Posted by Susan Doll on March 7, 2016
A few weeks ago, I solicited help from the Morlocks’ readers in deciding which early Hitchcock film to show in my advanced film history class. After weighing the suggestions and reading the comments, I chose The Lady Vanishes, the story of a British spy returning from a Balkan dictatorship with coded information important for England’s safety. Dame May Whitty stars as spry Miss Froy, who pretends to be a governess but is actually a capable secret agent. After she disappears while aboard the train bound for England, no one seems to remember her except for Iris, the young woman sharing her compartment. Was Miss Froy only a figment of her imagination?
Before asking for advice, I was leaning toward showing Sabotage because of the surprising scene in which tiny Sylvia Sidney wields a large carving knife. Also, I thought the creative use of the Disney cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin might be interesting to the animation majors. But I am glad that I changed my mind because it was clear that the class thoroughly enjoyed The Lady Vanishes. As one student noted, “This film is brilliant.”
In each of my classes, students fill out response sheets while watching the films. It’s a learning tool that forces them to be active viewers so they are better able to notice visual techniques, themes, or character types. With their permission, I thought I would share a few of their comments about The Lady Vanishes.
The limited setting received a lot of attention, particularly the idea that Hitchcock could squeeze so much action and suspense from what is essentially two main sets. The first third of The Lady Vanishes takes place in a small crowded hotel; one student remarked that the film seemed claustrophobic right from the beginning. She noted, “The environment seems just slightly too small for everything that is going on,” which intentionally enhances the claustrophobia. The characters fought over rooms, dined in tiny booths in a cramped restaurant, and hosted local dancers who clogged away in the confined space of the rooms. The train proved to be an even more limited setting, with the action intensifying into fights, chases, and kidnappings. Another student suggested that the train was like a microcosm of society, with all manner of characters interacting with each other. She felt that Iris entered this environ and experienced a life-altering adventure that was also a journey of self-discovery.
The suspense thriller is a genre that is no longer popular, so students are not always sure what constitutes suspense. I related Hitchcock’s adage about the bomb in the room. He always maintained that if he began a scene by showing the audience a bomb in the room and then clearly depicted where the bomb was in relationship to the characters, he would have the audience’s rapt attention for ten minutes. But, if he exploded the bomb as a surprise to the audience, they might be shocked out of their seats but he would have their attention for only ten seconds. Students rightly noticed examples of this technique in the scene in which we wait for Iris to notice the name “Froy” written on the window and during the scene in which Iris and Gilbert are about to ingest a spiked drink. The anticipation in both scenes created true suspense, and I think students came away with a better understanding of what that is.
The class seemed intrigued by the characters of Caldicott and Charters, the two cricket-obsessed friends who maintain their stiff upper lips no matter the situation. The students were surprised to learn that the pair proved to be so popular that they were featured in three later movies, Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour, and Millions Like Us. More than one wondered if the two were supposed to be gay, a logical assumption considering their depiction in the tiny hotel room. A perceptive student inquired if the two might be patterned after vaudeville archetypes of the day. Charters—or maybe it was Caldicott—got a big laugh from the class when he was shot in the hand but barely winced, keeping his stiff upper lip intact. We were charmed in the end when the two turn out to be courageous in the final gunfight with the pseudo-Nazis.
Several students found Iris’s ambivalence toward marriage amusing and fascinating. Iris leaves her friends to return to England to get married. She laments, “I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?” Later in the conversation, she complains about being an offering sacrificed on the altar of the church where she will be married. Some students suggested that the narrative had more to do with Iris’s internal conflict over marriage than it did with the spies’ goals; others noted a subtle condemnation of marriage as an institution that will clip the wings of those who say, “I do.”
A few students remarked about Hitchcock in general. Many were intrigued that deeper themes and meanings could be found beneath the entertaining surfaces of his films. Others revealed an appreciation for the director’s craftsmanship. For example: “It’s interesting that most films today have the shaky camera but Hitchcock’s methods work better.”
I had mentioned that Hitchcock was not considered an artist for most of his career; likewise, his films were not taken seriously until the members of the French New Wave sang his praises. This prompted one of my favorite observations: “It’s interesting that Hitchcock was underappreciated and that people didn’t get the meaning of his work. Usually that means that their work isn’t successful in its message, just like a painting or drawing. I think here it means that he was too good for his time and the people in that time.”
I find that those of us who love classic movies see their artistry and understand their cultural significance, but more importantly we realize that they carry an emotional impact that films from other eras simply can’t duplicate. We want younger generations to share in that experience, to understand the heart that these films can display. More often than not, conversations among film teachers do not focus on rare bits of history or esoteric discussions of subtext. Most of the time, we want to know: What did you show in class? How did it go over? There is an excitement when classic films are well received—like a victory for our common cause. I am gratified that The Lady Vanishes achieved such a victory and ever proud of my talented, perceptive students.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns