The Lady Vanishes (1938)

When it’s on: Thursday, 25 December (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

A library of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers has made its way into the Christmas schedules (two of which will be covered here), and BBC4 have chosen The Lady Vanishes for a primetime slot on the big day itself. A good thing too. With the possible exception of The 39 Steps, it’s the peak of Hitchcock’s career as a British-based director and makes for wonderful entertainment.

As with many of the best Hitchcocks, the success of The Lady Vanishes pivots on a very simple plot twist. A young woman, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is travelling on a train that’s crossing Europe. Her companion is a genial middle-aged lady, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears after Iris has had a nap. Asking after her whereabouts, Iris is told by her fellow travellers that there was no lady and she must have imagined her entire existence. Having received a blow to the head before joining the train, there are grounds to suggest that may have been exactly the case, particularly as the eminent Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas) indicates there might be psychological reasons for her ‘creating’ Miss Froy. But Iris isn’t convinced and sets about trying to prove that the lady was on the train; in this she’s helped by a raffish English musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).

That’s the central storyline, however there’s so much more to The Lady Vanishes. Iris has come across Gilbert before, when he disturbs her sleep in the hotel where they’re both staying. He’s a cad, a charming cad but a cad all the same, and his offer to assist her on the train carries a delicious undertone of dislike and irritation. There are strong hints that Miss Froy’s disappearance might have something to do with areas of Europe through which they’re travelling falling under Fascist control, suggesting the plain looking lady might be an unlikely secret agent for the British secret services, and that certain passengers on the train may be working for countries that were quickly becoming enemies. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers play fellow travellers Mr and Mrs Todhunter, only they’re an eloping couple, fleeing from their marriages to be together. The pair’s arguments about the need to be discrete and their fluctuating levels of devotion to each other have them making decisions about Miss Froy’s disappearance that help the plot move along.

Best of all, finding great popularity with British audiences and remaining a big draw for the film, are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as English tourists Charters and Caldicott. Inserted purely for comedy purposes, the pair are used to poke fun at typically ignorant English attitudes to the dangers of the time; while Europe is collapsing into war and a lady has just gone missing on the train, their only interest is the England Test Match taking place in Manchester and their desire to make it back in time for the final day. Radford and Wayne were such a hit with the public that Charters and Caldicott would go on to appear in a number of further movies; the actors played a very similar pair of characters (obsessed with Golf rather than Cricket) in the later Dead of Night.

Redgrave and Lockwood were both very much up and coming talents at the time, indeed this is the former’s earliest screen credit after some distinguished work in theatre. As thrown together sleuths they have real chemistry together, matching the growing attraction that develops between their characters as the sense of peril rises and they find themselves increasingly depending on each other. The dialogue crackles also. The Lady Vanishes was an unusual Hitchcock film for the relative lack of involvement the director had in the screenplay. Known for working on treatments at their earliest stages as part of pre-production, in this instance he pretty much stuck with the script handed to him by British writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who themselves channelled the source novel by Ethel Lina White, considering the plot to be ready made for a screen adaptation.

The Lady Vanishes starts relatively gently, taking time to introduce its characters and appearing very light in tone. The levels of suspense, however, increases all the while, Lukas’s Doctor emerging as a villain along with various passengers to the extent that Gilbert and Iris have no idea how to tell friend from foe. There’s enough going on to tease at complicated back stories from even minor characters, such as the nun looking after Hartz’s completely bandaged patient who is discovered to be wearing high heels.

A major success upon its release for Gainsborough and Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes landed him with various awards, including the Best Director accolade from the New York Film Critics.  It helped him to negotiate the best possible deal for himself in America, landing him a contract with David O Selznick. His absolutely best work was still in the future, but this picture was an important keynote in establishing him as a major Hollywood player.

The Lady Vanishes: *****

If anyone has stumbled across FOTB on Christmas Day, may I take this opportunity to wish you the very best of Christmases, and thank you for visiting.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

When it’s on: Friday, 11 May (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.

Film4 spoil us with an end of the week treat in the shape of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney production into which serious money was sunk and one that found itself the second highest grossing picture of the year (behind White Christmas).

As always, I read various peoples’ reviews of films after watching them and here, more than usual, I found critical opinion often giving way to the warm glow of nostalgic memories. By all accounts, going to see 20,000 Leagues in 1954 was a magical experience, exactly the sensation Walt Disney wished to elicit from his movies. The closest I guess we kids of the next generation came to it was Star Wars, yet in a way 20,000 Leagues was more important because of the respect it paid to its audience. Both flicks are at heart adventure yarns, but the earlier release has something profound to say about the world. Captain Nemo lives underwater and attacks warships due to a disillusionment with the world. He’s terrified about giving up the secrets of the Nautilus because of what people might do with the technology. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Nemo’s concerns would have chimed with Cold War era audiences.

Nemo is played by the great James Mason, oscillating ever between genius and madness. Mason was a casting coup for Disney, who didn’t normally attract performers of his calibre, and the role requires a heavyweight, someone who can convey his character’s conflict and come across as a villain, but not altogether evil. Into his watery world comes Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas), who’s been researching accounts of the sea monster that devours ships (i.e. being rammed by the Nautilus, which appears above the surface of the sea as an oncoming, terrifying  pair of huge green eyes) and in whom Nemo senses a kindred spirit. The academic brings along his apprentice, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and a salty seaman with the ironic name of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

Lorre is on hand as the largely comic sidekick, whilst Douglas provides the broad-shouldered muscle. I’m used to seeing the latter play far more intense characters in serious films, so catching him in a light-hearted role was a real surprise. Watch! Douglas sings! He performs with a seal! He’s actually very good value as the guitar strumming Land, and apparently he had great fun making the film.

Fun is the bottom line as the Nautilus goes about its underwater business, demonstrating that life can be enjoyed to the full beneath the waves, providing you like smoking seaweed cigars. The effects work is breathtaking for the era – the model filming isn’t as obvious as it so clearly appears to be in other pictures, and even the giant squid attack works. No Ray Harryhausen style stop motion stuff here. The tentacle wires and animatronics are masked largely by the decision to film the scene in a thunderstorm at night, which also has the nice side effect of increasing the drama. Filming the scene was something of a struggle, and no less a figure than Disney himself ordered a full retake when the original, set in a calm sea, exposed too much of the squid’s artificial workings. My DVD contains the original squid attack as an extra; they made the right choice.

Richard Fleischer directs steadily, letting the film flag slightly in the middle as the full scale of what the Nautilus can do is revealed. Even by 1954 standards, as the USA launched its first nuclear submarine, there must have been a feeling of ‘Huh?’ from viewers who were quite used to a world containing submersibles. It’s for this reason the film retains the Victorian era setting, the one in which Jules Verne wrote his novel. This ensures the submarine is a set of considerable delights, with its rivets, brass instruments and Nemo’s amazing pipe organ.

Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues may very well be the perfect family film. The Disney formula of cute animals, songs and lame gags is minimised in favour of action and a refreshing philosophical undertone. This is why it’s a gift of a film, especially in an era when what we get from cross-generational visits to the cinema are computer animations and telegraphed narratives.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: *****