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The Lady Vanishes

January 21st, 2008 (12:05 am)

current music: Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain: Anarchy in the UK

This is a film that, though made in 1938, is at times so self-conscious that this viewer, seventy years on, felt that its makers knew that an audience a couple of generations away would one day watch it and appreciate the jokes from a distance. Its portrayals of a succession of Anglo-British stereotypes: the barrister and his 'wife', actually the wife of a senior colleague with whom he is having an affair and an illicit holiday, the kind but daffy middle-aged governess, the cynical leisure-loving jam factory heiress on her way home to marry a peer because it will please her father, the self-obsessed dilettante musicologist, and above all the cricket-obsessed men of evident but invisible means, are introduced with affection but are also set on trajectories that will either show how misleading our initial impressions are, or leave us uncomfortable as initially sympathetic figures turn out to be obstructive and too focused on their private concerns to notice that something very sinister has happened on board their train taking them across central Europe, despite the protests of pretty heiress Iris (Margaret Lockwood). Only the folk-music collecting Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) believes that there was a Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) in Iris's compartment, despite the insistence of the nearest medical expert that she was a hallucination brought on by concussion.

The film's mockery of British insularity made a serious point in 1938, and political sensitivity led to the omission of a scripted sequence where goose-stepping soldiers dissolved into a flock of gabbling geese. In the final shoot-out the barrister reveals himself as a pacifist who believes that everything can be settled by negotiation - as already seen, this includes his own word to his lover, Margaret, as he wheedles out of an immediate divorce and remarriage because it will prejudice his career. His waving of a white flag before the nation's security forces ends predictably. While it could be argued that Gilbert ends up representing another British stereotype of the unpredictable outsider as hero, at his first appearance he is a nuisance and even a cad, someone without any respect for his fellow hotel guests; but his overwhelming curiosity about other cultures translates into a sensitivity to the European political situation which too many of his fellow-British passengers regard as a sign of the instability of foreigners which only inconveniences them when travelling abroad and justifies their complacency about the superiority and invulnerability of the British way of life. All helped by a witty script from Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, which surely set a standard for keeping the pace going so quickly that the audience is amused rather than irritated by all the implausibilities; and directed for Gainsborough Pictures with acute judgement by Alfred Hitchcock.

Viewed at the National Film Theatre with gervase_fen and a full house, Sunday 20 January 2008.


Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 02:37 am (UTC)

as regards your music, there is a Hillbilly version 'Purdy Vacant' on Jon Peels Fabric Live Session.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 09:33 am (UTC)

I shall have to look that up... thanks.

Posted by: malaheed (malaheed)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 08:18 am (UTC)

I must admit to a certain fondness for this film, it's one of those guilty pleasures that as time goes by you are no longer quite so sure if it was as much fun as you remember it being as child. I did enjoy your summary of it.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 09:37 am (UTC)

Thanks! I think I enjoyed it more now than when I was younger, though I've never seen the film all the way through. (I've seen parts of the 1979 remake as well, which misses the point by Americanizing the Lockwood and Redgrave characters.)

Posted by: Alice Dryden (huskyteer)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 10:02 am (UTC)

Wouldn't you know it, I was in NFT3 watching Back to Normandy!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 10:03 am (UTC)

I half-expected to run into you yesterday afternoon somehow, and now I know why...

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 01:44 pm (UTC)

Thanks for that write-up on one of my favourite films, and for the interesting snippets like the goose-stepping.

I have just acquired (but not yet watched) "Night Train to Munich", which sounds rather similar, at least in bassic outline.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 01:54 pm (UTC)

I hadn't realised, until some recent surfing, that the 1979 Cybill Shepherd/Elliot Gould/Arthur Lowe/Ian Carmichael remake relocates the action to Nazi Germany so the political dangers can be addressed - but all a bit academic, forty-one years on.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: January 21st, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)

Agreed that it is interesting, but also agreed that it is rather academic!