I didn’t much like this on earlier viewings, but this time around it fell into place for me. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave make an enjoyable couple of amateur sleuths; the ‘vanishing’ Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) is the focus of the mystery. There’s a sort of ‘ Ship of Fools’ feeling to the trainload of travelers, doubly isolated by traveling through a fairly menacing foreign country. The interplay of joviality and nonchalance with deception and danger is finely balanced.
The inn is even more isolated than the train. So it certainly fits to start there and progress through the twists and turns to the eventual denouement in London. Still, it takes a few blue moons for the plot to get on the right track, so to speak. Not much would be lost if the movie had begun with the characters leaving the provincial station. As it is, we’re treated to an entire funhouse of slapstick and overly-picturesque peasant hijinks. There’s more comic relief stowed-away on the train ride; plus, things simultaneously get sinister.
Suspension of disbelief is aided by Iris’s bump on the head from the flower pot. Maybe she’s imagining this and that–maybe Miss Froy and everything else–at least up until Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) is unmasked. There’s an almost horror component to Iris’s quest; only Gilbert believes her about Miss Froy. His commitment to her slowly but surely leads to her tossing off her intended for Gilbert. Actually, the espionage plot ends with the shootout in the woods. By this time, though, we’re probably more interested in seeing what happens between Iris and Gilbert. It’s as though the entire journey were a sort of bad dream for both of them; the annoying-tune-as-code is just the sort of absurd gibberish of dream residue. Still, even though the train ride is often just nutty, it’s also disturbing, disorienting, and hazardous.
Not only is there overt mistaken identity with the nun as an accomplice/turncoat and Miss Froy as the ‘patient’, but most of the train crew and passengers are involved in deception to engender their conspiracy. There’s a pervasive irrationality that does sometimes overlap into strange happenings. The one that kills me is: how does Miss Froy survive to play the piano at the Foreign Office after she’s been shot in the woods (as she runs from the train)? At least two other characters, though not apparently killed, spring back into action after being seriously injured. It does make some counter-intuitive sense to use a harmless-looking elderly lady as an agent; such a person would pass unnoticed, unlike just about anyone else.
Gilbert’s character is extremely well-thought-out. He’s such a Jack-of-all-trades, we could almost have him as a double-agent. He’s not just a smooth operator–he helps to solve the mystery, leads the defense against the hostile soldiers, drives the train briefly, and ultimately tries to deliver the message to London. From his very first scene with Iris, as he commanders her room at the inn, he’s living by his wits, but he always knows what to do. If we see the plot from Gilbert’s point-of-view, the juxtaposition of comedy, romance, mystery, and intrigue is believable.
The Lady Vanishes is very entertaining–but starts slow, gets tiresome, and, then, gets both wild and fun, but not without some additional pitfalls. 7/10.