Wow, I heard that this was one of Alfred Hitchcock's more fluffy thrillers, but I wasn't expecting it to be about something as fun as magicians. Oh, now, come on, people, don't tell me that you weren't thinking that when you see this film's title, or even that this film involves a train, the preferred form of transportation for circus folks, but no, don't get too excited, because this isn't that festive. Well, to be fair, I don't know if Hitchcock making a woman disappear is much of a laughing matter, because you couldn't trust him around blondes, and it would be easy to hide them behind that gut. Man, Hitch sure did love his gravy, which is why he took a train of the gravy nature to Hollywood shortly after this film. Well, either the financial opportunities brought him over here, or the fact that probably shouldn't have showed his face around Britain for a while after "Jamaica Inn", but as far as people are concerned, this was Hitchcock's last, pre-"Stage Fright" hooray in his hometown, and boy, he sure does make it count. Seriously, this film is so British that, while it saw a hiatus on Hitchcock's, it also saw the debut of everyone's favorite recurring pair of supporting-cast cricket connoisseurs, Charters and Caldicott, and if you remember those blokes, well, my friend, how are you still alive? I'd say, "jokes aside", but, again, this is one of Hitchcock's less urgent thrillers, and not just on purpose, being pretty engaging, but not as thrilling as, well, a circus act, and for a couple reasons.
While black-and-white, the film's ensemble cast is pretty colorful, and that would be great and all if the many members of this character roster were more thoroughly developed, as the film, at just over 90 minutes, isn't long enough to flesh out its sizable cast, which feels overblown due to its being undercooked, not unlike the film's tonal layers. Just as the cast isn't especially immense, the film's tonal layers aren't especially dynamic, rarely losing its light heart, which upon being pumped up a little bit, convolutes the sense of momentum of this comedic thriller, though not without the help of inconsistencies in pacing that place a more direct plague on momentum. Well, maybe pacing isn't all that inconsistent, because its lively spells are mighty limited, compared to the limp spells, initiated by meandering material, and anchored by very British dry spell in atmosphere that range from bland to kind of dull. Sure, the film is pretty entertaining on the whole, based on its overwhelming charm and wit, but Alfred Hitchcock's questionably thoughtful approach to Sidney Gilliat's and Frank Launder's meandering scripting slow momentum down more than it should, especially if the film is trying to keep you from thinking about just how thin its narrative is. With all of my talk of undercooking, this film doesn't have much depth to flesh out, and as much as I talk of pacing inconsistencies, this story concept doesn't carry that much momentum, being ultimately more fluffy than intense as a comedic thriller, and therefore limited in potential that still isn't all that thoroughly explored. I don't know if the film is so much lazy as much as its interpretation of a story that is too intentionally thin for its own good is itself too intentionally thin for its own good, keeping you going as it drags its way to underwhelmingness, but ultimately reaching an improvable destination nonetheless. Of course, like the train it features, the film carries on, at least as decent, having its shortcomings, both natural and consequential, but also carrying plenty of strengths, both in its narrative and in its production value.
Well, there's not much production value to this minimalist film which is primarily isolated on a train, yet such a setting is mighty well-put together by Maurice Carter's, Albert Jullion's and Albert Whitlock's art direction, whose designs are dynamic enough to give you a certain sense of scale to this environment, tight enough to help immerse you, with the help of appealing cinematography by Jack E. Cox, as well as an appealing cast. Though underdeveloped, this film's character roster is, as I said earlier, pretty colorful, with dynamic and potentially memorable characters who are done about as much justice as they can be by across-the-board charismatic performances. Everyone boasts distinguished charm, and between the charm is chemistry that drives the interactions which in turn drive this narrative, whose effectiveness is anchored, but not defined by the performances, no matter how charismatic. No, what can make or break the engagement value of this lighthearted thriller is the efforts of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, whose script is seriously underdeveloped, draggy and tonally uneven, shaking the film's momentum as both a comedy and a psychological drama, yet when the writing hits, it hits pretty hard in drawing memorable, if minimalist set pieces, and thoroughly clever humor. Even the more tense aspects of the film are handled reasonably well, with suspenseful subtlety that isn't flowed into from color especially organically, but highlights engagement value about as much as heights in comedic wit, at least on paper. When it comes to the final product, it's up to director Alfred Hitchcock to bring life to the script's own bite, limited though it may be, and while Hitchcock's dryness blands matters up more than it probably should on more than a few occasions, the thoughtfulness has enough sharpness to subtly draw you towards the style and substance of this comedic thriller. Again, I don't know if the film is so much lazy, as much as it's simply limp, ostensibly on purpose, and such an approach is too questionable for the final product to be memorable, but there's enough entertainment value to hold your attention, at least up to a point.
When it comes time to pull your own vanishing act, you leave a film whose natural narrative limitations are stressed enough by underdevelopment and glaring inconsistencies in tone and pacing to make the final product barely memorable, but while your time is being occupied by this affair, sharp production value, charismatic performances, clever writing and thoughtful direction make Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" adequately entertaining, despite its questionable aspects.
2.5/5 - Fair