Fewer people, however, at least in America, are familiar with his earlier British films, made before his transition to Hollywood. It was there where he cultivated his reputation as a top notch director of mysteries and thrillers, eventually catching the eye of producer David O. Selznick, who brought him to Hollywood to direct his only Best Picture Oscar winner, Rebecca, in 1940.
One of his last British films before making the journey across the pond was 1938's The Lady Vanishes (he only made one more, Jamaica Inn, in 1939), which has languished in the public domain for many years, available in substandard transfers at discount prices. One of the very first Criterion DVDs (it's spine #4), the film is finally getting a much needed and well deserved blu-ray upgrade, and boy is it a doozy.
|Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson, Michael Redgrave as Gilbert and Dame May Whitty as Miss Froy.|
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock at his most effortlessly entertaining. But like the master's best work, there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. As light and as breezy as it may feel, The Lady Vanishes was a film very much of its time, representing a kind of last minute, quintessentially British stiff upper lip attitude while standing on the precipice of a looming world war. The undertones are unmistakable. "We're British citizens, they can't do anything to us" a passenger quips, before being shot in a climactic shootout. A Chamberlain-esque would-be diplomat attempts to negotiate with foriegn assassins under a white flag, and is mercilessly gunned down. The Lady Vanishes represents a kind of end of British innocence, in much the same way that Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game was a much more grim representation of a French society lurching toward ruin. The can-do British charm remains intact throughout the film, but the undercurrent of unease and apprehention at an uncertain future is readily apparent.
| Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson and Michael Redgrave as Gilbert.|
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Hitchcock clearly displayed his brilliance early own, and The Lady Vanishes is perhaps his greatest early triumph. It's a snappy, witty, dryly funny testament to British perserverence and tea time that cannot and should not be ignored when discussing the master's finest work. It's one of cinema's great, and often unfairly overlooked mysteries. Hitchcock shows us how its done and delivers a veritable master class in suspense and charm, two qualities the director mixed without equal, and The Lady Vanishes showcases the master at the height of his powers.
GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)
THE LADY VANISHES | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | Stars Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker | Not rated | Now available on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.