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.