Absolutely delightful from start to finish, Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate British film, The Lady Vanishes, is a superb comic thriller and a perfect distillation of all the elements of a certain kind of Hitchcock film. Before he became the master of suspense in Hollywood, Hitchcock’s films were more likely to showcase droll wit than actual terror — physical or existential — and he executed it with the impeccable craftsmanship that would define his career.
The film opens in the fictional Central European country of Bandrika, where an avalanche has stranded a number of travelers trying to make it back to England. Hitchcock allows the film to proceed leisurely through this series of expertly mounted comic setpieces in a ramshackle inn. There’s certainly no narrative need for this lengthy introductory sequence, but the way it frames people we will come to know is a masterful bit of characterization.
We’re introduced to a kindly elderly woman, Miss Froy (May Whitty), a pair of English gentlemen eager to learn the cricket scores, Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), a young woman on one last holiday before she gets married, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), and a rakish musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).
When the trains are finally able to run, all of them make it aboard, but Iris is inadvertently knocked in the head by a fallen planter before she does. Disoriented, she’s aided by Miss Froy, and the two become fast friends and traveling companions.
Still dizzy from the blow to the head, Iris takes a short nap and wakes to discover Miss Froy gone and nowhere to be found. The crew and her fellow passengers all insist the elderly woman was never there, and an onboard doctor (Paul Lukas) tells her the head injury must have induced hallucinations. Iris can’t allow herself to believe that, and she reluctantly accepts the help of Gilbert — annoyingly charming but also the only one who believes her — to find Miss Froy somewhere aboard the train.
As the film proceeds, a web of espionage and secret codes seems to underpin the mysterious disappearance, but like often, Hitchcock doesn’t concern himself much with plot specifics. The trademark MacGuffin that propels the plot is especially ludicrous when one thinks about it for more than half a second, but the film itself is enchanting light-as-a-feather fantasy and an essential stopping point on a tour of Hitchcock’s career.
The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion releases The Lady Vanishes for the third time, essentially giving its 2007 DVD edition the Blu-ray treatment. Presented in 1080p high definition in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the film looks fantastic, with an exceptionally clean digital transfer that comes across quite film-like. The source materials prevent the transfer from achieving that silvery, detail-heavy sharpness that the best black-and-white Blu-rays feature, but the slight softness inherent in the image is not unpleasant.
Audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural track that’s a little on the quiet side. Sudden bursts of loud noise like a train whistle can come off a little edgy, but dialogue is clean and clear, with little to no background noise intruding.
All of the extras from the two-disc 2007 DVD are ported over to this Blu-ray edition. Best of all, the bonus feature film, Crook’s Tour, gets the deluxe 1080p treatment and looks quite nice. The film stars Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, reprising their roles as Charters and Caldicott, in what was one of a series of films to include the characters after their popular debut in The Lady Vanishes.
Also included is a 10-minute excerpt from the 50-hour interview François Truffaut conducted with Hitchcock in the early 1960s. This feature is audio-only with clips from the film covering the conversation, which can feature some dense translating that makes it a little hard to understand at points.
Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff contributes an informative 30-minute video essay about the film, its production history, themes and visual strategies, while a commentary track by Bruce Eder — produced originally for the laserdisc release — hits on some similar points.
The disc also includes a small gallery of poster art, lobby cards and behind-the-scenes photos. The package includes a booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr.
The Bottom Line
Any Hitchcock on Blu-ray is a welcome thing, and with major studios like Universal dragging their feet on getting his films upgraded (how are Vertigo, Rear Window and The Birds not out on Blu-ray here yet?), it’s nice to see Criterion picking up the torch and doing an impressive job.