Alfred Hitchcock's last important and most acclaimed British film, The Lady Vanishes, in many ways epitomizes his British films, which are simpler and less pretentious than his later American ones. Few Hitchcock films have had such an enthusiastic critical reception as The Lady Vanishes, which is arguably the best of his British films and certainly one of his most ingenious and entertaining. The story concerns an elderly English governess whose disappearance from a train sets off a string of mysterious incidents. The pace never slackens as Hitchcock keeps the tension mounting until the final scene. Indeed, The Lady•Vanishes is quintessential Hitchcock, complete with a beautiful heroine, a perplexed hero, international spies, and a train journey, all set amidst much suspense.
Somewhere in a Central European country, the passengers on a transcontinental train are stranded at a small inn by an avalanche. Unprepared to accommodate such a large number of guests, the innkeeper does not have enough rooms or food for all of the passengers, two of whom are very British and unflappable cricket fans who are hurrying home to see the championship cricket matches. At dinner they are forced to share a table with an elderly British governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who is returning home after having spent six years in an unnamed Central European country and who offers to share her cheese with them since the inn's food had run out some time before. Also staying at the inn is an English heiress, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), who is having a final vacation before returning to England to be married. Upset by the noise in the room above hers, she has its occupant, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a music scholar recording the vanishing folk dances of Central Europe, thrown out. When he responds by threatening to occupy her own room, she hurriedly calls the manager to have him restored to his room.
The next morning the railroad track is cleared and the train's passengers prepare to continue their journey. As Iris is waiting to board the train, however, she is struck on the head by a flower pot; and her momentary unconsciousness and dizziness are conveyed on film by multiple images of her friends and the train wheels. Miss Froy kindly assists Iris into a compartment on the train and later takes her to the dining car for tea. As they pass a compartment with an English couple in it, the man quickly pulls down the blind for privacy.
In the dining car Miss Froy asks the waiter to brew her a special packet of herb tea which she takes from her handbag, and later requests the sugar bowl from the two cricket fans who are demonstrating a cricket play with sugar cubes. While they drink their tea she tries to introduce herself to Iris, but her voice is drowned out by the train's whistle, so she writes her name in the steam on the windowpane. Having introduced the principal characters in the confined setting where most of the action will take place, and having established the principal clues, Hitchcock has carefully prepared the film for the next part of the story.
After Miss Froy and Iris return to their compartment, Iris tries to sleep while Miss Froy begins to do a crossword puzzle. Iris drifts off to sleep and later, as she slowly awakens, looks sleepily around the compartment and realizes that Miss Froy is not there. When she asks the other occupants of the compartment where she is, a forbidding gray-haired Baroness assures her that there has not been any English lady besides Iris herself in the compart¬ment and suggests that the blow on her head has made her forgetful.
Iris begins a search through the train for Miss Froy; when she reaches the dining car, the waiter who has served them insists that Iris took tea by herself, producing a bill to prove it. Unconvinced, Iris continues her search, blun-dering into the third-class compartment where she encounters Gilbert once again. Although their relationship is more antagonistic than romantic at this point, Gilbert sees that she is seriously upset and offers to help her since he speaks the language. In the corridor they meet Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), an eminent European brain surgeon who is picking up a patient at the next station. When Iris asks for his help, he suggests that she is having hallucinations caused by the blow to her head.
Not so easily persuaded, however, Iris continues her search, questioning the other English passengers who have seen Miss Froy, but all have personal reasons for not wanting to admit that they have seen her; Todhunter (Cecil Parker), the Englishman who wanted privacy, is traveling with his mistress, Margaret (Linden Travers), and does not want to be involved in any scandal, knowing that it would harm his career. The two cricket fans, Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), are afraid the affair will delay the train, causing them to miss the cricket matches.
Iris' story receives some support, however, when Margaret, hoping to force Todhunter into marrying her after she divorces her husband, admits that she has seen Miss Froy. Jubilantly, Iris tells Dr. Hartz that someone else has seen Miss Froy,' but when she returns to her compartment a woman dressed in Miss Froy's clothes is occupying Miss Froy's seat. The woman announces that she is Madame Kummer (Josephine Wilson) and has been in the compartment throughout the journey. Her story is corroborated by the other occupants, and Iris, dazed and confused, appears to be convinced after Dr. Hartz explains to her that her subconscious has substituted Miss Froy's face for that of Madame Kummer.
Still beset by doubt, however, Iris asks Gilbert to take her to the dining car for some tea; there, she sees Miss Froy's name still visible on the steamy window. Her discovery is underscored by a startling blast from the train whistle just before the train hurtles through a tunnel, obliterating the name. Hysterically, Iris appeals to the other passengers to stop the train and search it for Miss Froy, but they stare unresponsively at her. Desperate, Iris wrenches free from Gilbert and Dr. Hartz and pulls the emergency cord, stopping the train just before she faints. When she regains consciousness, Dr. Hartz is trying to calm her, but she obstinately holds to her belief that Miss Froy is aboard the train. Just as Gilbert is becoming more skeptical of her story, the cook throws some kitchen garbage out of the train window. For a brief moment, isolated in a close-up, a label from a packet of herbal tea sticks to the window and is seen by Gilbert.
Now fully persuaded of the truth of Iris' story, Gilbert helps her search the train and finds, in the baggage car, Miss Froy's spectacles in the paraphernalia of a magician.Suddenly the magician appears and tries to take back the spectacles. He and Gilbert struggle until Iris hits the magician over the head with a bottle, knocking him unconscious. Quickly, they bundle the man into a trunk, but just as quickly open it again since the magician still holds the spectacles. However, they find that he has disappeared through the false bottom of the trunk, taking with him the only evidence of Miss Froy's presence on the train.
A fantastic idea now occurs to Gilbert: what if the bandaged patient is really Miss Froy? Iris then recalls noticing that the nun was wearing high heels, and they return to Dr. Hartz's compartment to verify their wild premise. Before they can unwrap the bandages, however, Hartz appears, and Iris tells him of their suspicions. He persuades them to meet him for a drink in the dining car where they can discuss the matter more fully. After they have had their drinks he takes them back to his compartment, informing them that he has had the nun drug their drinks. He then reveals that the "patient" is indeed Miss Froy and that she will soon be removed at the next stop where he will operate on her, unsuccessfully.
Iris and Gilbert feign sleepiness to get Hartz to leave them; then, in a race against time, Gilbert climbs out the window of the locked compartment to reach the next one, where the nun is guarding Miss Froy. After telling Gilbert that she has not drugged their drinks because she could not tolerate the murder of a fellow Englishwoman, the nun helps him unwrap Miss Froy's bandages. Just as they finish, Madame Kummer enters, so they overpower her and substitute her for Miss Froy.
When Hartz discovers the deception after the "patient" has been taken off the train but before it leaves the station, he arranges to have their train car uncoupled and diverted to a branch line. Finally, realizing what has happened, Gilbert and Iris go to the dining car and tell the other English passengers of their discovery. They are not, however, believed until the train stops and an armed officer approaches and offers to escort all of them to the British Embassy. Gilbert hits the officer over the head, takes his gun, and then makes his way to the engine to get the train moving again. Meanwhile, the cricket fans, proving to be unexpectedly competent with firearms, hold off a group of armed soldiers led by Dr. Hartz. Todhunter, a pacifist, wants to surrender, but when he leaves the train waving a white flag, he is shot.
Miss Froy, who up to now has refused to reveal what is happening, confides to Gilbert and Iris that she is a British spy. Before escaping from the besieged train, she imparts the secret information she is carrying—the vital clauses of a secret treaty between two European nations—to Gilbert so that the infor¬mation will have two chances of reaching the British Foreign Office. The information is coded in the form of a tune which Gilbert memorizes.
Unable to tell whether Miss Froy has escaped safely or not, Gilbert manages to get the train started just as Hartz and the soldiers prepare to board it, and they all escape across the border. Gilbert and Iris reach London safely, but when they arrive at the foreign office Gilbert finds that he has forgotten the tune. Suddenly they hear it being played on a piano in the next room and discover Miss Froy, alive and well. Needless to say, the course of events has caused Iris to forget her fiancé, and she now plans to marry Gilbert.
The tension and the chilling, undefined menace of international intrigue are masterfully maintained by Hitchcock and delightfully counterpointed by the film's wit and humor. Indeed, much of the charm of The Lady Vanishes is due to its witty script and amusing characters. The humor is principally centered in the characters of the two British cricket fans, although Gilbert also has some funny exchanges with Iris. Perfect caricatures of the unflappable and insular Englishman, the cricket fans are disdainful of the "third-rate country" in which they find themselves temporarily stranded, and of Iris and her friends, whom they suspect of being rich Americans because of the manager's obsequious treatment of them.
Their sense of decorum is offended when they are relegated to the maid's room at the inn, but even in this predicament, they insist on changing, into evening clothes for dinner. They are then forced, because of the overcrowded conditions, to share a table and even cheese with Miss Froy, whom they characterize as a "queer old bird" after politely informing her that they "never judge any country by its politics." Their overriding concern throughout the film is to return to England in time to see the championship cricket matches. Reduced to reading an American newspaper, the only newspaper available, they murmur disgustedly that "Americans have no sense of proportion" since the sports section "has nothing but baseball and not a word about cricket." Later, in the midst of the gunfight, their main concern is whether they will get to the cricket matches on time; however, true to their unflappable British tradition, they remain cool and imperturbable during the crisis. Having both survived the gun battle and helped Gilbert get the train started so that they can all escape, they are dismayed to find when they arrive in London that the cricket matches have been cancelled because of floods. Indeed, the news of the cancellation is the only time they show very much emotion during the entire film. The roles, perfectly played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, proved to be so popular that these actors frequently played similar roles in later films.
Margaret Lockwood as Iris and Michael Redgrave as Gilbert are partic-ularly good in providing the romantic comedy aspect of the film with their antagonism for each other turning to love; they are equally adept at conveying the bewilderment of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circum¬stances. Dame May Whitty is convincing as the little old lady spy, Miss Froy.
As usual in an Alfred Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes has tension and a good sense of pace as well as several ingenious touches. Particularly note¬worthy is the manner in which the film starts out rather ordinarily with the characters having nothing more serious to worry about than finding a room in a crowded hotel. Although the opening section does not reveal the main plot of the film, it does introduce the characters to one another and to the audience without wasting one scene. Also clever is the manner in which Hitchcock. manipulates the evidence of Miss Froy's disappearance. Each time Iris thinks she has definite proof, it seems to vanish; and likewise, each time she gets so discouraged that she begins to doubt her own memory, new evidence appears. To this carefully controlled confusion, Hitchcock adds the further dimension that Iris can never be quite sure who is with her and who is against her. For example, she keeps telling Dr. Hartz what she discovers only to find out, nearly too late, that he is one of the conspirators who have caused the disappearance of Miss Froy. The Lady Vanishes is vintage Hitchcock, with the imprint of this master filmmaker evident from the overall conception of plot to the slightest detail of filming.