Froy! Froy! Froy!
Dame May Whitty, reminding me somewhat of my late maternal grandmother.
Charles Barr, the master of English Hitchcock and the author of English Hitchcock, makes much play of the fact that the vanishing lady in THE LADY VANISHES, Miss Froy, sounds like an uncompleted “Freud”. A Freudian slip of a girl. Likewise he structures this analysis around those moments when Margaret Lockwood, as plucky heroine Iris Henderson, loses consciousness: falling asleep in a hotel bed, then knocked silly by a falling window-box; fainting from accumulated stress, and then pretending to pass out after being drugged. Each of these moments is a further step into Dream Country — the last one may be an embracing of the logic of nightmare.
I like this idea, but I got interested in another one. Fiona, who hadn’t seen the film in years, was of course totally charmed by it, and while noticing how weird it was, which certainly ties in with the Barr vision of the film as a surreal odyssey into the realm of nightmares, she was also struck by how unsympathetic everybody in it was. Everybody but Miss Froy, who rhymes with joy.
So there’s a potential reading of the film which takes its theme as the human, humane element of our nature being lost, and recovered through a struggle. As the struggle goes on, characters who are capable of nobility start to manifest it, and by the end, with Miss Froy restored to them, they (more or less) all pull together and win through against the forces of oppression. This ties in with the film’s reputation as a key pre-war movie which, while taking place in a fictitious European locale, Bandrieka, and avoiding making strict sense in plot or political terms (“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rational explanation for all this,” remarks one character, a touch optimistically), does capture a feeling of international jitters (“England on the brink” does not just refer to the test match) and projects a strong desire for cooperation across class barriers. Authors Launder & Gilliat were fairly left-leaning at this time in their lives.
Hitch had just visited America on a fact-finding mission, hoping to score a contract. Feelers were being sent out by both David Selznick and MGM-British, following Hitchcock’s escape from the patronage of Michael Balcon, who had thoughtfully “protected” him from American offers. Laying aside a Nova Pilbeam project in which she would have played a Catholic schoolgirl whose father gets mixed up in a murder (will she protect him and be damned?), an intriguing-sounding idea, Hitch took over a project begun by Roy William Neill (a brief spoof of Sherlock Holmes anticipates Neill’s celebrated work with Basil Rathbone as the sleuth) which had run aground amid location problems in Yugoslavia.
The plot is a helter-skelter affair, with constant, breakneck narrative development after the opening act of character introductions and comedy (the film has the strongest and most integrated humour of any of the British thrillers). So I want to concentrate on the people, using them as guides through the maelstrom of plot. It’s often pointed out how bizarre the MacGuffin is in this one, another of Hitch’s musical motifs, “the key clause in a secret treaty between two European nations” — the Hitler-Stalin pact? — coded as a melody, but nobody talks about how strange the whole story is. Bad guys abduct a British spy, Miss Froy, on a train, and hope to smuggle her off swathed in bandages as an accident victim. Fair enough. When Margaret Lockwood asks after the missing woman, they pretend she never existed, and all the other passengers, for private reasons of their own, fall into step with this deception. In the case of the Italian magician (a Hitchcock invention: sleight-of-hand is very important here), the answer is simply that he’s been bribed. The Bandriekan Baroness (Mary Clare from YOUNG AND INNOCENT) is apparently the ringleader, since she turns up at the very end where she has no other reason to be. But how could the bad guys count on the British characters to back them up in their absurd confabulations? It’s a terrific example of Hitchcock damning the plausibilists and going full steam into dreamland.
Margaret Lockwood is a superb heroine, and it’s regrettable she never worked with Hitchcock again, although she certainly made more films of this kind. Apart from her work as a wicked lady in THE WICKED LADY and similar Gainsborough melodramas, she showed plenty of pluck in thrillers for Carol Reed (NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH) and Roy Ward Baker (HIGHLY DANGEROUS — Baker was an assistant on THE LADY VANISHES). Here she’s sexy, snappy, and funny without seeming to try.
Mind you, she partakes of the film’s deliberate lack of sympathy early on: she and her two friends (a young unknown, plus Googie Withers, a great survivor of this era) are pretty shameless in their exploitation of the hotel manager, and despite being new money, they’ve picked up some class prejudices: seeing that the hotel is crowded, one remarks, “Don’t tell me Cook’s have started running cheap tours here?” Although that’s pretty mild compared to Charters and Caldicott. When Miss Froy asks for help finding a bag at the station, they basically blank her. But Mags redeems herself by picking up the old dear’s fallen spectacles, a good deed that promptly gets her beaned by a would-be assassin.
There’s also the moment where she bribes the hotel manager to have noisy guest Michael Redgrave evicted. We’re clearly meant to see this as not cricket, and it’s used to justify Redgrave’s subsequent caddish behaviour. (Selznick would later object to Hitchcock’s tendency to have heroes behave like boors.) Now, I like my sleep, and we live in a neighbourhood where it’s often disturbed by late-night revellers, so I’m on la Lockwood’s side here. In pursuit of a good night’s kip, anything up to small-arms fire is acceptable. We even cheered when the serenading folk-singer gets throttled a minute later.
Anyway, what keeps us on Margaret’s side despite the more abrasive moments is probably her mock-melodramatic speech where she explains that she’s getting married out of ennui. It’s so neatly written and perfectly delivered that we just can’t wait to see what mad adventure is going to knock this world-weary lass out of her tired expectations.
Michael Redgrave. The man to whom Hitchcock is supposed to have said “Actors are cattle.” Redgrave said he realised later that Hitchcock was trying to shock him out of a superior attitude. He had been shocked by the speed with which Hitchcock demanded a take. “in the theatre we’d rehearse this for three weeks.” “In this medium we have three minutes,” said Hitch. It was Paul Lukas, whom Redgrave respected, who talked him into taking the work seriously. But there’s no trace of this diffidence onscreen: Redgrave is an amusing and eccentric hero, maybe even better than Donat (the previous benchmark).
The character, an eccentric researching a book on European folk dances, is about as whimsical as one might safely try to get away with in a thriller, and maybe it’s the quality of the execution that makes it work so well, rather than any brilliance in the concept of the character. But L&G have shrewdly calculated that, in a film crowded with stereotypes and repressed Brits, both types that must conform to certain expectations, a free-wheeling Bohemian makes a refreshing blast of anarchy for the audience. And since Redgrave’s hero doesn’t play by the rules (there’s some very funny dirty fighting in the battle with the magician), he’s free to surprise us and break from genre expectations.
Paul Lukas as the suave doctor, suggesting plausible psychological reasons why Miss Froy must be a hallucination, ought to be obvious as the villain, but he’s not. Hitch cleverly sees the point where the audience is likely to catch on, and tips us the wink with a shifty reaction shot from P.L. Then he can build suspense as the medico tries to press doped drinks on our unsuspecting protags, a weighty low-angle shot making the glasses loom like henchmen. Lukas is still standing at the film’s conclusion: “As they say in England, jolly good luck to them,” he smiles. Does he represent the still-lurking threat of fascism in Europe?
A character composed largely from cliches, the bad guy is brought to life by Lukas with a fine display of simpering when he unveils his true nature. And there’s really little change in how we feel about him when he goes from sympathetic brain specialist (no pesky distinction is made between psychiatry and neurosurgery here) to villainous spymaster: the guy offering the rational explanation is always the enemy in a film like this.
Basil Radford (seen in YOUNG AND INNOCENT) and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott got whole new careers out of this film, having played assorted roles beforehand. They can be seen as a double-act in the Charles Crichton comedy episode of DEAD OF NIGHT (generally derided as the film’s weakest part, but I still like it), and Thorold Dickinson’s THE NEXT OF KIN, and actually reprised their roles as C&C in a whole series of films. The aforementioned NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH is a gloves-off version of LADY, with proper Nazi bad guys, and Rex Harrison squiring Margaret Lockwood through the alpine thrills. When Harrison drags up as an SS officer, it’s almost too much stimulation to bear. Charters and Caldicott are again along for the ride.
In CROOK’S TOUR the duo got a film to themselves. All I remember of it is one of them opening a door marked bathroom and nearly plunging down a sheer crevasse into the raging Bosphorus below. “That’s not the bathroom, that’s the Bosphorus,” he remarks. “The sign’s wrong, then,” says his chum, “It shouldn’t say bathroom, it should say Bosphorus.”
Thereafter, Lauder & Gilliat brought them along for luck when they because producer-directors, showing them in wartime in MILLIONS LIKE US, but when they tried to deploy them in I SEE A DARK STRANGER (Trevor Howard and Deborah Kerr, maybe L&G’s best film) the actors proved awkward, so they replaced them with two identical stooges named Spanswick and Goodhusband. S&G are almost as good as C&C, but not quite.
“They’re horrible!” Fiona protested, and it’s true that, in embodying the Englishman abroad, C&C are twin concatenations of snobbery, bigotry, prudery, arrogance, thoughtlessness and selfishness. However, they do redeem themselves by being good in a scrape. A pretty sharp portrait of Britain at the time. Radford’s underplaying when he’s shot is priceless: he looks slightly let down. When he manages to cut off some innocent fellow’s important phone call, he becomes a portrait of sheepishness, as if he might confess to the whole thing, but Wayne shushes him with a slight casting-down of the eyes. “Leave it,” say the eyes.
Even more unpleasant is Cecil Parker, as an aspiring legal somebody, off on a fling with a married woman, Linden Travers (Yay! Miss Blandish!). He’s the one who lies for the basest of reasons, to avoid a scandal. He also gets one of the film’s best jokes, when Travers complains about his fussiness in booking separate rooms. “You weren’t so particular in Paris.” “That was entirely different,” he blusters, “The exhibition was at it’s height.” “I realise that now,” deadpans Travers, “No need to rub it in.”
(Launder & Gilliat topload the script with dirty jokes, most of them genuinely witty, aided by uncredited contributions from Val Guest and whoever else happened by the writing room. Redgrave gets some good ones about illegitimacy and toilets, and the hotel manager squeezes some good malapropist double entendres in: “You can have the maid’s room. But first she must come to your room and -” here, he gestures at his own attire – “remove her wardrobe.” Emile Boreo, by the way, is great as the hotelier, a distant cousin of Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis in Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, perhaps.)
Parker is not only a weasel, morally and sexually, he’s an appeaser, which means his death at the end, waving a white flag, is a salutary thing, or intended to be. By refusing to believe in the foreign menace, he condemns himself to death, the one moment in the film where it’s nakedly political in a way none of the British thrillers quite are otherwise.
Leaving aside the various funny foreigners — the film both has and eats its cake by mocking the Brits for mocking them, and then mocking them itself — that leaves us with the nun in high heels. Sinister sisters tip-tap through Hitchcock’s oeuvre like ravens. Catherine Lacey had a long career that more or less started with this film, taking in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING and Michael Reeves’ THE SORCERERS, where she’s paired with Karloff and manages to make him look innocuous, and then near the end she’s the old lady in the wheelchair with the canaries in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. She must have had some stories.
Which leads us back to Dame May Whitty (few other actors made both British and American films with Hitch, but Dame May would return in SUSPICION) as Miss Froy, seen here being lifted off the loo, one of many indignities she’s subjected to. Writers naming PSYCHO as the first American film with a toilet onscreen may be correct, but Hitchcock was no stranger to lavatorial matters, and the pan can be glimpsed during a pan of another kind here. Miss Froy, who is not only a whimsical governess (she never breaks character); a master spy; the subject of a magician’s trick which sees her reappear at film’s end at least as mysteriously as she originally disappeared, and with no hint of explanation — Miss Froy, whose true name must be spelled M-A-C-G-U-F-F-I-N.