The Plot is Afoot: The Lady Vanishes

HALLOWEEN 2012: BY RACHEL SEXTON

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Few filmmakers are as parodied and referenced by later generations as Alfred Hitchcock. This is to be expected, considering the length of his career and the quality of his work. Having never seen any Hitchcock, a moviegoer might be oblivious to these homages until discovering his impressive output and then the original will inevitably assert it’s dominance. It is a mark of Hitchcock’s legacy that even his lesser known films are referenced by others. Such is the case with The Lady Vanishes, one of the best of his earlier movies. One of the main reasons it has achieved such influence has to be the plot. A fast-paced and engaging narrative is its main strength.

Due to the fact that his work was concentrated in that specific genre, Hitchcock became known as the “Master of Suspense.” It’s easy to see why, when even this film toward the beginning of his career can be classified with that term. Being labeled a “master” of something must rely on more than just quantity—quality must be there. Screenwriters of today would do well to study the scripts of films like The Lady Vanishes in order to learn what efficiency in pacing and proper attention to developing each aspect of a story can do for a thriller.

Examples of this can be found from the very beginning. In a tiny, fictional European country, an avalanche has blocked the railroad tracks and temporarily halted a train journey toward England. Until they can resume their travels the next morning, the passengers all bunk down at a nearby hotel. This provides an excellent chance to focus on characters. Socialite Iris Henderson is returning to London to be married. Iris seems to be joining the journey at this stage because she is already firmly ensconced at the hotel, ordering around the harried concierge with ease. She meets a sweet old lady named Miss Froy and charming music scholar Gilbert Redman. The audience also sees the varied cast of characters who make up the group of passengers: two cricket-mad Englishmen, a man and his mistress pretending to be married, an aristocratic Baroness, and an Italian magician. They are all introduced in the opening sequence at the hotel, and even though the three leads are developed the most by necessity, the rest still leave a memorable impression.

Popular in the suspense genre is the subplot of a romance between the male and female leads. The couple who bickers to hide their attraction to each other is a classic story element, and Iris and Gilbert definitely qualify. They meet when she complains to the hotel about the noise his music research is making and has him put out of his room. He cheerfully marches into her room and starts to make himself at home, explaining that he’ll leave her alone when she gets his room back. It’s clear that Iris is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of marriage looming in front of her and Gilbert has a cheeky way of ingratiating himself. Building on this promising foundation, when the central mystery kicks in, Gilbert is the only one who believes Iris’ story and helps her to investigate. Their rapport improves and deepens as a result. When the mystery is resolved and they do reach England, Iris hides from her fiancé, and Gilbert takes the opportunity to tease her in his way and a kiss follows. That’s pretty much it for the romantic scenes in this film, yet after it’s over, the viewer has a sense of it being a major part of the plot. This is another mark of the success of the writing.

Of course, all this is aside from the suspenseful thriller that is the main plot. It begins subtly, with just a menacing detail during the opening sequence at the hotel. Miss Froy is listening to a strolling musician outside the window in her room, and we see she’s paying close attention to the notes. As everyone turns in for the night, the musician is strangled by a shadowy figure. Once the train resumes its slow progress toward England, Miss Froy disappears while Iris is napping. For various reasons, the rest of those on board claim not to have seen her. Iris is sure something happened and is determined to find her. Without spoiling the details of the villains’ identity and their scheme, neither Miss Froy nor the musical notes are what they pretend to be. A couple of brief action scenes (a fistfight and a shootout) spice up the proceedings and are quite exciting. A nice little coda wraps up the plot in a way that leaves the audience satisfied. And all this is accomplished in just over an hour and a half of running time!

The efficient and engaging plot of The Lady Vanishes emerges as its central strength, which is invaluable for a suspense thriller. When something is this good, later works from others will strive to emulate or directly reference or parody it. This can apply to even the smallest details. In the film Flightplan starring Jodie Foster, the plot is very similar to The Lady Vanishes, though it involves not spies but petty criminals, takes place on a plane and not a train, and the disappearance is that of the child of Foster’s character and not an old woman. At one point, a mark left by the child in the fog on one of the plane’s windows proves Foster’s story, just as Miss Froy’s name in the condensation of the dining car window proves her existence. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Alfred Hitchcock would be blessed with immeasurable self-esteem today! ■

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.

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