think The 39 Steps. It's also notable for being one of the last pictures he made in his native Britain prior to moving to Hollywood.

Adapted from the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the film was remade in 1979 (with Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould as the leads and Angela Lansbury in the title role), and a TV movie version aired on The BBC in 2013 (with Tuppence Middleton as Iris). Unofficially, the 1976 Hitchcock homage Silver Streak and the 2005 Jodie Foster film Flightplan have quite a few similarities to it.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: The film omits a modern-languages professor character who acts as Iris's and Max's interpreter.
  • Affably Evil: Dr. Hartz seems like he's genuinely a nice guy, despite being in on the conspiracy. He even gleefully wishes the heroes good luck at the end after they escape him.
  • Agent Scully: Dr. Hartz insists that Miss Froy was not on the train and that there are scientific explanations, such as Iris subconsciously remembering a fictional character or meeting Miss Froy at the inn, parting ways, and then mistaking Madame Kummer for Froy.
  • Americans Hate Tingle: invoked Charters and Caldicott are disappointed when they look through the sports section of the New York Herald-Tribune and only see baseball scores.note 
    Caldicott: Nothing but baseball. You know, we used to call it "rounders". Children play it with a rubber ball and a stick. Not a word about cricket. Americans got no sense of proportion.
  • Amoral Attorney: Mr. Todhunter, who tries to stop his mistress from confirming to Iris that Miss Froy did exist, is a barrister.
  • Apathetic Citizens: Half the people who say they never saw Miss Froy aren't even part of the conspiracy, they just don't want to get involved for reasons of their own.
    • The Baroness's husband is the minister of propaganda. He could shut down the magician's traveling show. This, and also money, is why the magician works with the conspiracy.
    • Mr. Todhunter and "Mrs. Todhunter" are married… but not to each other. Mr. Todhunter stays silent about Miss Froy because he doesn’t want to be drawn into an investigation. If his name appears in the news with that of his mistress, it would be a scandal and destroy his career.
    • Charters and Caldicott just don't want the train to be delayed as they want to get back to London in time for an important cricket match. note .
  • Arranged Marriage: Iris is supposed to enter into one as soon as she returns to England. Defied when she decides to marry Gilbert instead.
  • Bad Habits: Dr. Hartz' cohort dresses as a nun throughout the movie. She makes a mistake in her disguise, however: she wears high heels, which would never be worn as a part of a real nun's vestments.
  • Bait-and-Switch: At the start, Charters and Caldicott are keen to get back to London because "England's in peril". It quickly turns out that they're talking about a cricket match.
  • Bandage Mummy: The face and head of the patient are completely concealed by bandages.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Iris and Gilbert.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Gilbert practically sweeps Iris into his arms for their First Kiss in the cab when it becomes evident to both of them that Iris has thought the better of marrying her titled but idiotic-looking fiancé.
  • Big Good: Miss Froy appears at the beginning of the movie as the only unselfish character and turns out to be the most important to British intelligence as well. Good thing, since Gilbert forgets the code she gave him.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Miss Froy thinks "spy" is an awful term.
  • Break the Haughty: Iris goes through a fairly light example of this. She's spoiled and pampered but not quite a Rich Bitch, but still seems to have trouble coping with life outside her privileged bubble. The head blow, the disappearance of Miss Froy and her Belligerent Sexual Tension with Gilbert finally cure her of that.
  • British Stuffiness: Charters and Caldicott exist mainly to be a comical demonstration of this. Charters can't even be bothered to react when he gets shot, only acknowledging it by calmly borrowing his friend's pocket-square to use as a wound dressing.
  • Canon Foreigner: Charters and Caldicott were created especially for the film and don't appear in the original novel.
  • Cassandra Truth: The movie shows shades of this early on as Iris tries desperately to convince everyone that Miss Froy exists.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Charters and Caldicott keep up their customary banter even during the climactic shootout.
  • Character Witness: Miss Froy looked after Iris after she received a head injury. When Miss Froy vanishes and everyone dismisses Iris as crazy, Iris refuses to let the subject go and insists upon searching for Miss Froy.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: The "patient" on board the train. At the first stop, Madame Kummer was disguised as the patient; this is how she appeared seemingly out of nowhere despite claiming to have been on the train all along. Who takes her place as the fake patient? Miss Froy. (Against her will, obviously.) When she’s rescued, Madame Kummer takes the place of the false patient again, unwillingly this time.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The tune the guitarist is playing is the code that Froy was bringing home.
    • Miss Froy is about to introduce herself when the train whistle blows, so she instead writes her name on the window condensation. Later, Iris is starting to believe she really did imagine everything when she spots the name.
    • Miss Froy and Iris have tea together. Froy gives the waiters a specific package of tea, Harriman's Herbal Tea. At first it seems to be nothing more than another way in which Miss Froy is whimsical and quirky. Later on, when the trash is dumped out the train window, Gilbert sees the wrapper. This is what finally convinces him that Miss Froy is real.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The guitar player near the beginning.
  • Condensation Clue: Iris sees Miss Froy's previously written name.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: Miss Froy writes her name on the train window.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: The clue that gives away Dr. Hartz's assistant: real nuns never wear high heels as part of their vestments.
  • Creator Cameo: Hitchcock, near the beginning of his practice of making a cameo in every film, pops up for a few seconds at the station at the end.
  • Doomed Defeatist: Todhunter, who also proves to be Too Dumb to Live.
  • Evil All Along: Dr. Hartz, a kindly doctor who tries to help Iris out after Froy's disappearance. He turns out to be a member of the conspiracy to prevent Miss Froy to deliver the coded message to England, being in fact the one tasked to personally kill her in an intentionally botched operation with her as the patient.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The jolly Stage Magician Signor Doppo gets nasty when Iris and Gilbert catch him, pulling a knife on them.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Iris and Gilbert.
  • Gaslighting: The conspirators on the train very nearly succeed in getting Iris to believe that Miss Froy was just a hallucination caused by her head injury.
  • Hand of Death: A pair dispatches the guitar player.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The "nun" who worked with Dr. Hartz. Apparently she's okay with all of the other things she's had to do as part of the conspiracy, but murdering a nice, old and above all English lady (who happens to be a spy) is going too far.
  • Herr Doktor: Dr. Egon Hartz is a brain surgeon. He has a German name, but says that he is from Prague - which, in 1938, was suffering a propaganda campaign as preparation for annexation by Nazi Germany.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Charters and Caldicott are literally never seen apart from one another (other than when Caldicott helps Gilbert start the train back up at the climax).
  • Hidden Depths: When the chips are down, Charters and Caldicott both prove to be handy with a gun. Truth in Television perhaps, as Englishmen of their generation would have likely fought in World War I note .
  • Impairment Shot: Iris on the train, after a flower pot has been pushed off a windowsill and hit her on the head.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: In the shootout during the film's climax several villainous mooks are killed while very few of the train's passengers are killed. Justified in that the people on the train had cover while the mooks that died were in the open. The passengers who died (both conductors and Todhunter) were also in the open when they got shot to death.
  • Instant Sedation: Subverted. Dr. Hartz tells Gilbert and Iris that they will soon lose consciousness because of a drug poured in their drinks, but it does not happen because his assistant did not pour the drug.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: A running theme with Iris trying to prove the existence of the old lady after she's gone.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gilbert rather rudely sidelines Iris's legitimate concerns about his constant noisemaking upstairs and freaks her out by passive-aggressively (even outright creepily) moving into her hotel room and insisting they'll have to share the bed. However, when he sees her raving about Froy's disappearance, he's genuinely concerned and sets out to help her.
  • Karma Houdini: The conspirators fail, but nevertheless survive the film unscathed.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Downplayed. Only a couple of the people who deny seeing Ms Froy are active foreign agents; the others are being paid off, blackmailed, or are merely Apathetic Citizens who don't want to stick their necks out.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Charters and Caldicott spend most of the film being beyond useless. Then when they're finally convinced that the train is under siege by hostile soldiers, they both grab guns and start putting up one hell of a defence.
  • Leave No Survivors: The fake nun makes clear that if the armed conspirators make it into the train or get the passengers to go outside (willingly or unwillingly) they will kill every single passenger inside as now they know too much. This is proven beyond any doubt when Todhunter goes out with the clear intention of surrender himself and still gets shot dead.
  • Lingerie Scene: While bringing room service to Iris and her girlfriends at the inn, a waiter walks in on them while they're undressing for bed. He's more flustered about it than they are.
  • Luck-Based Search Technique: While they're looking for clues in the baggage car, Gilbert finds a deerstalker hat in Doppo's costume box, and Iris hands him a calabash pipe, which starts them flirtatiously playing around with other silly props. Until they pull out a pair of spectacles that Iris recognises...
  • Meaningful Name: In a story with some Psychological Thriller elements, the similarity of "Froy" to "Freud" must be noted. (It gets a Lampshade Hanging in the dining car when there's too much noise for Iris to hear her spell it out.)
  • Missing the Good Stuff: Charters and Caldicott spend the whole film looking forward to getting back to London for the last day of a Test match, only to find that it's been rained out.
  • Neutral Female: Defied. A fight scene between Gilbert and one of the conspirators starts out with Iris standing on the sidelines before Gilbert tells her "don't just stand there hopping about like a referee, cooperate!" She does help and actually ends up being the one to disarm and knock out the bad guy.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Dr. Hartz claims the nun who's helping him can't hear or speak. He's lying.
  • Oh, Crap!: A Played for Laughs example when Iris finds out that the random guy she asked to help her on the train is Gilbert, who'd playfully tormented her in her hotel room the night before.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: Miss Froy tries to introduce herself to Iris but loud train noises cancel out what she is saying. This prompts her to write her name on the window, which turns into a Chekhov's Gun later when Iris sees the writing again, proving to herself that she was not imagining their encounter.
  • Pretty in Mink: Iris wears one in the first part of the movie.
  • Ruritania: Bandrinka. They stop in two towns, Dravtka and Morsken.
  • Serious Business: Murder, disappearances, soldiers with guns, ho hum. But if Caldicott and Charters can't find out today's cricket scores? Really, that's too much!
  • Sherlock Homage: When Gilbert tells Iris his theory about the disappearance he puts on a deerstalker hat and picks up a pipe. He even refers to Iris as "Watson".
  • Sound Stone: The tune that Miss Froy teaches Gilbert is actually a coded message. We never entirely learn the significance of it except that it has something to do with a treaty between two European nations.
  • Spanner in the Works: Iris isn't stupid, but she is completely unaware of the conspiracy until the end. She still manages to destroy the conspiracy just because she won't stop insisting that Miss Froy exists.
  • Stage Magician: The Great Doppo, who sits in the same train compartment as Iris, is one, but he turns out to be part of the conspiracy as well.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Played very straight, alongside the affectionate jabs at British Stuffiness. Most of the foreigners are villains or dupes; the day is saved by British pluck and decency.
  • Suit with Vested Interests: Caldicott and Charters form a peculiar example from before the age of the monster attack movie but their self-interested obliviousness matches well with the behaviour of a tourist-town mayor not wanting to close the beaches on the fourth of July ... but for cricket.
  • Take That!: To British politicians...
    Miss Froy: I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren't we?
  • Tap on the Head:
    • Iris gives Doppo one, which merely dazes him — when it looks like Gilbert isn't going to have time to tie him up before he comes to his senses, she gives him a second one.
    • By contrast, Iris' own head injury is treated as consequential and significant to the story, as it opens up the initial possibility that she's an Unreliable Narrator who's been seeing things.
  • There Is Only One Bed:
    • Charters and Caldicott deal with this at the hotel, where There Is Only One Pair of Pyjamas thanks to one of them accidentally dropping his in a jug of water. Not only do they share the bed, but one man wears the pyjama top and the other wears the bottom.
    • As revenge for Iris complaining about the noise in his room (his clarinet-playing and the locals dancing, both of which are legitimately part of his work collecting folk music and folk dances), Gilbert goes to her hotel room uninvited and teases her into thinking he's going to try to force her to comply with this arrangement.
  • Those Two Guys: Charters and Caldicott. Which would go on to become Those Two Actors for Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. Not only did they reprise their roles two years later in Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (which also starred Margaret Lockwood), but they appeared together (as differently-named but virtually identical characters) in numerous other film and radio productions from 1940 until Radford's death in 1952. They were also mooted to appear in The Third Man in Wilfred Brambells' role at one point. The characters even got a Continuity Reboot with the 1985 BBC series Charters and Caldicott, with Robin Bailey as Charters and Michael Aldridge as Caldicott.
  • Thriller on the Express
  • Too Dumb to Live: The train car that the heroes are on has been diverted to the middle of nowhere and surrounded by armed soldiers. It's been made clear already that the soldiers aren't interested in working things out, which the passengers discovered when one of them tried to talk to the soldiers and got shot in the hand. Todhunter, in spite of all of this, still tries surrendering. He is promptly shot dead.

Examples specific to the remakes:

  • Adaptational Nationality: The 1979 version replaces Iris and Gilbert with American characters named Amanda and Robert, played by Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould respectively. Also, the villains are changed to Nazis.
  • Big Bad: The Baroness in the 2013 remake.
  • The Conspiracy: The 2013 version changes it some what. The brother of a powerful Baroness had murdered an intellectual, and Mrs. Froy had accidentally seen him in the area around the time of the murder (which would have sunk his alibi and given the government grounds to arrest him.)
  • Contrived Coincidence: In the Remake, the conspiracy depends on everyone else not seeing Mrs. Froy or denying her existence. When two of the witnesses who initially denied seeing her change their stories the entire conspiracy crumbles.
  • Genre Shift: The 2013 BBC adaptation is a serious psychological thriller. That is not to say that the original 1938 film did not have a serious thriller plot, but it also contained a screwball comedy subplot and much more humor in general. In the original, the foreignness of many of the characters is played for comedy, while in the remake it is used to heighten Iris's sense of isolation and fear.
  • Impairment Shot: The 2013 BBC version uses this as a drugged Iris is being taken off the train.
  • Jerk Ass Has A Point: While the Professor is overly harsh in dealing with Iris, it is to be noted that there was no hard evidence of Mrs. Froy existing since three of the people who could have proved it were lying. Notably when the witnesses change their story and reveal that they lied he immediately takes action.
  • The Remake:
    • By Hammer (yes, that Hammer) in 1979.
    • Another one was produced and broadcast by The BBC in 2013.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: The motivation for the kidnappers in the 2013 remake (they want to make sure that a powerful aristocrat isn't punished for committing murder.)
  • She Knows Too Much: The reason Mrs. Froy is kidnapped in the remake. Her employer (a wealthy aristocrat) had brutally murdered an intellectual who spoke out against the King of Yugoslavia. Mrs. Froy had seen him at in the area around the time of the murder, which would have torpedoed his alibi and given the prosecutors rope to hang him.
  • Truer to the Text: The lack of screwball elements, and the explanation for the disappearance, in the 2013 version are closer to the 1936 novel that inspired the films, The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lena White.