Home Video Hovel- The Lady Vanishes
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s last British films before making his way to the United States, The Lady Vanishes was a major hit and made the director’s transition to America much easier because of it. The film contains everything that would make Hitchcock such a popular filmmaker here in this country, as well as a very British wit, making it not just a film of historical importance but a delightful cinematic experience.
The plot is fairly simple to explain. Early on a long train ride, a young woman and an old woman have a conversation. The young woman is briefly knocked unconscious by a falling flowerpot. When she awakes, the old woman is gone and no one believes that she was ever there in the first place. Teaming up with musicologist, the young woman sets to find out what is going on. As this is a Hitchcock film, she soon finds herself in well over her head in a complex scheme.
Hitchock’s great skill becomes apparent when one considers that this film takes place almost entirely on board a train with a limited number of passengers. With marvelous economy, he manages to tell a story that flies along at a remarkable and exhilarating pace. Hitchcock could do this because he understood something that, even today, has yet to be learned by all filmmakers. He knew that an audience’s interest is not dependent on how much spectacle is crammed in the running time but simply by how the story is presented. He possessed what seemed to be an innate familiarity with the ways in which a cinematic tale could and should be structured. He framed his shots and edited them together with such a subtle but commanding skill that the effect is much like being on train. You’re clipping right along while things remain so smooth that you barely notice your speed.
As described above, it goes without saying that The Lady Vanishes falls within the mystery and suspense genre in which Hitchcock worked for most of his career. Yet what is not often said about this film or about Hitchcock’s work in general is that it’s breathlessly funny. If he had so chosen, he likely could have had an equally lasting reputation as a maker of sharp and smart comedies. After all, with both comedy and mystery, it’s all, as they say, in the timing.
The Lady Vanishes moves so quickly and enjoyably that I was surprised to see that its running time even reached 96 minutes. It’s so much fun to watch, it barely felt like half that. I would suggest purchasing this crisp Criterion Blu-ray (with equally sharp sound, by the way) and showing it not just to someone who needs a primer on Hitchcock but to anyone who foolishly believes that “old” movies don’t hold any relevance today.