Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" - an early success of "The Master of Suspense"

I love Alfred Hitchcock. The man was a genius, having worked in many positions prior to becoming a director. He knew the tools of his trade, like James Cameron today, and used them very well. Eventually, I had to see "The Lady Vanishes."

Hitch had a particular mind that is attentive to story, and an eye for excellent angles and camera work. He popularized "the MacGuffin" - the plot-propelling object that is all-important to the characters, but otherwise trivial (e.g., the golden suitcase in "Pulp Fiction"). As with many true artists, he had a variety of compelling motifs: mistaken or lost identity, falsely-accused characters, ice-cold blondes...

One of the advantages of Netflix is their deep selection of Hitchcock's works, available on dvd and streaming video. I wanted to see what Hitchcock made in his younger days, so I decided to rent one of his early films, "TLV." After an early rough patch, I was rewarded - it did not disappoint.

The set-up is harmless enough. It's 1938, and an idyllic Swiss town is laden with travelers. Guests are gathered at a hotel that is overloaded with visitors. Among them: a pair of English prats, an annoying and inconsiderate musician, a rich girl on a bachelorette vacation, and a pleasant (if tiresome) old governess.

The opening scenes simply establish the characters, then give us - as an afterthought - a chilling, but senseless, moment. Outside the old woman's room, a street musician is suddenly silenced. We only see a pair of gloved hands.

In the morning, most of these characters board a train traveling West through Europe. The rich girl, Iris, is a vibrant and independent figure; she helps the old nanny at the station - and is concussed by a falling flower-box. With the return of the gloved hands, the audience now suspects that the injury was intended for the governess.

The now oddly-acquainted women sit together on the train and take tea in the dining car. Then they return to a compartment shared with some strangers. The younger woman quickly falls asleep. And wakes up to find the older lady gone.

Iris searches the car, and finds no sign of the nanny. She talks to people throughout the train, but no one remembers her companion. No one agrees that there even was such a woman who sat or talked or ate with her. Iris, however, is convinced that she did exist, and her confusion is soon laced with worry.

Alfred Hitchcock knew how to build a screen relationship. He knew that a man and a woman can initially antagonize each other, then come to need and trust in each other. "Movie magic" means eventually falling in love. Early on, this steady motif, is executed to great effect in ""The Lady Vanishes."

Gilbert is the annoying musician who, at the hotel, pressured and insulted the high-handed Iris. Yet on the train, he's the only man who gives her any consideration. His gentlemanly sensibilities don't allow him to abandon an injured woman. He finds himself helping the girl he despised the night before, and is drawn into the same mystery she's obsessed with.

In this way, Hitchcock gets to expand his stories. He amends, onto the plot of a simple mystery, a journey where two people are polarized against, and then towards, each other. This conveys a basic sensibility that is lost on many modern movies - a cool premise counts for little if you don't actually care about the folks going through the tale.

The gradual evolution from antipathy to romantic affection gives us a reason to cheer for each of them - to care about the dangers they face. Concomitantly, it invests the audience in the unifying problem of "TLV". Finally, it also means that their dialogue/banter are words that flesh out character, not simply advance the story.

Here, the collaborative relationship that develops is the glue that makes the whole thing work. Without the chemistry between the leads, the film could grow tedious. You could not sustain even an interesting mystery, like "why would seven train passengers deny seeing an old lady," without concern for the folks trying to solve it. Honestly, I was not very engaged until Gilbert and Iris met again on the train.

Best of all, Alfred Hitchcock understood suspense. He knew that the tension is always in the moments before the climax, and he knew how to build that tension and use it on his audience. Another frequent motif of Alfred's - a villain that's caught on to the protagonist. A careful selection of actors and a steady script do the rest; the viewer can't help but squirm!

It all works, and boils down to: who will get caught? When a movie works, that one question means everything.

Better than anyone else, Hitch generates a compelling fear through pleasant, unconcerned conversations. Intelligence, ignorance, restrained terror; heroes and blackhearts are in the same room and it's exciting and excruciating.

For these reasons, most Hitchcock movies are worthwhile. Your eyes will be pleased, the stories are usually solid, and you will actually tense up. I love how frequently he filmed abroad.  Even his "decent" pictures may contain many little delights.

If Alfred had any clear failing, it's in his endings. Most of his tales end very abruptly - anti-climactically, actually. In some instances, the climax of the story and the "Fin" title card are roughly one minute apart. The prime dilemma being resolved, we are shown a few moments of a happy couple, and then it's over.

In "North By Northwest," a favorite of mine, the effect is somewhat jarring and disappointing. I can't claim to understand it. If asked to speculate, I would say that films were different in his day. I think it's clear this great director was fulfilled once the basic story reached its resolution.

"The Lady Vanishes" is surprisingly entertaining. I didn't think much of it, at the start. I was gradually overwhelmed. A fun ride results from the interplay between the leads, the societally-observant dialogue, and the roller-coaster way the tension rises and falls throughout the film. You needn't set it to the top of your list, but you will probably find it quite satisfying.

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