Friday, January 10, 2014

The Lady Vanishes

Criterion Collection

The greatest visual artist of the 20th century was not Picasso or Matisse; the greatest visual artist of the 20th century was a London greengrocer's son by the name of Alfred Hitchcock.  This view is based not merely on the massive quantity of impressions that he was able to generate in a lifetime devoted to film but, more importantly, based on the quality and vision of those images.

Some men are able to see their way around Time's corners better than others.  In 1888 Nietszche foresaw the catastrophic wars of the 20th century writing, "All the mighty worlds of the ancient order of society are blown into space—for they are all based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before."  (Source: Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche  Winston Churchill, another man of vision, foresaw the coming devastation declaring before World War I, "A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors...The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings."  (See earlier post "Young Titan"...  America's General Patton predicted the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor in a report prepared in 1937 (see earlier post "Patton Quotes"...

Hitchcock also had this visionary gift and it is on full display in his English masterpiece, The Lady Vanishes (  Hitchcock had a talent for turning the dross of literary pulp fiction sources into cinematic gold.

The Lady Vanishes is a Romantic espionage thriller that was made in 1938 just as Peace itself was about to vanish from the face of Europe.    This was the year of Chamberlain's infamous appeasement in Munich which doomed Czechoslovakia to seven years of ruthless Nazi domination.  Most of the action of the film takes place in the fictional mountainous country of Bandrika.  An avalanche has stranded the mostly English characters in a picturesque mountain resort.  Most of the natives seem friendly, but Mandrika has a propaganda minister and people have a nasty habit of disappearing.

"It's only a model."
Soon the characters, forming a microcosm of English society, are gathered on a train hurtling through the winter chill.  The young and beautiful heroine, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and Gilbert, her musicologist love interest, encounter a sinister Dr. Egon Hartz (Paul Lukas) who tends to spout Freudian psycho-babble.

"Miss Froy" (Dame May Whitty) is the elderly, but surprisingly spry governess, who "vanishes" from the train.  There is far more to Miss Froy than her mundane appearance suggests.  She is, in fact, a British spy who carries in her head a musical tune which contains a vital secret code.  The code contains information about a secret pact between two nations.  This code must reach those in Whitehall but Miss Froy mysteriously vanishes from the train.  The  Hitchcockian "MacGuffin" in this film, therefore, anticipates the Nazi-Soviet pact that shocked in the world when it was announced in 1939.

The Lady Vanishes is not an espionage film in the misogynistic Ian Fleming / James Bond mould.  Rather than a martini-swilling man with a gun (, Hitchcock's espionage hero is a little old lady with a tune.  This represents a far more accurate portrayal of the enormous contribution that female intelligence agents would soon make in helping to win the Second World War.  Bletchley Park where the Allies decrypted the Nazi codes was largely run by women Churchill referred to the women of Bletchley Park as being "the geese who laid the golden eggs, but did not cackle."  Nor was this a Churchillian exaggeration; the Ultra secret of the Allies decryption efforts did not emerge until the 1970s.  Violette Szabo was another of example of many women who served in the SOE (Strategic Operations Executive) behind enemy lines and paid the ultimate price (  Julia Child worked for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the war (

Hitchcock's vision was not only accurate, it was decidedly Conservative as well.  Hitchcock was an observant Roman Catholic who had a deep conviction about original sin.  The primary victim in Psycho (, played by Janet Leigh, is also a thief.

Hitchcock reveals a thoroughly Conservative skepticism about the nature of politics and politicians.  Miss Froy coyly declares "You shouldn't judge any country by its politics.  We English are quite honest by nature."  The source of life's main joys are based on personal relationships and NOT ideology or political conviction.

There is this exchange between the villainous Dr Egon Hartz and Gilbert:
"l am Dr Egon Hartz of Prague.You may have heard of me.

-Not the brain specialist?

-The same.

You went to England to operate on one of our cabinet ministers...?


-Did you find anything?

-A slight cerebral contusion.

-That's better than nothing."

In his personal life, Alfred Hitchcock was as conventionally heterosexual as Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty.  The symbolism of a train entering a tunnel in the concluding scene of North by Northwest ( is unmistakable.  Hitchcock's romantic thrillers were, in fact, the aphrodisiacs of their time.  How many baby boomers around the world were conceived after their parents had viewed one of Hitchcock's films?

Yet Hitchcock's attachment to traditional values did not make him a homophobe in any way.  He would later cast Anthony Perkins in the title role of Psycho.  In The Lady Vanishes two Englishmen, (Charters and Caldicott), both terrified of women, are, arguably, the happiest couple in the film.  The sympathetic portrayal of a "gay" cricket-obsessed couple  becomes the comic highlight of this film.  When the chips are down, these men prove to be patriotic Englishmen who do not hesitate to use force to defend themselves.  The Charters and Caldicott characters clearly foreshadow the role that the homosexual Alan Turing would soon play in decryption technology and the development of computing at Bletchley Park. The British government's beastly treatment of Turing after the war offers further confirmation of Hitchcock's Conservative view that government is filled with "empty-headed" cabinet ministers.

The climactic conclusion of The Lady Vanishes reveals Hitchcock as a patriotic Englishmen who was justifiably anxious about his country in 1938.   On later emigrating to Hollywood, he would become a patriotic American (consider North by Northwest and Topaz).

The path of appeasement which Chamberlain charted at Munich in the same year that this film was released is decisively rejected by Hitchcock.  The faithless Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) represents those in Britain who were drawn to appeasement.  After the train is halted a gun battle breaks out between the English passengers and the Bandrikan police led by Dr Hartz.  Todhunter declares,  "l won't be a party to this sort of thing. l don't believe in fighting."  Significantly, the word "Tod" means "death" in German and Todhunter races to his own destruction.

Margaret Lockwood, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford
Ironically, the gayest character in Hitchcock's oeuvre, (Caldicott played by Naunton Wayne) rebukes Todhunter, "Pacifist? Won't work. Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions."  Charters and Caldicott bear some striking similarities to the contemporary gay Conservative artists Gilbert and George (

Todhunter, an adulterer, bolts from the train and is shot by the Mandrikan police while waving the white flag of surrender.

It is clear from The Lady Vanishes that Hitchcock foresaw an "avalanche" of bad political news headed Britain's way in 1938.  English democracy would be forced to confront the menace of fascism which sought its destruction. Some of those in Britain's diverse and free society would be tempted by the false lure of pacifism.

Finally, Alfred Hitchcock was a visionary artist with a Conservative temperament who foresaw...

1) The coming war or "vanishing" peace.

2) The vital role that would be played by women in the intelligence services.  Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty ( a direct descendent of Hitchcock's Miss Froy.

3) The contribution of gay English patriots to the cause of  freedom (Alan Turing).

4)  The folly of appeasement, pacifism and isolationism.

5)  The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 (Molotov - Ribbentrop agreement).

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