Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) reminded me of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in a way. A group of middle-class people find themselves in a nightmare world bounded by the edge of a room, or railway car, from which they cannot escape. This one has a happy ending.
The movie gets off to such a slow and corny start, I almost gave up on it. There’s the rich playgirl, getting ready to return to London to settle down according to Daddy’s wishes, and marry a “check-chasing blueblood.” A pair of stereotypical, cricket-obsessed Brits who keep up a steady idiotic patter, a charming, handsome, and brash musicologist studying local folksongs, and a slightly batty old English lady governess. They are all trapped by an avalanche in a remote backwater of some fictional central-European country, waiting for their train connection back to England.
Once on the train, the playgirl and the governess become friendly, and when the girl wakes up from a snooze, the old lady is gone. Simply gone. Everybody claims to have never seen her! It becomes a somewhat labored cat-and-mouse game between the girl and the passengers: she trying to get evidence that the woman did exist; they implying or saying straight out that she’s crazy. A bit of physical evidence convinces the music man, and they make a team. It turns out that the passengers are in a conspiracy to abduct and kill the old lady with an elaborate switcheroo involving a fake medical expert, a nun in black high-heeled pumps, and an Italian circus performer. Then it gets weird.
After the heroes rescue the governess, the bad guys separate the train cars and direct the passengers and the engine onto a small line that runs into the forest. They stop the train and surround the car with armed men. After a failed ruse to get the passengers to disembark, they direct a fusillade at the car. Why are all these people suddenly fighting for their lives in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a rail car, simply because of some old lady?
A pretty woman with her lover, both fleeing spouses, demands that her man use his gun to defend them. He thinks it’s all insane – the only sensible thing is to surrender and explain everything. She grabs his gun and starts firing. The two Brits rise to the occasion, without visible emotion of course, and turn out to be crack shots. One grabs the pretty lady’s gun saying, “I’ll put it to better use,” and proceeds to pick off the attackers. With each shot, the woman starts with fear while he, surveying the situation, calmly remarks, “I’m sure that there’s a rational –bang!– explanation – bang! – for all of this.” Indeed there is.
Happily returned to London, the playgirl abandons her gold-digging fiancé and surrenders to the ill mannered, but charming music man in an embrace that is not what I expect from a Hitchcock film