My favorite Hitchcock film of the ’30s probably remains The 39 Steps, perhaps because it’s the one film of his where the scrappy, rough-and-tumble quality of his early talkies overlaps with the debonair polish of later comedy-thrillers such as North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much (his 1956 remake). But as his second-to-last movie in Britain, and his last great movie before his American period, The Lady Vanishes nevertheless is almost deceptively fluffy; a closer look reveals intricacies not just in the mystery and espionage narrative proper, but in its seemingly benign take on the central love story, beginning (as would become the template for this kind of movie forever after) with mutual animosity.
In fact, it’s strange that Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby should appear the same year, over five thousand miles away, since the boy-girl story at the core of the two films is inversely identical, nestled in their respective genres of screwball and mystery-comedy. Introduced first into the film as a destabilizing, chaotic, puckish element, Michael Redgrave’s Gilbert becomes actively and unapologetically (but cheerfully) hostile upon detection, a male counterpart to Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance, who likewise clings to Cary Grant’s David Huxley by choice after a series of comic (or cosmic) disturbances causes her to enter his orbit. Like Susan, Gilbert is the dust mote that flies closer to you the more you swat it away—a dust mote attached to a bag of bricks.
Naturally, that makes Margaret Lockwood’s Iris the female Cary Grant. She’s also engaged to be married, a fate both films treat as undesirable punishment for the desire for adventure. (Susan and Gilbert are also crestfallen to learn their quarry is betrothed.) Although both her initial skirmish with Gilbert, her head injury while trying to assist Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), and her eventual entanglement in the espionage plot, all conspire to rain down on Iris all manner of trial and adversity, Iris has her own arsenal of defense, not least of which is her healthy self-regard. Her introduction into the film as its leading lady is charmingly sly: Even when she has her first lines she seems to be no more than another stranded traveler, and she doesn’t get a close-up until almost 10 minutes into the film.
While contemporary viewers may have problems with the way The Lady Vanishes begins with a blatant fabrication (the unconvincing model set used in the post-title sequence) and depends on a pretty brazen unlikelihood (wherein nobody remembers the English lady) for its plot to gain lift and thrust, a little suspension of disbelief, ignoring what Hitchcock himself called “implausibles,” can go a long way. For all the attention that has been paid to the incident indicated in the title, the lengthy setup sequences from the hotel to the train station are equally elaborate, at times breathtakingly so, though one may not be prompted to think so, given their casual, M. Hulot’s Holiday-like pace.
One of Hitchcock’s favorite narrative strategies seems to have been to dissolve the forward momentum of the all-important plot just as it’s picking up speed; his 1953 I Confess takes this to a kind of logical extreme by revealing the culprit in the very first scene, only to hide him in plain sight almost until the last one. Similarly, while the emphasis on the title incident may inflate it in one’s memory, it’s actually resolved rather quickly after it comes into fruition, leaving Hitchcock plenty of room to watch Launder and Gilliat’s comical caravan of multinationals to whirl about in a kind of mechanical ballet.
The problem with Criterion’s DVD editions is the best kind of problem: Whereas Blu-ray has revealed most DVD productions by other companies as a second-rate patch on the problems of prehistoric VHS, Criterion’s work in the DVD medium produced video and audio playback that should be perfectly satisfactory to all but the most persnickety AV aficionado. That said, the HD upgrade is not at all unwelcome, even if the bulk of the renovation can be credited to Criterion’s 2007 re-release. There’s a healthy amount of grain, damage from age is largely minimized, and visual details (look at the wallpaper in the opening scene at the hotel) and grayscale are pleasingly rendered. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is even better: Given that The Lady Vanishes had the most complex sound mix of any Hitchcock film up until that time (the first third juggles music, chatter, and ambient silence, the second two thirds manages much of the same, plus ceaseless train noise and effects), the folks at Criterion have done a fantastic job of controlling the levels, which allows even for the softest speech to emerge with tactile clarity against the rumble of the transcontinental express.
Also arriving from the 2007 re-release without any visible changes (and condensed to a single Blu-ray disc from two DVDs), most of the supplements (commentary, essays, video essay) are above average but not exactly distinguished, given Criterion’s exemplary track record. One exception is Crook’s Tour, perhaps not a great film (director John Baxter is no Hitchcock; he isn’t even a Norman Z. McLeod, and the absence of scribes Launder and Gilliat doesn’t help either), but this is the kind of cinephilic prize one would otherwise only be able to acquire by taping from some Hungarian TV station at two in the morning. From a technical standpoint, Crook’s Tours is nicely dolled up for HD, although some shots want for a little stability control. If you’re the type of person to exclaim “Viva la curio!” instead of dismissing the movie’s admittedly minor pleasures, Crook’s Tour makes for a nice diversion, an English variation on the Hope and Crosby comedy travelogue.
The lion’s share of the work was done in 2007 for the brilliant DVD re-release; if you already own it, you shouldn’t feel obligated to double-dip. That having been said, a fine job is a fine job, and Criterion deserves high marks once again.
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