Week 42: The Lady Vanishes (1938), Agatha Christie, and Grandmothers

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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I needed a palette-cleanser after Frenzy last week. I’m getting close to the end now, only 11 films left. There’s one or two I know are going to be long, difficult pieces to write. I’m also really flying by the seat of my pants here; trying to pick films from different eras to contrast, but a lot of it is just sitting down and trying to decide what I’m in the mood to watch.

Fortunately I am always in the mood to watch The Lady Vanishes. Along with The 39 Steps, Rear Window, and North by Northwest, it’s one of Hitchcock’s most effortlessly entertaining films. Yet it’s also very different from other Hitchcock films because it’s a classic British Whodunit, a seemingly unsolvable riddle of a film that uncertainty, the complete antithesis of Hitchcock’s usual suspense films. In most films, Hitch builds suspense and tension through giving us information that the characters do not have. Whereas with few exceptions, The Lady Vanishes is entirely from the point of view of the characters trying to make sense of a bizarre situation: a young woman falls asleep on a train after talking to a friendly old woman, but when she wakes up, no one remembers the old woman and there’s no evidence that she was ever a passenger.

Hitchcock had this script handed to him by the studio, which isn’t how he normally preferred to work. Yet he must have been thrilled to receive this clever, thrilling, and downright funny script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (adapting from the Ethel Lina White story “The Wheel Spins”). With minimal changes (Hitch and the writers reportedly changed the beginning and end of the film without altering the structure), The Lady Vanishes was ready to go. It functions as both a winking commentary on the classic Whodunit (witness a scene where Michael Redgrave puts on a deerstalker hat and does a Sherlock Holmes impression) and it’s also a perfect example of the genre. A closed situation (a moving train), a cast of colorful characters, and a riddle that is impossible yet seems totally plausible when explained.

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All of that said, The Lady Vanishes takes its time. The trains doesn’t leave for 27 minutes. Instead there’s a gorgeous model shot that starts with the credits; behind the names of cast & crew, we see a snowy mountain scene. When the credits end, the camera pans over to see a giant avalanche that has covered some train tracks in a small town. The camera then drifts down through the snowy town into a small tavern and through the window. In another macro-to-micro shot, Hitchcock has established the setting and basic elements of plot, all without a word.

Slowly, deliberately, we meet the characters who will be on the train. Each have their own story and each gets woven into the fabric of the film. Their backstories become impediments to everyone discovering the truth about the missing old woman; references are planted and come back in the third act. Everyone has their own reason for pretending they haven’t seen the mystery woman (who turns out to be a British agent who is kidnapped by a foreign government). Nothing is extraneous, everything pays off. It’s a textbook example of a British murder mystery (even though no one is murdered), and it’s breathtaking and a bit dizzying how all of these strands come together so effortlessly. Much of that is due to the cast.

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I’m prepared to call this Hitchcock’s greatest supporting cast, a crack team of scene-stealers who enliven the film with bits of business both written and clearly improvised. Yes, Margaret Lockwood is charming as the free-spirited, intelligent young woman who meets the vanishing lady, and Michael Redgrave is her equal as the off-kilter, charming folk song scholar who helps her solve the riddle. But what elevates the film to greatness is the supporting cast starting lineup:

  • Dame May Witty, yes an actual “Dame,” age 73 but bringing a quirky intelligence to her performance as the seemingly harmless old woman who vanishes
  • Paul Lukas, memorable from my childhood as Professor Aronnax in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, here excellent as a duplicitous doctor who doesn’t believe Lockwood’s story
  • Mary Clare and Philip Leaver as the Baroness and Doppo the magician respectively, two inscrutable “foreign” characters (the film takes place in the imaginary country of “Bandrika”)
  • And the film’s MVPs, Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford as Caldicott & Charters, two English dolts who provide much of the comedy and social commentary during the film.

Hitchcock loved character actors and kept them around if he liked what they were doing; soon Wayne & Radford (who had never met) found their part being blown up and more business added as it was clear the two worked incredibly well together. They function as a two-headed commentary on self-centered British behavior, entitled yet lovable buffoons who keep asking “how England is faring.” When they finally reach someone on long distance telephone, it turns out they’re only interested in Cricket. They’re affronted by everything; the lack of people speaking English, the lack of food at dinner (for which they dress in tails), and the constant, distressing lack of information about Cricket. Yet when they’re called upon to act, their stiff upper lip kicks in and they rise to the occasion in the film’s climactic shootout. Caldicott & Charters are Hitchcock’s affectionate sendup and tribute to everything he loved and hated about Britain.

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Caldicott & Charters

And the British public loved them too. Long before the Marvel Universe or Mork appearing on Happy Days, Caldicott & Charters were spun-off into a radio series, supporting roles in other films (including Night Train to Munich, directed by Carol Reed whom I find perennially overrated YES I SAID IT COME AT ME), and even their own starring role in the slight but enjoyable Crook’s Tour (1941).

***

I’m not an expert on British murder mysteries, but do you know who was? My grandmother.

My dad’s mother, Audrey Buchholz, loved mysteries. She read tons of them and Agatha Christie was her favorite. She took care of me when my parents had to work. I’d ride in her car to the bowling alley while she smoked. I still remember the giant belt buckle in her enormous old Buick and the smell of stale cigarette smoke. It probably wasn’t a great environment for a kid, but stale cigarette smoke still makes me think of her. So does “Wheel of Fortune,” which I’d watch with her in her little apartment. Her mind was a steel trap and there’d be only two or three letters on the board before she knew what it was. Often she wouldn’t even wait to see if she was right, but head into the kitchen to make me a hot dog. She knew she was right, she didn’t need to wait for Vanna. I can still hear her wheezing smoker’s breath, an affectionate Darth Vader. When I was young, like many kids I couldn’t say “grandmother,” so we called her Granny.

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Granny

My second-favorite memory of Granny was her telling me that since her memory started going, she could re-read all of her favorite murder mystery books because she didn’t remember who did it. My favorite memory takes a little explaining.

Granny lived well into her eighties until she started getting sick. I think it was the summer of 1995 or 1996 when she finally went into the hospital for good. We all knew it was the beginning of the end. I’ve only seen my dad cry twice, once when he was telling me about putting down my childhood dog Waffle, and once when the reality of Granny’s health finally hit him.

But Granny was tough. She was in that hospital for a while. And my parents (who were still together) and I had a problem. We had booked a family trip to Europe that summer. We were excited, but Granny was in the hospital. We talked about it, and mentioned it to her, and the answer became clear: she wanted us to go.

So off we went. We visited my cousin and her husband in Germany, in the wonderfully named town of Kaiserslautern. We toured the fields and castles and countryside of Germany and I chased their two year old daughter through the streets at an outdoor beer festival. Then we moved on to Paris, where we stayed in the smallest hotel room we’d ever seen and saw all the sights. I even took in a 3-D screening of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in an arthouse theater on the Left Bank, the subtitles floating in mid-air.

And then it was on to London where we stayed in a barely bigger hotel room and went to the Tower of London, the Globe Theater, Big Ben, and all the tourist sites. It was great. But Granny was on all our minds. This was before email, so we placed a few phone calls when we could and the status report was the same: she was still in the hospital, still holding on.

I don’t know if we did it as a conscious tribute to Granny or not, but we decided to go see Agatha Christie’s play “The Moustrap” in the West End. It opened in 1952 and when we saw it was already the longest-running play of all time, a classic drawing-room mystery that’s still running, hitting 25,000 performances in 2012. They still make a big deal of not divulging the twist ending. It was a cramped, hot theater in tiny seats unused to American-sized asses, but we loved it. We bought a Mousetrap coffee mug to bring home to Granny.

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A recent production of The Mousetrap

Back in Arizona Granny was on the way out. We made it home while she was still able to hear us and talk about the trip. She was on oxygen so it was hard to hear what she was saying, but she was interested as I gave her the mug and told her about the play, in great detail.

When I was done, she smiled and said something but I couldn’t make it out. I leaned in and my aunt smiled and said “She wants to know who did it.”

Agatha Christie went to great lengths to admonish reviewers and audiences to not reveal the secret of the Mousetrap. But under the circumstances I don’t think anyone, even Agatha herself, would have minded. I told Granny the twist ending and she smiled and nodded, as if to say, “Even I didn’t think of that.”

A few weeks later she was gone.

***

Perhaps because the script was handed to him instead of developed as a Hitchcock property, the film is remarkably light on technical innovation (there is a great shot where as Lukas is trying to poison the young couple, Hitch created two oversize prop glasses that allowed him to place the drinks in the foreground of the shot, looming large over the scene). Instead Hitch restricts himself to cramped train interiors that reinforce the claustrophobia and tension. He doesn’t need trick shots; the cast is all the special effects he’d need.

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The Lady Vanishes is also a wonderful antidote to the violence and misogyny of Frenzy. It features a smart capable heroine in Lockwood, and a brunette at that. She’s introduced glumly ending her vacation to go back home and marry a dullard so “daddy can get a coat of arms on the jam label” (great dialogue quickly establishing that her father is new money from making jams, and she’s marrying a royal who needs the money). Once again Hitchcock brings a couple closer through excitement and danger, as Lockwood falls in love with Redgrave’s folk singer.

Yet the real hero of the film is the lady of the title herself, the missing Mrs. Froy, Dame Mae Whitty. Whitty plays a kind yet doddering old woman in the first part of the film, someone so completely beyond suspicion that she would make a perfect spy. Yet once her identity is revealed, she’s all business while maintaining that sense of schoolmarm warmth. Mrs. Froy ends up becoming one of the most overtly heroic characters in any Hitchcock film: a 73 year woman hopping off a train under fire by an enemy government to scamper into the woods and escape to Britain with a musical sequence in her head that contains secrets vital to the republics.

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Dame Mae Whitty, glorious as Mrs. Froy.

Is the ending of the film preposterous? Sure. But in the grand tradition of Hitchcock’s disregard for “plausibles,” who cares? It’s a celebration and parody of British traditions. It makes sense, ties up all the loose ends, and it’s wonderfully satisfying. It seems totally believable that the world could be saved by someone who reminds you of your grandmother.

I would have loved to watch The Lady Vanishes with Granny. Maybe she would have figured it out halfway through, told me the ending through cigarette smoke, then headed into the kitchen to find me some cookies. Or maybe she’d have been as surprised as I was when I saw it the first time. Either way, I think of her every time I watch this film.

Watch It: The Lady Vanishes is available to watch streaming for free on Youtube, and it’s available on DVD or for rental online.

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