Forget the remake that sank Hammer Films (almost) for good in the 1970s, and the even more recent television adaptation - here’s the first and best version of Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock and featuring a plethora of stars, some of whom would pop up later to memorable effect in Ealing’s classic anthology DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).
It’s 1938, a time when the appropriate response of all good Englishmen to having been shot through the hand was “Oh my goodness I appear to have been shot through the hand.” Posh, privileged, but ultimately likeable Margaret Lockwood bids farewell to the chums with whom she’s spent her last holiday as a free woman and boards the trans-continental express bound for London and her imminent marriage.
She befriends elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty - slightly and pleasantly eccentric rather than going Full Margaret Rutherford) but when she wakes up from a deep sleep Miss Froy has disappeared. More worryingly, no-one on the train claims any knowledge of her ever having been there. Is Margaret going mad? Did that blow on the head before she got on the train have anything to do with it? Why did an Argentoesque-to-be killer strangle a rustic fellow playing the guitar in an earlier scene? Will chirpy Michael Redgrave continue to be a raving nuisance to Margaret, or will he turn out to be resourceful, daring and brave?
Made nearly 80 (!) years ago, THE LADY VANISHES still holds up remarkably well for the entirety of its 95 minute running time. The model work is charming and the back projection work is obvious (especially in this Blu-ray presentation) but the entire endeavour is such slickly made fun you just don’t care. The leads are engaging and don’t even appear for the first twenty minutes, allowing Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s endearing Chalmers and Caldicott centre stage for a bit of prologue-style shenanigans that has dated far better than a lot of the nauseating music hall posturing that used to pass as comic relief in those days. All this, and Redgrave even gives us his impersonation of Will Hay. Utterly marvellous and deserving of a place in the collection of any fan of British cinema.
Network’s Blu-ray looks excellent. There are a few scratches on the print and one or two scenes where it looks a bit creaky, but overall the print looks remarkably fine for something this old. Extras are limited to a trailer and a four minute introduction by Charles Barr (complete with MCC tie). THE LADY VANISHES is being released as part of Network’s ‘The British Film’ collection and will probably be one of the best of them.
Network are releasing Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES on Region B Blu-ray on 19th January 2015