I’ve always wanted to watch The Lady Vanishes, and since I found out that it has two recurring characters who appear in two other Criterion-released British wartime comedies, I checked out all three.
The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)
Opens with the fakest model town since Beetlejuice. The DVD extras and interviews make much of how cheaply-made the film was, but after the first scene you never notice it. Snappy, briskly-plotted comedy-mystery with charming leads – at least as good as The 39 Steps.
Our eventually-romantic couple:
Margaret Lockwood meets annoying freewheeling musicologist Michael Redgrave in her hotel, tries to get him kicked out for making too much noise. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a new hit comic duo Charters and Caldicott – the gimmick is that they’re incredibly British, clueless about foreign customs, but always travelling.
They’re all on the same train out of town, along with Linden Travers (title role in No Orchids for Miss Blandish), her lying secret lover Cecil Parker (Ingrid Bergman’s unmemorable brother-in-law in Indiscreet), a not-at-all-sinister surgeon with a neat mustache (Paul Lukas, oscar winner in ’44), travelling magician Doppo and a thoroughly pleasant British woman named Froy (May Whitty, wealthy flower grower in Mrs. Miniver). But then Froy vanishes and Margaret seems to be the only person who remembers her. All the Germans (they’re from Unspecified Euro-Country, but they have nazi-like tendencies and this was the pre-WWII era, so let’s call them German) lie because Froy is a spy and they’ve kidnapped her, and all the Brits lie because they don’t want to get involved. But Margaret finds an ally in the musicologist and they set off to cracking the mystery, which involves fighting the magician through secret compartments and dealing with a fake nun. Trains are diverted, and Charters and Caldicott step up (and the cheater gets killed) in a climactic shootout. It’s all too tense and fun to worry that the central premise and the secret Froy is protecting are all ridiculous – Hitchcock admits so himself in his Truffaut interview.
Lukas with giant poisoned drinks, reminiscent of The Small Back Room:
Hitch’s second-to-last British picture (Jamaica Inn was last) Writer of the original story also did The Spiral Staircase. Remade in the 70’s with Angela Lansbury as Froy. It all reminded me of Shanghai Express, though I guess train dramas were pretty common.
The whole film breathes an air of delight like nothing else in Hitchcock. The central situation—the disappearance of a woman whose very existence is subsequently denied by everyone but the protagonist—may seem to provide the perfect matrix for the kind of paranoid melodrama that would proliferate a few years later, in the forties, in films like Phantom Lady, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, but here the dark shadows of conspiracy are countered by a brightness and brilliance of tone almost Mozartean in its equanimity. Most of the time we are too exhilarated to be frightened.
While the train speeds Iris back toward her loveless marriage, her attempt to solve the mystery of Miss Froy’s disappearance is blocked by the obstinate intransigence of her countrymen, working in unconscious collaboration with the forces of European fascism that have kidnapped her. Clearly, this gave the film an especially potent meaning for the England of 1938, a time when the ruling classes were still working to appease Hitler and a class-stratified country was patently unready to pull together effectively if war should nonetheless become unavoidable.
Night Train to Munich (1940, Carol Reed)
See if this sounds familiar: Margaret Lockwood meets and immediately dislikes a handsome musician who ends up helping her flee from nazis aboard a train. Rex Harrison (Unfaithfully Yours) seems blander than her Lady Vanishes costar at first, but ends up being the highlight of the film. The effects are even cheaper-looking than the previous picture, but the action’s all there and the stakes are higher, war with Germany having started.
Charters didn’t have many options at the German railway book store:
Lockwood is the daughter of a Czech scientist working on some super armor. They flee to England as the nazis invade, hiding out with music salesman Rex, but get easily kidnapped by rival spy Paul Henreid (more dashing here than as Bergman’s husband in Casablanca) and flown to Germany. Not taking this defeat lying down, Rex grabs a nazi uniform, forges himself a letter of introduction with unreadable signature and flies down in to kidnap them back, all ending up aboard the titular train, where Charters and Caldicott are miffed to learn that Britain has declared war on Germany that same day, and so the ever-patriotic comic duo help our heroes escape the train to safety, via a cable-car shootout.
Margaret and Rex:
If its view of the Third Reich now seems frivolous, not to say naive, it should be remembered that it was made, and released, during the period known as the Phony War—before France fell, the British Army narrowly escaped annihilation at Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe began to rain bombs on British cities. At that time, with the full horrors of Nazism not yet widely known, Hitler and his storm troopers were often treated as figures of fun (other British films of the period, such as Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband, adopt a similar stance). … [Henreid] plays Marsen not unsympathetically, far from the standard ranting Nazi blowhard, and the final shot of him lying wounded and defeated, watching his rival make off with everything, including the girl, even exerts a certain pathos.
Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter)
A huge step down from the previous films. It’s not necessarily the fault of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, who now play the leads, foiling an enemy spy plot and even getting the girl. They’ve got a new set of writers and a lesser director, and the whole thing feels cheap and unnecessary, and rarely funny – the silly cartoon music does it no favors.
This time the guys are touring the middle east, and Caldicott (the smaller, mustache-less one) is engaged to marry Charters’ sister Edith, whom they’re meeting in Budapest. Some setup in the Saudi desert where they meet a sheik (Charles Oliver, who had small roles in all three movies) who went to Charters’ school in England, who mentions that he’s protecting the British oil pipeline from German shit-starters. Then a ludicrous mixup with a ridiculous waiter leads them to gain possession of a gramophone record containing secret German plans to steal oil from the Saudis. Caldicott has eyes for Greta Gynt, and nobody seems to think it’s super weird that she’s the live entertainment at the next two cities they visit as well.
I didn’t know this kind of thing was allowed in the 1940’s:
Greta has an owl!
Baddie Ali (Abraham Sofaer of Bhowani Junction) is accidentally killed when Charters pushes him into the “bathroom,” which turns out to be a hole straight into the sea. Edith (Noel Hood, somebody’s aunt in The Curse of Frankenstein) shows up and gets mad that Caldicott is involved in spy-business with Greta. Ali’s partner Rossenger is a terrible spy, so his boss Cyril Gardiner gets involved, promises to kill and torture and all that, but our heroes (including Greta, a British spy all along) manage to escape.
Baddies Ali, Rossenger and double-agent Greta:
I’m aware that there’s another C&C movie, Millions Like Us, directed by Lady Vanishes and Night Train writers Launder and Gilliat. Holding off on watching it for now, since I presume the deluxe Criterion restoration is just around the corner.