Ancient Hitchcock thriller puts The Lion King in its place

Cute, but perhaps it’s time I grew up…

For years now I have been searching for a new all-time favourite film.

Sure, it’s cute to boast that The Lion King (1994) or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) are still my most cherished cinematic memories. But who am I kidding? The Lion King is nothing but a soppy camp rendition of Hamlet, while Willy Wonka is simply Marxist propaganda about the lower class inheriting mountains of chocolate*.

Besides I go to Uni now, the brutal arena where childish opinions are ridiculed. At this elitist level it would be social suicide for me to confess my love for Adam Sandler goofball comedies or cartoon fairytales.

On the contrary, at University I am expected to have mature and well-considered opinions. One cannot merely be fans of an actor or genre; they must be engaged devotees of sophisticated auteurs.

Alfred Hitchcock

Over the summer my director of choice has been one Alfred Hitchcock. I know it’s a bit cliché to take an interest in Hitchcock – who is, like, so mainstream – but I’m a self-confessed newbie to the game of film buffery.

Perhaps it would be premature of me to consider myself a genuine Hitchcock aficionado. After all I’ve only clocked up 13 films^, which means I’ve still got 78% of his collection to go. Among the ones missing from my list are Vertigo and The 39 Steps – supposedly two of his greatest works.

Nevertheless I’ve been greatly impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Hitchcock’s films seem to all come with his unique imprint. There’s something about his style – the way his characters are larger-than-life yet believable, the way his storylines tangle themselves into organised chaos, the way that steam trains sneak their way into each and every script – that makes each one of his productions distinctly Hitchcockian. And I love it.

It’s fitting, then, that my new all-time favourite film is one of Hitchcock’s.

As forced as it might sound, I never intended for this happen. In watching Hitchcock films I hoped that I might land upon some culture here and some film trivia there. It was never my intention to adopt a Hitchcock classic as my pet. It just happened.

More aptly, The Lady Vanishes just happened.

The Lady Vanishes (1938), put simply, is incredible. While this black-and-white relic came out long before Hitchcock’s golden period – typically regarded as the ‘50s and early ‘60s – it is as engrossing as any in his collection. Such is the strength of the screenplay that conceited filmmakers have since attempted to re-create the film for contemporary audiences – firstly in 1979 and again in 2005 (Flightplan). Both, however, failed to re-create Hitchcock’s original magic, if I’m to believe the critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

The title of the film in itself is suspenseful, and I mean that in the sincerest voice I can muster. As the opening scenes unfold, the audience is treated to a plethora of peculiar characters. Among them are many ladies; we simply do not know which one will vanish.

Hitchcock is careful not to reveal any secrets here; while every scene is important to the storyline ahead he doesn’t tell us why. In fact he leads us into believing that cricket-obsessed boneheads Charters and Caldicott are the main characters when in fact they are merely the providers of comic relief.

He likewise alludes to us that the maid is the person we should be keeping an eye on (“She’s a good girl, and I don’t want to lose her,” the hotel owner tells our cricketing friends). But no, the maid is likewise in the script only for the sake of a gag or three.

It takes a bit of time before the audience learns what the film is actually about, but that is exactly what makes it so mesmerising. We, the spectator, have been treated to a delightful assortment of clues, caricatures and clever dialogue. But the fun part awaits us, as we curiously watch all these seemingly-unrelated elements come together in one of the cleverest storylines you will ever see.

Such intriguing narration is often evident in good works of fiction. Rather than jumping straight into the action – ala popular films such as The Da Vinci Code – good authors prefer to give their audience an extended stretch of context.

The hype is justified.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – another of my holiday highlights – achieved this to great effect. Instead of beginning with the infamous Clutter family murder scene Capote introduces us, one by one, to both the murderers and the four murder victims. As such, when we finally reach that chilling sequence we can actually feel the Clutter family’s blood. Gruesome, yes. But perfect literature.

The lack of hype is unjustified.

On a less graphic scale is the ‘80s family comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. While it might seem absurd to name-drop this light-hearted feature, the same narrative device is on display here. Rather than opening the film with jaw-dropping pictures of twelve-feet ants, director Joe Johnston takes us for a tour of the Szalinski and Thompson households. As this intelligent essay explains, the film’s introductory sequence perfectly sets up the remainder of the film.

The real strength of The Lady Vanishes is that – much like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids – all its loose ends are tied up by the film’s end. Without giving any plotlines away, all the original dilemmas encountered by the characters in the opening hotel sequence are resolved, in some way or another.

This is very important for an anally-retentive observer such as myself. I’m the kind of guy who gets frustrated when characters forget to close doors or leave bags on the floor. As such I like my intros to have ductions.

My one criticism of The Lady Vanishes is that – after investing so much attention to tying up loose ends – it finishes with a glaring plot hole~. The hole isn’t particularly significant to the outcome of the film – and could have indeed been solved with an extra thirty seconds of footage – but it stings all the same.

The disappointing thing is that it’s potentially the kind of mistake that distinguishes an all-time favourite from a very good film. For argument’s sake, though, I’m willing to excuse Hitchcock’s minor oversight. For a film released in 1938, The Lady Vanishes does a damn good job at staying relevant. Besides, how many other Uni students out there can claim to have such an antique film atop their list? I’ll show them who’s mature…

Is The Lady Vanishes really the best film ever? Why not watch it right now and judge for yourself…

(The film is now in the public domain, so watching/downloading it online is legal. For more free Hitchcock films, click here.)

* I take that back. The Lion King is the only work of act capable of lubricating my eyes. Willy Wonka, meanwhile, is an inspirational fable about the richness of the poor.

^ For those playing at home I have seen (in order of preference): The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, Rope, Dial M for Murder, Psycho, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, North by Northwest, The Birds, Shadow of a Doubt, The Wrong Man and Family Plot.

~ Spoiler alert: The plot hole takes place in the final train scene. A man is holding the passengers at gun point. The nun escapes the train to change the gauge. The scene finishes with a fade-out. In the next scene the passengers depart the train without a scratch. The man with the gun does not return. If you think you can solve this dilemma, please comment below.