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Film / The Lady Vanishes

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A 1938 film starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, The Lady Vanishes is one of the last films Alfred Hitchcock directed before he left his native Britain and went off to Hollywood.

After receiving a nasty bump on the head, Iris Henderson (Lockwood), a young English socialite who's on her way back home from a vacation tour, meets Miss Froy (May Whitty), a nice middle-aged lady, on board 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 and the caddish-yet-loveable Gilbert (Redgrave) promptly try to locate her - but nobody seems to remember seeing Miss Froy. Did Iris just hallucinate her? Or is there foul play at work?

All right, 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 probably one of Hitchcock's nicer films — think The 39 Steps.


The film was remade in 1979, with Angela Lansbury in the title role, and a TV movie version aired on The BBC in 2013. Unofficially, the 1976 Hitchcock homage Silver Streak and the 2005 Jodie Foster film Flightplan (2005) 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, even despite being a Nazi assassin. He even gleefully wishes the heroes good luck at the end after they escape him.
  • Americans Hate Tingle: invoked Caldicott and Charters are disappointed when they look through the sports section of the New York Herald-Tribune and just see baseball scores.note 
    Caldicott: Nothing but baseball. We used to call it "rounders". Children play it with a rubber ball and a stick. Not a word about cricket. Americans don't know a sense of proportion.
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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: Caldicott and Charters exist mainly to be a comical demonstration of this. Charters can't even be bothered to react when he gets shot.
  • Canon Foreigner: Charters and Coldicott 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. Oh, and he's secretly a paid assassin working for the Nazis, not to mention the one who kidnapped Miss Froy to begin with.
  • 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 the Nazis have her do, but murdering a nice, old and above all English lady (who happens to be a spy) is going too far. See Values Dissonance (this was before the world realized just what the Nazis were up to...)
  • Herr Doktor: Dr. Egon Hartz is a brain surgeon. He has a German name, but says that he is from Prague.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Caldicott and Charters are literally never seen apart from one another (other than when Caldicott helps Gilbert start the train back up at the climax).
  • 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.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Downplayed. Only a couple of the people who deny seeing Ms Froy are active Nazi 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!: Caldicott and Charters spend most of the film being beyond useless. Then when they're finally convinced that the train is under siege by Nazis, they both grab guns and start putting up one hell of a defense. Fridge Brilliance if you consider that they probably both fought in World War I. (Charters has a scar on his right cheek that supports this idea.)
  • 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: Caldicott and Charters spend the whole film looking forward to getting back to London for the end of a big cricket 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.
  • 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:
    • Caldicott and Charters deal with this and There Is Only One Pair of Pajamas at the hotel. Not only do they share the bed, but one man wears the pajama 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: Caldicott and Charters. Which became 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. 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 Nazi 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.
  • Worthy Opponent: In a scene that's quite weird to watch these days, Nazi spy Dr. Hartz cheerfully accepts his defeat and wishes our heroes good luck.

Examples specific to the remakes:

  • Adaptational Nationality: The 1979 version replaces Iris and Gilbert with American characters played by Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould.
  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • Reality Ensues: 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.
  • 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.


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