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The Lady Vanishes: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Lady Vanishes (1938) movie poster The Lady Vanishes

US Theatrical Release: November 1, 1938 / Running Time: 96 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Alfred Hitchcock / Writers: Sidney Gilliatt, Frank Launder (screenplay); Ethel Lina White (novel The Wheel Spins)

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Matilda Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert), Paul Lukas (Dr. Hartz), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy), Cecil Parker (Mr. Todhunter), Linden Travers ("Mrs." Todhunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford (Charters), Mary Clare (Baroness), Emile Boreo (Hotel Manager), Googie Withers (Blanche), Sally Stewart (Julie), Philip Leaver (Signor Doppo), Zelma Vas Dias (Signora Doppo), Catherine Lacy (The Nun), Josephine Wilson (Madame Kummer), Charles Oliver (The Officer), Kathleen Tremaine (Anna)

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The career of Alfred Hitchcock is easy to divide into phases. Like any filmmaker who covered the same ground, you can divide Hitch's films into silents and talkies, black & white and color.
But the director's work also lends itself to further delineation. You can distinguish his UK productions from his American ones. Among the latter, you can separate his brief period of regular Academy Awards recognition in the early '40s from the far more popular thrillers that followed, made at the height of Hitchcock's iconicity. You can split the television material from the films, the last few of which perhaps ought to be pulled aside as a period of decline.

These are all fun activities for someone who geeks out about classic film and may even factor slightly into why Hitchcock ranks as probably the most celebrated director of all time. His filmography isn't just one of the most impressive, it is also one of the most enjoyable to visit and revisit in full, to study and to dissect, whether it's for a handful of blog readers or a published book consulted by the masses.

Released in 1938, The Lady Vanishes was the fifteenth sound film Hitchcock directed. It was his penultimate British production before first moving to America, after which he would only twice return to shoot in his native London. Lady ranks among the most successful and the most comedic of his British career. It also ranks as the first of the director's movies to enter the Criterion Collection on DVD, having claimed spine number 4 all the way back in May 1998. This week, four years after being revisited as a two-disc DVD, the movie became Hitchcock's first Criterion title, and only third film overall, to make the jump to Blu-ray in America.

Doubted, train-riding protagonist Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) finds an unlikely ally in pipe-smoking musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) has a counterargument to Iris and Gilbert's every theory, including this bandage-faced patient.

Lady opens with a pan across an uncharacteristically phony miniature set representing the fictional Central Europe nation of Bandrika. The shot stops at a hotel, where, inside, travelers are abuzz about a train-delaying avalanche. Among the overbooked tavern's guests are a pair of jolly Brits, cricket enthusiasts Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), who are eager to get home in time to attend a test match. These amusing characters might seem like our focal point early on, but they ultimately serve a significant side presence as comic relief.

Our protagonist ends up being Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), who is returning home from a ladies' vacation to be wed. The bulk of the film transcends on a transportation method from which Hitchcock drew drama better than anyone else: a train. Onboard, Iris gets acquainted with Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a kindly, elderly British governess with whom she has tea. Shortly before boarding, Iris was struck by a falling flowerpot seemingly intended for Miss Froy. After a short snooze, Iris awakens with Miss Froy nowhere to be found. What's especially troubling about that is that no one else on the train claims to have seen the old woman at any time. A doctor (Paul Lukas) suggests the flowerpot incident may have rendered Iris delusional, an explanation that doesn't satisfy her curiosities.

What initially seems to be a thin, straightforward mystery -- did Miss Froy really vanish or is Iris out of her mind? -- does develop into something more complex and sordid. Iris finds an unlikely ally in Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a man who disturbed her sleep the night before. The two begin to suspect a conspiracy and wonder if a severely ill, face-wrapped patient picked up has something to do with it.

Comedy duo Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) are introduced in "The Lady Vanishes." Dame May Whitty plays Miss Froy, the titular vanishing lady whose existence is called into question.

The Lady Vanishes has faint overtones of British novelist Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, published four years earlier. In fact, it was loosely adapted from the less renowned 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. The film carries the distinct imprint of Alfred Hitchcock, who by then had been directing feature films for thirteen years. The tight plotting and riveting suspense for which Hitchcock is known today are not quite in place yet. Lady is more relaxed and casual, only taking shape as a mystery/thriller shortly before the one-hour mark and remaining light well after that.

The quality that has elevated Hitchcock above just about every one of his contemporaries is in how graceful his films age. His movies seem both ahead of their time and timeless, dealing with intriguing themes (murder, duplicity, mistaken identity) that likely won't ever fall out of fashion.
That enduring nature applies not only to his heart-pounding thrillers, but to his wicked sense of humor too, which continues to strike as smart, sly, and genuinely funny in contrast to many comedy specialists who came before and after him.

Perhaps the film's biggest claim to fame is in Caldicott and Charters, a comedy duo that would resurface in screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's 1940 film Night Train to Munich. Directed by the legendary Carol Reed and admitted into the Criterion Collection last year, that drama bears many similarities to Lady including Margaret Lockwood as star. It was one of a few Gilliat-Launder movies and BBC radio serials that Caldicott and Charters turned up in, a concept tough to imagine occurring today with all the red tape and studio wrangling it might require. Actors Wayne and Radford remained a double act in other entities up until Radford's death in 1952. Caldicott and Charters, meanwhile, got a BBC mystery series in 1985. Shortly before that, in 1979, The Lady Vanishes was remade with a cast headed by Elliot Gould, Cybill Shepherd, and Angela Lansbury; a less ambiguous setting; and far less critical regard.

Hitchcock filmed one more movie from a Gilliat-Launder screenplay, 1939's Jamaica Inn, before coming to America and immediately earning notice with 1940's Best Picture winner Rebecca. It is plenty absurd that neither that film nor any of the dozens that followed won Hitchcock a competitive Oscar, but the director has obviously received recognition and admiration far more meaningful than any one gold statue. As it should be; Hitchcock was a master storyteller, who seemingly wrung more entertainment and pleasure out of the medium than anyone else in cinema history. Even an entry in his canon as relatively obscure as The Lady Vanishes is full of delights above and beyond most movies from its time.

The Lady Vanishes: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
LCPM Mono 1.0 (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: December 6, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Still available as 2-Disc Criterion Collection DVD ($29.95 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Given the usual Criterion care, The Lady Vanishes looks good on Blu-ray without quite being instantly recognizable as high definition. The pillarboxed 1.33:1 transfer is fairly clean, but still subject to the occasional bit of wear: scratches, specks, and limited focus. Considering the film's age and modest origins (this isn't Gone with the Wind or anything), most should be pleased with the fine results, but they're not spectacular enough to cite as one of the studio's most stunning restorations.

There is less to say about the 1.0 LCPM soundtrack. The dialogue is crisper and clearer than you might expect and remains audible throughout (though, as always, Criterion offers English subtitles on the film).

In "Crook's Tour", Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) try to make sense of a German announcement within the record that endangers them. Greta Gynt is leading lady and femme fatale of "Crook's Tour" in the role of singer/spy La Palermo.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Extras, all of which appeared on the 2-disc Criterion DVD, are presented in high definition video where applicable.

They begin with an audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder. Eder is full of information, well-prepared, and easy to listen to. Speaking without lull, he compares and contrasts the film to plenty of other works, both by Hitchcock and others.
He shares details of the production and analyzes Hitchcock's inspired use of sound, limited resources, and cramped spaces. Incidentally, he sounds a lot like Ron Swanson.

Crook's Tour (1:20:59) is a complete 1941 feature film directed by John Baxter, adapted from a BBC radio serial, and starring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, a duo to whom the Blu-ray devotes a full page of onscreen text. The movie demonstrates how slight and silly The Lady Vanishes would have been with Charters and Caldicott front and center. This comedy puts the two Brits in the middle of international espionage mystery. When their tour bus breaks down in Saudi Arabia, the cricket fans make other plans to get home in time for -- what else? -- a test match.

At a club, the jingoistic Charters and Caldicott are mistaken for German spies when their three-course order matches the spies' directions. With Caldicott engaged to marry Charters' sister the next day, the two friends find their lives in danger from "bathrooms" that lead to doom to a firing squad certain to end their lives. This film's MacGuffin is a record by blonde singer/dancer/spy La Palermo (Greta Gynt), which holds special instructions regarding German plans.

Crook's Tour is often amusing and sometimes downright funny (Charters and Caldicott's experiments playing the integral record at different speeds feel like they could have been written last week). But it's certainly no masterwork and we see how much better the characters are suited to supporting roles. While it may be the weakest of the three Charters and Caldicott movies I've seen (no surprise since the other two are given their own Criterion spine numbers), it's a terrific inclusion all the same, well suited for such placement. It must be noted that Gilliat and Launder receive no credit for this movie, not even for the characters; Crook's Tour was written by John Watt and Max Kester and adapted by Barbara K. Emary, three names you have no better reason to know.

Alfred Hitchcock directs actors Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood in this still set to Truffaut's interview of the director. Iris and her friends (Googie Withers and Sally Stewart) enjoy cocktails in this colorized lobby card from the stills gallery. A train window view is given the tomato soup feel of the cover art on the Blu-ray's main menu.

"Hitchcock/Truffaut" gives us ten relevant minutes of French director François Truffaut's epic 50-hour 1962 interview with Hitchcock,
which a text screen describes. Hitch's comments on the making of The Lady Vanishes, fed to Truffaut by interpreter, play over quiet film clips, stills, and pictures of the two legends' meeting.

"Mystery Train: Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes" (33:32) is a video essay by film scholar and Hitchcock historian Leonard Leff. Leff speaks over scenes from the film, stills, and related media. He discusses Hitchcock's thriller sextet and the ingredients of a Hitchcock movie, both with the focus squarely on Lady. He also touches upon the film's writers, effects, sensibilities, and specific sequences. It's a thoughtful and enlightening piece.

On-disc items come to a close with a brief stills gallery, consisting of four behind-the-scenes stills, eight colorized lobby card, and ten poster designs from around the globe.

Oddly, no trailer is included. Based on Criterion's track record of providing them, that probably means none could be dug up.

Though that covers everything on the disc, we must also mention the always-welcome Criterion booklet. The Lady Vanishes receives a staple-bound pamphlet running just over 20 pages. As usual, the booklet opens with film credits and closes with transfer information and disc acknowledgements. In between, we get two short essays, both written for the 2007 rerelease. "All Aboard!" by author Geoffrey O'Brien does a nice job of dissecting the film and contextualizing it within Hitchcock's career, celebrating a joyfulness like and unlike the director's later works. In the narrower 3½-page "Tea & Treachery", professor and Hitchcock expert Charles Barr focuses on The Lady Vanishes as a reflection of Hitchcock's views on class in English society.

As always, the booklet and disc are packaged in a clear keepcase of standard Blu-ray height and standard DVD width. Rather than additional artwork, the reverse side of the cover displays a chapters list, something practically every other studio has needlessly done away with.

The Blu-ray's menu is like a moving version of the cover art, as we ride on the train with faint sounds and the frame tinted in the same red-orange and yellow color scheme. Though the disc takes a while to play bonus features and return to the menu, it supports bookmarks and resuming every item, more than making up for any inconvenience.

Iris (Margaret Lockwood) and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) catch their breath after a row with Italian magician Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver in cardboard standee form). "The Lady Vanishes" concludes with a shootout that instills fear in "Mrs." Todhunter (Linden Travers) and confidence in Caldicott (Naunton Wayne).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Lady Vanishes might not be among Hitchock's greatest films, but it bests the top efforts of countless directors. Though not as gripping and dense as later thrillers, this bubbly mystery is plenty fun and well-made. Criterion's Blu-ray doesn't add much over their 2007 2-disc DVD, but that was already a stellar set and this must be a slight step up. While a format-to-format upgrade may not be your highest priority, a first-time purchase is easy to recommend.

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Criterion Collection Blu-ray / 2-Disc Criterion Collection DVD

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Related Reviews:
New: The Rocketeer (Blu-ray) • It's a Wonderful Life (Blu-ray Gift Set) • Rushmore (Criterion Collection Blu-ray)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock: RebeccaNorth by Northwest | Featuring Charters and Caldicott: Night Train to Munich
1930s: Stagecoach | Trains: The Darjeeling LimitedThe Tourist | Disappearance and Disbelief in Transit: Flightplan
Criterion Blu-rays: Island of Lost SoulsThe KillingKiss Me DeadlyDazed and Confused

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Reviewed December 10, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1938 Gainsborough Pictures and 2007-11 The Criterion Collection, Janus Films, British National Films, Ltd.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.