Here is a film, of which there are not a few in Hithcock’s oeuvre, that strikes one throughout as much more than the sum of its parts while presenting itself as deceptively simple. It has two readings: one easy, one less easy. The first reading is done by following its plot and its superficialities, which, by the way, is an unfortunate term. As if by “superificialities” I mean that it’s less than genuine at some level. With Hitchcock, even the surface is deep, remarkably cohesive, and well orchestrated. The second reading depends on the first and expounds upon it. It gives itself away very carefully, with little signals throughout that are usually disguised behind humor, mise-en-scene, or even clichés. The fiendish image is a problem in The Lady Vanishes. The plot is based on whether “the lady” (Ms. Froy) was an apparition due to a bump on the head or a real person who has “vanished.” The audience believes her, thanks to Ms. Froy’s appearances from the film’s first interior shot free from a subjective POV. A classic Hitchcockian trope is employed again here, that of the hysterical protagonist, the central character surrounded by a conspiracy and partnered by a fair member of the opposite sex. (Think 39 Steps, To Catch a Thief, and North By Northwest, to name a few.)
Back to the fiendish image. The film begins with credits overlaying an artificial Alpine landscape, and once the credits finish, the camera descends into a small village that is so obviously a miniature that it seems laughable and yet still impressive. A little movement by the human figurines, a carriage moving along a street, and then the dissolve at the hotel doorway into “reality,” where real people populate the lobby. The switch from artificial to actual is somewhat based on budgetary issues, to be sure. However, Hitchcock knew in advance what the effect would look like, and he went with it. It isn’t the last time an image and its “real” referent will be juxtaposed in this film. Later, when Ms. Froy goes missing, Iris looks around the train compartment at four other passengers, and the same thing happens at each consecutive glance. The image of Ms. Froy is overlaid on each face, until Ms. Froy’s countenance fades away as a ghost. Later still, when Iris and Gilbert look through the storage car of the train, they stumble across all the devices and instruments of a magic show. Trick closets and coffins with false bottoms are strewn about, along with the life-size likeness of a train passenger, who turns out to be the magician. This character, incredulous at Iris’ claims of the vanished lady, is rendered incredible by virtue of his deceptive cargo.
In an interesting coincidence, while looking for an article on Tarkovsky’s Stalker (more to come), a piece turned up from Slavoj Žižek entitled, “Hallucination as Ideology in Cinema” (Theory and Even, Vol. 6, Is. 1, 2002). The essay mentions The Lady Vanishes, along with various other films, as an example of the classic “lady who vanishes” motif. There are “hallucinations within hallucinations,” counter-narratives constructed by various characters in order to wield meaning-power over the alleged hallucination. In The Lady Vanishes, a variety of train passengers is compelled for different reasons to “conspire” against Iris’ insistence that there was indeed a Ms. Froy. The illicit couple doesn’t want to be found out through a long investigation. The English male duo so obsessed with cricket (to the point that they see a very serious matter as nothing more than a game) dodge questions about the woman in order to make it back for the next match. Other more insidious characters are actively involved in the plot to abduct Ms. Froy, such as Dr. Hartz, whose biological explanations reduce Iris to an image of mere hysteria. That there are two levels to this film is evident in the “surface” layer. These contrived narratives obscure the real narrative. The magic conceals the trick. And perhaps most suggestively, fickle human emotions (“Dr. Hartz” = the heart?) hide the rational, although hidden, meaning (“Ms. Froy” as a play on “Freud,” suggesting the mind/subconscious). Sure enough, one of the Brits exclaims during the shoot-out, “You know, I’m half-inclined to believe that there’s some rational explanation for all this.”
Hidden even by Ms. Froy is, if it is fair to say, the superego, her own conscience. Behind the façade of the sweet old lady is a “spy,” despite her disdain for the word. Early in the film, she insists that no country should be judged by its politics, pointing out that in that event, England would be a principal offender. When Ms. Froy’s identity is revealed, it is her politics for which she sacrifices all. Despite this, and the presence of “Colonel Bogey’s March” early on, The Lady Vanishes is much more a critique of the English disdain for politics than a call to nationalism. The film’s first scene recalls the Tower of Babel, a mess of languages leaving everyone at the mercy of the hotel manager, the film’s truly hysterical figure, capable of speaking all the languages but consequently driven half-mad by the demands made of him. Most foolish of all are the two British men. They demand a room when there are no rooms left. When the (foreign) maid is happily kicked out of her room to make space for the men, they complain still. When there is no food, they will not be encouraged by the generous donation from Ms. Froy, preferring still to whine. On the train, while positioning sugar cubes as cricket players, they again gripe at having to return the sugar to its container and pass it to the same Ms. Froy who earlier gave them her own food. When one of the Brits is shot in the hand during his final blow-up, his unflinching demeanor and immediate response to political activity (grabbing a gun and firing back) reflect an inner awakening with political ramifications.
Hot off its victory in WWI and on the eve of its involvement in WWII, nothing was more dangerous to Britain than its own sense of cultural superiority. In a climactic moment, Iris and Gilbert desperately need to find the passengers – all of whom know about the missing woman. Wondering where the Brits are, they exclaim, “It’s tea-time! They’ll all be in the dining car!” The two real heroes of The Lady Vanishes are, fittingly, women: Ms. Froy and Iris. Gilbert becomes heroic, but only after presenting himself as a cad needing to be transformed. One wonders if Hitchcock, wondering ahead at the demands to be made of Britain on a global level, did not have in mind here a critique of the British male.