By the time he made The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock had been directing for seventeen years. He had built himself a reputation as a consummate craftsman and made his fair share of mistakes along the way (the bomb scene in Sabotage being one of his biggest regrets). Coming just before his move to Hollywood and the Oscar success with Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes is a taut, streamlined and emotional thriller with all the classic ingredients out in full force.
The Lady Vanishes is a very loose adaptation of The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White - so loose, in fact, that almost everything in the film is different. The setting and some of the character names are unchanged, but the rest has been markedly altered - judging by this, for the better. Such decisions tie in with Hitchcock's underlying interest in technique over content: his concern was never with what the story is about, as with how was the best way to tell it.
The first plus point of the film is that it takes a relatively simple premise and not only runs with it, but explores it from every conceivable angle in the space of 90 minutes. Even when there's a big shoot-out in the last ten minutes, the film has the strength of its convictions and never feels like the director is giving up on the material. Whereas Flightplan wanted to be taken seriously and ended up hoisted by its own petard, The Lady Vanishes follows through with its premise until Hitchcock is satisfied that the audience's needs have been met.
The film contains a number of aspects which foreshadow Hitchcock's better-known work. He would return to dreams and hallucinations a few years later in Spellbound, and both films are rooted in unreliable narrators searching for an identity which may or may not be their own. When Miss Froy is first introduced to Iris, the latter mishears it as Freud, further confirmation of Hitchcock's continued interest in sex, dreams and psychology.
Like The 39 Steps before it and Notorious after it, The Lady Vanishes is a classic story of ordinary people caught up in the world of spying by a single chance encounter. And there is a tenuous link with The Birds in a scene halfway through, where Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are beset upon by pigeons. But the film is also a refinement of existing techniques. The use of shadows in the strangling scene is a development of the gallows sequence in Murder!, while the use of kaleidoscopic vision to depict hallucinations is taken from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
The claustrophobic setting of The Lady Vanishes means that there is much less opportunity for the performers to descend into melodrama. While there is no doubt that their characters are whimsical, they feel genuine and understated, and there are only occasional moments in which our heroine has to be hysterical on cue.
At the beginning of the film we are introduced to a host of characters staying in an overcrowded hotel after their train is delayed by an avalanche. We focus on two irascible Englishmen who are frustrated by their failure to be understood and by the lack of appreciation for cricket (they are trying to get home to watch a test match). In one scene the older gentleman hangs up on someone else's phone call because the other party didn't know the score; in another, he makes jibes about Americans having no sense of perspective because the New York Times covers baseball but not cricket.
This sense of whimsy is complimented by Hitchcock's use of language as a means of alienation. Many different languages are spoken on screen as a means of making our heroine more isolated. There are no subtitles, and only so many characters can interpret, which is one of the reasons why Iris and Gilbert become friends. This device is a huge influence on the level of trust we have for both our heroine and the other passengers: are people simply misunderstanding her, or do they have something to hide and are using language as a protective barrier?
Hitchcock always made a clear distinction between mystery and suspense, with the former being wholly intellectual and the latter emotional. Superficially, The Lady Vanishes could be classed as a mystery, since its plot is based around a search for a missing person, just like a detective searching for the murderer. The story has vague similarities with Murder on the Orient Express: the action takes places on a train with many strangers from different countries, their various stories do not corroborate and in one solution everyone is in on it. But Hitchcock doesn't just settle for a sense of mystery, and as things move forward it is our emotional response which becomes key.
The suspense he generates comes from a number of sources. Some of it is down to set-pieces, the most dramatic being Michael Redgrave having out of the train window in the manner of The 39 Steps. Some of it comes from the time restrictions involved - the train moves to various stations, and characters constantly mutter about crossing the border and needing to make connections. And some of it comes from physical constraints - short of jumping out the window, there's no way off a speeding train. But all of these examples work because of the emotional attachment we have to the characters, both in the reluctant romance and the development of Iris' character as she moves from pity and despair to being more determined and resourceful.
Like so many of Hitchcock's thrillers, The Lady Vanishes is brilliant at throwing us off the scent, with little touches here and there which appear more significant than eventually transpires. Through a series of cleverly timed edits, we come to believe that the two Englishmen we meet at the start are the ones we should be watching. After Iris and Gilbert pass along a corridor, we see them coming out of a hidden cubicle, as if they were trying to avoid her. Later we see them talking about the pressing need to get back home: these scenes are shot from a more intrusive angle, so that all their talk of 'cricket' could easily be nothing of the sort.
Then we come to the twist. It's hardly the most impressive or shocking in cinema, but for a film anchored by an unreliable narrator it handles it very assuredly. Some thrillers, like Shutter Island or Heartless, eventually have to come down on one side or the other and say what was real or true in a often disappointing manner. With The Lady Vanishes, no such moment is necessary because only one version of events can be true. Because we see Miss Froy around other characters before she boards the train, she has to have genuinely disappeared. Had the entire film been set on the train, with no preamble, only then would the other option been remotely viable.
On top of all that, The Lady Vanishes is surprisingly funny. Although certain elements have dated, it takes a playful look at national stereotypes, saluting English resolve while sending up the stiff-upper-lip. Michael Redgrave gets all the juiciest lines in a caddish performance which serves as an interesting contrast to his work in The Browning Version or The Dambusters. And then there are the two Englishmen, whom after talking about cricket forever and explaining wickets with sugar cubes, finally get back to London to discover the match was rained off.
The Lady Vanishes is a great thriller from a director on the cusp of greatness. It takes a simple, modest premise and rings out the maximum amount of both thrills and tension. The performances are believable, the plot is twisty and compelling, and Hitchcock's direction is assured and professional. Later works would be more experimental, but this remains a highlight of his pre-Hollywood career.