The Lady Vanishes is one of Hitch’s earlier works, a good-natured and very British suspense tale about the disappearance of an old woman on a train which unlocks the door to a much larger conspiracy. I won’t say what the larger conspiracy is, and that’s not really the point of the movie anyway. It’s more of an exercise in various types of deception, personal and interpersonal. Can you trust your own eyes and ears to tell you the truth? Can you trust your first impressions of people? Can you trust other people at all?
The film starts out in a bustling European ski lodge overrun with vacationers trapped overnight because of a nearby avalanche. Right away, Hitchcock gets down to the business of playfully confusing the audience, throwing us into a polyglot of languages and characters, without the aid of translation or heavy exposition. These travelers are all waiting for the train to arrive the next morning and are forced to spend the night in cramped accommodations, putting them at odds with one another right off the bat.
We soon focus in on Iris (Margaret Lockwood) a soon-to-be-newlywed who’s having a last fling with the girls before settling down. She has a run-in with a very caddish musician, Redman, over the racket he’s making upstairs, hating him instantly. The next morning, while boarding the train she gets hit on the head with a large package (purposely or not?) causing her to faint and then awaken on board across from a little old lady, the one who she will find has VANISHED after her next brief blackout. But did she just imagine the old woman? Was her clouded mind playing tricks on her? Or is there a larger conspiracy at play?
Of course, Iris is determined to believe her senses, that she really did have a discussion with this old lady who really did exist. But there’s only one clue to her existence -- the name the old lady fingered into the condensation a window pane which now has vanished as quickly as the old woman herself. No one else on the train wants to believe her -- conductors, passengers, an on-board doctor -- save for one. Guess who? And thus blossoms a romance and a conspiracy.
Even at this early phase of his career, Hitchcock is in master form, balancing the light and the dark -- romance and murder -- and making it all go down like a cool spoonful of sherbert on a hot summer’s day. He sets a playful tone and keeps it going as the tension builds, relying on the solid side characters he set up at the lodge to shade in the moments of suspense and comedy as needed.
That’s why Hitchcock’s the master craftsmen that he is. He knows when to tighten the screws and, perhaps more importantly, when to let them hang loose.