The Lady Vanishes

October 5, 2009


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.

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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.

use_the_Gun   a_rational_explanation

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

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The Flesh, the Devil, Greta & John…

November 24, 2008

From the  Garbo silent film, “Flesh and the Devil.”  Greta plays a femme fatale whose first victim is Leo, an army officer from a castle nearby.  At a ball…

…he sees her again, he’s done for now!  “May I have this waltz..?”  She says yes, and glides towards him like a vampire going for the neck…

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After the dance, the slip off into the garden for a while.  The scene, technically advanced for the day, is lit by matches and moonlight.  He tells her the obvious – “You are very beautiful.”  She makes a moue and says, “You are very young…”  They do the cigarette exchange drill before the inevitable passionate kiss…followed by a period of …bliss.

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Some shots from their illicit domestic ecstasy – does he not know she’s married?  (Of course, why should he care..?  He’s an officer!)  Garbo’s glittering dress, painted lips, and her tangled clutch with John Gilbert (her lover in off-screen life) creates some of the silent screen’s more memorable images…but the husband intrudes, and a duel is scheduled.

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Oh dear…Leo killed the husband and had to flee the law.  His friend Ulrich obeys his parting words and goes to her to see that she is taken care of…Of course, Ulrich is rich…if she needs anything at all, please just call…How can she fail to give him the privilege of lighting her cigarette?  He fumbles with several matches, but succeeds at last.  He’s finished!

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In the end, Ulrich and Leo are reunited in undying friendship, with the fatal woman out of the way thanks to some conveniently thin ice that shattered and swallowed her up as she rushed to prevent them from shooting each other in yet another affair of honor…