While traveling in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train.
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By 1938 Alfred Hitchcock had conquered the British film industry. He had done everything that could be done with limited budgets and sets. What he wanted was larger budgets to allow his imagination to run wild. Although he was extremely popular around the world, no American producer thought his movies would be box office successes in their country. This all changed with the release of The Lady Vanishes. It was a huge commercial success that drew the attention of David O. Selznick. This led to Hitchcock getting a contract offer and a trip across the pond to make his best known movies.
The Lady Vanishes itself is a wonderful movie. It features some of the best secondary characters in all of Hitchcock. In fact, these secondary characters end up taking what could be a typical drama about spies and make it a thrilling comedy.
After the camera moves through a model town, an example of the small budgets English films of the time had, we end up in a hotel. This is where we meet our major players. They are all waiting for the same train to London. There is Gilbert, a young musicologist, who has the eye for Iris Henderson, who is on holiday. Iris disregards the young manís advances. She prefers the company of Miss Froy, a governess and music teacher. These characters will play larger roles later in the story, the stars of the beginning though are British gentlemen Charters and Caldicott. The two appear to be having a back and forth conversation about murder, but after Hitchcock gets bored leading us on, we find out they are discussing cricket. They are constantly asking for scores and hoping the train will get to London soon so they can catch their match.
On the train a funny thing happens, Miss Froy seems to vanish, leaving Irish with a stone faced woman who looks nothing like the governess. Iris tries and tries to find Miss Froy, but canít. She turns to Gilbert for help, since he was at the hotel with them. He tries to help her by asking other passengers, but none remember seeing Miss Froy. Things seem to be resolved when a doctor, Hartz, tells Iris that Miss Froy is a figment of her imagination. It is all explained because Iris was struck in the head at the railway station.
So it seems the mystery has been solved, at least thatís what Dr. Hartz wishes. Instead, some strange things happen that cause Gilbert to believe that Iris is telling the truth. A nun is walking around in high heels and Miss Froy ends up being found, disguised as a bandaged patient.
It is learned that Miss Froy is a counterespionage agent trying to smuggle an important secret back to London. Gilbert and Iris agree to help Miss Froy back to London safely. They have to avoid Dr. Hartz and some of the other passengers who are part of a spy ring. Then there are those passengers, like Charters and Caldicott, who refuse to take sides.
When the train is stopped by the spies, sides have to be taken if the passengers aboard wish to survive. After a bit of shooting by the spies on the outside of the train, it is apparent that the only way Iris, Gilbert and friends will survive is through ingenuity. They come up with a plan and are able to defeat the spies, but their joy is short lived as Miss Froy has disappeared again. While everyone was distracted, she left the train and winds up in London where the secret is delivered to the authorities in the form of a song.
The story of The Lady Vanishes has been reworked over the decades by writers, directors and even Hitchcock himself. The idea of seeing a person and talking with them and then turning around and seeing them gone has been a popular one. A recent commercial featured the same idea to sell Oreo cookies. The success of Hitchcockís working of the idea led him to the United States.