The Lady Vanishes

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The Lady Vanishes
The Lady Vanishes 1938 Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlfred Hitchcock
Produced byEdward Black (uncredited)
Screenplay by
Story byAlma Reville (continuity)
Based onThe Wheel Spins
by Ethel Lina White
Music by
CinematographyJack E. Cox
Edited byR.E. Dearing
Distributed by
Release date
  • 7 October 1938 (1938-10-07) (London)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish, German, French and Italian

The Lady Vanishes is a 1938 British mystery thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.[1] Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the film is about a beautiful English tourist travelling by train in continental Europe who discovers that her elderly travelling companion seems to have disappeared from the train. After her fellow passengers deny ever having seen the elderly lady, the young woman is helped by a young musicologist, the two proceeding to search the train for clues to the old lady's disappearance.

The Lady Vanishes was filmed in the Gainsborough Studios at Islington, London. Hitchcock caught Hollywood's attention with the film and relocated to Hollywood soon after its release.[2] Although the director's three previous efforts had done poorly at the box office, The Lady Vanishes was widely successful, and confirmed American producer David O. Selznick's belief that Hitchcock indeed had a future in Hollywood cinema.[3][4]

The British Film Institute ranked The Lady Vanishes the 35th best British film of the 20th century. In 2017 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw it ranked the 31st best British film ever.[5] Having remained one of Hitchcock's most renowned British films,[3] a remake (also titled The Lady Vanishes) was released in 1979, and in March 2013 the BBC broadcast a TV adaptation starring Tuppence Middleton as Iris. Bill Kenwright adapted the 1938 film to a stage version, which went on a national tour in 2019. The play stars husband and wife Juliet Mills and Maxwell Caulfield and Lorna Fitzgerald.[6]


English tourist Iris Henderson and her friends Blanche and Julie are in the fictional European country of Bandrika. Iris is returning home to get married, but an avalanche has blocked the railway line. The stranded passengers are forced to spend the night at a hotel. In the same predicament are Charters and Caldicott, English cricket enthusiasts anxious to see the last days of the Test match in Manchester, and Miss Froy, a governess and music teacher who is returning home to England. Miss Froy listens to a folk singer in the street; he is strangled to death by an unseen murderer.

That evening, Iris is bothered by loud noise from the room above hers. She complains to the hotel manager. Finding Gilbert Redman, an ethnomusicologist, playing a clarinet and transcribing folk music of the region whilst three locals dance for him, the manager throws him out of his room. Gilbert gets revenge by staying in Iris's room until eventually she capitulates and gets the manager to give him back his room.

The next morning outside the hotel, Iris is hit on the head by a large planter dropped from above. Miss Froy, who is nearby, helps Iris onto the train. Also on board are Charters and Caldicott, Gilbert, a lawyer named Eric Todhunter and his mistress, who is passing herself off as "Mrs. Todhunter." As a result of her injury, Iris faints. She comes to in a compartment with Miss Froy and several strangers. She joins Miss Froy in the dining car for tea. Soon after, they return to their compartment, where Iris falls asleep.

When Iris wakes up, Miss Froy has vanished. The other passengers in her compartment deny having seen her. Todhunter, who spoke with Miss Froy earlier, pretends not to remember her to avoid drawing attention to his liaison with his mistress. Iris searches for Miss Froy with Gilbert's assistance. Brain surgeon Dr. Hartz says Iris may be suffering from "concussion-related hallucinations." Charters and Caldicott also claim not to remember Miss Froy because they fear that any delay would make them miss the cricket match.

Left to right: Catherine Lacey, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave with the bandaged patient

At the first stop, Dr. Hartz's patient, covered in bandages from top to toe and on a stretcher, is brought aboard. Madame Kummer, dressed exactly like Miss Froy, appears in her place, but Iris and Gilbert continue searching. They are attacked by a knife-wielding magician, Signor Doppo, who was in Iris's compartment. They suspect that Dr. Hartz's patient has been replaced by Miss Froy. Dr. Hartz tells his fellow conspirator, a British woman dressed as a nun, to drug Iris and Gilbert. Then, convinced they will soon be asleep, Hartz admits to them that he is involved in the conspiracy. The false nun does not follow Hartz's instructions out of loyalty to her fellow countrymen; Gilbert and Iris escape, free Miss Froy and replace her with Madame Kummer.

When the train stops near the border, Dr. Hartz discovers the switch. He has part of the train diverted onto a branch line, where soldiers wait. Gilbert and Iris inform their fellow passengers of what is happening. A uniformed soldier boards and requests that they all accompany him. They knock him out and take his pistol. Another soldier fires, wounding Charters in the hand, and a shootout begins.

During the gunfight, Miss Froy, who reveals herself as a spy, tells Gilbert and Iris that she must get away. Just in case, she gives them a message (encoded in a tune) to deliver to the Foreign Office in Whitehall—the same tune that the murdered street musician performed for her. Gilbert memorises it. Miss Froy then slips away into the forest. Todhunter attempts to surrender, waving a white handkerchief, and is shot dead. Gilbert and Caldicott then commandeer the locomotive, and the group escape across the border.

In London, Charters and Caldicott discover the Test Match has been cancelled due to flooding. Seeing her fiancé from a distance, Iris jumps into a cab with Gilbert. He kisses her. They arrive at the Foreign Office, but in the waiting room Gilbert realises he cannot remember the vital tune. As they are led into the office, Gilbert and Iris then hear it. The doors open revealing Miss Froy is playing the tune on a piano.



The Lady Vanishes was originally called The Lost Lady, and Irish director Roy William Neill was assigned by producer Edward Black to make it. A crew was dispatched to Yugoslavia to do background shots, but when the Yugoslav police accidentally discovered that they were not well-portrayed in the script, they kicked the crew out of the country, and Black scrapped the project. A year later, Hitchcock could not come up with a property to direct to fulfil his contract with Black, so he accepted when Black offered The Lost Lady to him. Hitchcock worked with the writers to make some changes to tighten up the opening and ending of the story, but otherwise the script did not change much.[4]

At first, Hitchcock considered Lilli Palmer for the female lead, but went instead with Margaret Lockwood, who was at the time relatively unknown.[7] Lockwood was attracted to the heroines of Ethel Lina White's stories, and accepted the role.

Michael Redgrave was also unknown to the cinema audience, but was a rising stage star at the time. He was reluctant to leave the stage to do the film, but was convinced by John Gielgud to do so. As it happened, the film, Redgrave's first leading role, made him an international star.[4] However, according to Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, Redgrave and Hitchcock did not get along; Redgrave wanted more rehearsals, while Hitchcock valued spontaneity more. The two never worked together again.

The film, which was shot at Islington Studios[8] and Shepherd's Bush, and on location in Hampshire, including at Longmoor Military Camp where there is the Longmoor Military Railway, was the first to be made under an agreement between Gaumont-British and MGM, in which Gaumont provided MGM with some of their Gainsborough films for release in the UK, for which MGM would pay half the production costs if MGM decided to release the film in the US. In the case of The Lady Vanishes, however, 20th Century-Fox did the American release.[4]

Filming was briefly interrupted by a strike of electricians.[9]

The plot of Hitchcock's film differs considerably from White's novel. In The Wheel Spins, Miss Froy really is an innocent old lady looking forward to seeing her octogenarian parents; she is abducted because she knows something (without realising its significance) that would cause trouble for the local authorities if it came out. Iris' mental confusion is due to sunstroke, not a blow to the head. In White's novel, the wheel keeps spinning: the train never stops, and there is no final shoot-out. Additionally, the supporting cast differs somewhat; for instance, in the novel, the Gilbert character is Max Hare, a young British engineer building a dam in the hills who knows the local language, and there is also a modern-languages professor character who acts as Iris's and Max's interpreter who does not appear in the film. The cricket-obsessed characters Charters and Caldicott were created especially for the film and do not appear in the novel.

The plot has clear references to the political situation leading up to World War II. The British characters, originally trying their hardest to keep out of the conflict, end up working together to fight off the jack-booted foreigners, while the lawyer who wishes to negotiate with the attackers by waving a white flag is shot.[10]

Alfred Hitchcock can be seen at Victoria Station, wearing a black coat and smoking a cigarette, near the end of the film.[4] The film marks the first appearance of the comedy double-act Charters and Caldicott (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford).

Reception and legacy[edit]

Critical response[edit]

When The Lady Vanishes opened in the UK it was an immediate hit, becoming the most successful British film to that date. It was also very successful when it opened in New York.[4] In a contemporary review, the Monthly Film Bulletin described the film as an "out of the ordinary and exciting thriller", praising Hitchcock's direction and the cast, especially Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas and Dame May Whitty.[11]

The film has retained its popularity; in his review for the BBC, Jamie Russell gave the film four out of five stars, calling it a "craftily sophisticated thriller" and a "cracking piece of entertainment".[12] In his review for BFI Screenonline, Mark Duguid wrote that the film was "arguably the most accomplished, and certainly the wittiest of Hitchcock's British films, and is up there with the best of his American work".[13] Duguid singled out the young writing partnership of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, noting:

The story is blessed by great characters and many witty and imaginative touches, in particular the conceit by which the passengers are each given selfish motives for refusing to verify Iris' story. As well as the chemistry between the two leads, the film has some of Hitchcock's best character parts, with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne particularly good value as the cricket obsessed Charters and Caldicott.[13]

The American film critic and historian Leonard Maltin gave the film four out of four stars in his Movie Guide and included the film in his list of 100 Must-See Films of the 20th Century.[4][14] The Guardian called the film "one of the greatest train movies from the genre's golden era", and a contender for the "title of best comedy thriller ever made".[15] The film frequently ranks among the best British films of all time.[16]

Awards and honours[edit]

The Lady Vanishes was named Best Picture of 1938 by The New York Times. In 1939, Hitchcock received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director, the only time Hitchcock received an award for his directing.[4]

Charters and Caldicott[edit]

The humorous characters Charters and Caldicott proved to be so popular that they were featured in three somewhat related films that were made by other writers and directors. Night Train to Munich (1940) was the first of the three and was directed by Carol Reed. This film was also written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and starred Margaret Lockwood (playing a different character than in The Lady Vanishes) as well as Rex Harrison. Night Train to Munich was given a DVD release by Criterion.

The duo also appeared in 1941 in Crook's Tour written by Barbara K. Emary and directed by John Baxter. This film was included as a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release of The Lady Vanishes. The last film to feature the Charters and Caldicott characters was Millions Like Us (1943), which was once again written by Gilliat and Launder, who also assumed the role of directors. Hitchcock had nothing to do with any of these films, and had moved to Hollywood by the time they went into production.

The characters also appeared in a 1985 BBC television mini-series, Charters and Caldicott, starring Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge.

Music and sound[edit]

Elisabeth Weis contends that Hitchcock’s use of sound in The Lady Vanishes uses the “classical style” – that is, that the director eschews expressionistic sounds in favor of sounds heard in a realistic context.[17] For example, when Iris faints on the train, rather than extraneous noises to denote delirium, only the sound of the train is heard.[18] Another striking use of sound is how evil things are often heard before they are shown. The evil doctor Dr. Hartz often is first heard before he appears on screen, representing an aural intrusion “not so much an invasion of piracy as of security.”[19]

In over half of Hitchcock’s films, music is an essential component, often of fundamental importance to the plot. In The Lady Vanishes, Gilbert is a musicologist (really an ethnomusicologist) and music teacher and Miss Froy is also a music teacher.[20] “Hitchcock’s dependence on music, classical or popular, is also the logical outgrowth of his search for plot devices that are suggestive but that derive naturally from a situation, so that any symbolic or metaphorical value they might have is not so obtrusive as to stop the flow of action or reduce audience involvement.”[20] Other than diegetic source music, no other music is heard during the film.

The idea of confusing noise with music (already present in Hitchcock’s 1936 film Secret Agent) is used when we first encounter Gilbert, the musicologist. We first hear the sound coming from his room as it interrupts Miss Froy listening to the serenader. Iris complains about the “noise” to the hotel manager. When she finally encounters Gilbert he clarifies their different points of view: “You dare call it noise—the ancient music with which your peasant ancestors celebrated every wedding for countless generations…” (That Gilbert speaks of wedding music is ironically intentional because it will come up again at the end of the film when he tries to recall the tune and sings Mendelssohn's Wedding March instead, an indication of his impending marriage to Iris.)[21]

The notion of folk music and its deceptive innocence is significant in the film. The first encounter with folk music is when Miss Froy hears the serenader from the dining room. Before leaving to go to her room and listen more intently, she remarks “Do you hear that music? Everyone sings here, the people are just like happy children with laughter on their lips and music in their hearts.”

The next encounter with folk music is Gilbert’s preoccupation with preserving the musical heritage of Mandrika which “helps establish the innocent and indigenous qualities of folk tunes—and his own innocent, awkward sincerity as well.” The irony of these set-ups is that folk music is the cause of trouble. In the serenader’s case, his playing of the tune—the film's MacGuffin—results in his murder. In Gilbert’s case, his playing results in complaint from Iris.[22]


  1. ^ Spoto 1992, p. 72.
  2. ^ Brenner, Paul. "The Lady Vanishes". Allmovie. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  3. ^ a b Spoto 1992, p. 71.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Lady Vanishes". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  5. ^ "The 100 best British films". Time Out. Retrieved 24 October 2017
  6. ^ "The Lady Vanishes UK Tour". British BRITISHTHEATRE.COM. 13 November 2018. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  7. ^ Vagg, Stephen (29 January 2020). "Why Stars Stop Being Stars: Margaret Lockwood". Filmink.
  8. ^ TCM Overview
  9. ^ Strike in Film Studio. The Times of India. 20 Apr 1938: 11.
  10. ^ Danny Peary. Guide for the Film Fanatic. Simon & Schuster, 1986. Page 233.
  11. ^ A. M. (1938). "Lady Vanishes, The". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 5 no. 49. London: British Film Institute. p. 196.
  12. ^ Russell, Jamie (7 January 2008). "The Lady Vanishes". BBC. Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  13. ^ a b Duguid, Mark. "The Lady Vanishes (1938)". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  14. ^ Maltin, Leonard. "100 Must-See Films of the 20th Century". AMC Filmsite. Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  15. ^ "My favourite Hitchcock: The Lady Vanishes". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 16 January 2015
  16. ^ "The 49 best British films of all time". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 16 January 2015
  17. ^ Weis 1982, p. 77
  18. ^ Weis 1982, p. 74
  19. ^ Weis 1982, p. 127
  20. ^ a b Weis 1982, p. 87.
  21. ^ Weis 1982, p. 75.
  22. ^ Weis 1982, p. 95.
  • Spoto, Donald (1992), The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (Second ed.), New York: Anchor Books, pp. 70–75, ISBN 978-0-385-41813-3
  • Weis, Elisabeth (1982), The Silent Scream: Alfred Hitchcock's Sound Track, Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, ISBN 9780838630792
Further Reading

External links[edit]