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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. The Lady Vanishes; Crooks’s Tour; Design for Living (Hecht-Lubitsch or Coward); If I Had a Million .


The Lady Vanishes (Four Stars)
U.K.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1938 (Criterion Collection)

In The Lady Vanishes, his marvelous 1938 classic of mystery and intrigue set aboard a train full of English and international travellers racing though the Balkans, Alfred Hitchcock pushes the form of the romantic-comedy-thriller to near perfection. It’s one of the most purely entertaining movies he ever made, and it can be watched over and over again with no diminution of pleasure.  

Even the movies and masterpieces in Hitch’s canon that have similar plots and chase/journey structures — The 39 Steps, which he made before (in 1935), and North By Northwest, which he made decades afterward (in 1959) — lack something in comparison to The Lady Vanishes. They fall a little short of its buoyant high spirits, its high bubbly humor, its many great characters (with great actors to play them like Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood and Paul Lukas and Dame May Whitty and Cecil Parker and Catherine Lacey and Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), its ingenious twists and turns, its flawlessly sustained pace  and its unfailingly witty or tense dialogue.

There also has also never been a movie train or train ride quite like the one in The Lady Vanishes. Though shot mostly on a sound stage, that well-loved locomotive is somehow supremely convincing  — with its cozy yet menacing cars, its jiggling tables, its nerve-langling rushing chuffa-chuffa train-sounds, its compartments full of strangely cool or deceptively amiable passengers, its bustling passenger cars, and that great wonderfully comfortable yet often unsettling dining car, where so many plots are unravelled, so much tea is sipped, so much suspense generated, and where the final crackerjack gunbattle takes explosive place.

Hitchcock loved trains — loved them in life as well as in his movies — and in The Lady Vanishes we can see why. No more enjoyable train ride has ever been undertaken on screen. (Well perhaps, Buster Keaton’s The General, but that’s not really a fair comparison. Buster’s an engineer, after all, in The General, and we, like most of the characters in Lady, are life’s passengers.) 

    The script is by those estimable specialists at comedy and character Sidney Gilliatt and Frank Launder (The Rake’s ProgressNight Train to Munich, Green for Danger) , and though their source is a lesser known mystery novel “The Wheel Spins,” by  Ethel Lina White, the Gilliatt-Launder stamp, a special brand of breezy and irreverent class-puncturing humor, is all over this film, almost as much as Hitchcock’s flair for tension, perverse romance, dark humor and his similar irreverence toward class.  The story, wherever it came from, is truly ingenious — in line with the brainy, tricky mysteries than being concocted, at their peak of popularity  by writers like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr.

What happens?  A congenial old lady named Miss Froy (played by the irresistible Dame May Whitty) disappears from that express train in the Balkans, and when her pretty young new travel-friend Iris (saucy Margaret Lockwood) — on her way to a wedding with some twit of an English snob — tries to find her, everyone who saw Miss Froy suddenly denies she ever existed.

Only Michael Redgrave as Gilbert, an amorous young musicologist avidly pursuing Lockwood, believes her — and he may have impurely romantic motives. Even so, the sexy couple put their two nimble wits together, and love and melody and mystery bloom, even as the vanished lady remains peculiarly elusive. The train‘s odd-lot passengers — including a suave helpful doctor (Lukas), a philandering politico and his inamorata (Parker and Linden), a nun in high heels (Catherine Lacey) and those ineffable cricket fans Caldicott and Charters (played by the immortal Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) — keep denying Miss Froy was ever there, and things get progressively stranger, faster, funnier, and more dangerous.

But we know all along Miss Froy was real. Something has gone dreadfully wrong on this vacation excursion turned comic nightmare — but everything goes perfectly right with this great Alfred Hitchcock romantic suspense comedy, one of the most entertaining movies Hitchcock (or anyone) ever made. The script is unimpeachable,  the cast is unimprovable, the technique is impeccable.

 If Hitchcock loved trains, he makes us fall in love with this one, too — and with many of the people aboard, including, in that perverse Hithcockian way of his, some of the villains. And non-villains like Caldicott and Charters, who became so popular, thanks to this film, that they began making appearances regularly, as a comedy team and as the same characters, in other films (director Carol Reed’s and Gilliatt and Launder’s Night Train to Munich, and Crook’s Tour, which is included here). And Miss Froy — who looks a bit like Agatha Christie, or the way we envision Miss Marple. And Gilbert and Iris of course, an intrepid and utterly beguiling English couple if ever there was one. Let’s hear it for musicology!

As I said, The Lady Vanishes is one movie classic that most audiences — almost all audiences, in fact — are sure to enjoy.  If you don’t enjoy it, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Maybe what you need is a long train ride in the Balkans.

Includes: Crook’s Tour (U.K.: John Baxter, 1941) Two Stars. Caldicott and Charters ride again, this time in some sort of Arabian desert. Fans of C. & C., and aren’t we all, will be tolerant. With Greta Gynt. (That is not a joke.)

Extras: Commentary by Bruce Eder; audio interview of Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut; Mystery Train, a video essay on The Lady Vanishes by Leonard Leff; Stills gallery of behind-the scenes photos and promotion; Booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr.   

Also Recommended (Out this week): Design for Living (U.S.: Ernst Lubitsch, 1933) (Criterion Collection) Three and a Half Stars. Noel Coward’s witty, brittle, risque comic play about a menage a trois of sorts, adapted by Hollywood’s great master of sophisticated comedy, Ernst Lubitsch and the town’s supreme scriptwriter Ben Hecht. The Design trio here is Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins, with Edward Everett Horton trying to horn his way in. (Horton has a classic signature line, which you’ll have to find for yourself.)

 The extras in this two-disc package include Lubitsch’s marvellously impudent episode, complete with Charles Laughton and razzberry, from the 1932 Paramount anthology film If I Had a Million, and a 1964 British TV version of Design for Living, introduced by Coward, and starring Daniel Massey, Jill Bennett and John Wood (Coward himself and the legendary stage couple of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the original stage trio).  Plus a talk on Hecht’s work here by my old pal Joe McBride

 The ’64 British TV version of Design for Living is quite a bit more faithful than Hecht’s and Lubitsch’s. But, after all, what price fidelity in a menage a trois?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon