BBCTVs The Lady Vanishes (without a trace)


I’ve posted a couple of times about my looking forward to the remake of The Lady Vanishes. The BBC have been trailing this, as in-the-pipeline, since before Christmas. So, we can assume it has been one of their trophy projects.

The original novel, The Wheel Spins (1936), is by Ethel Lina White. The story was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock who made the first film version in 1938. There was a second film version, made in 1979, and the BBCs most recent effort. Basically, the whole film takes place on a train…(that’s good).

The Hitchcock film is regarded as one of the best of his British period, along with The 39 Steps and Rebecca. It’s worth describing, as the benchmark against which the most recent version must be judged.

Hitchcock began making films in the 1920s and was seconded to the UFA studios in Germany. At the time, the German cinema industry was the global leader in the development of film entertainment. The German industry was the first to see the expressionist potential of film and to engage with themes derived from Freud’s ideas.

Sigmund Freud defined the idea of the sub-conscious and the methodology of psychoanalysis. In popular terms, these ideas were presented as the mixture of anxiety and excitement associated with sexual desire…


Anyway, the film is a straightforward mystery thriller – a woman passenger disappears from the train. This is really a Jonathan Creek type “locked room” mystery, except that the room is moving – it’s a train.

The historical precedents of this kind of story go back to Allen Poe’s Rue Morgue (1841).


The other passengers all seem to be involved in a conspiracy to deny this disappearance…needless to say, the feisty heroine has to solve the mystery and expose the conspiracy. Needless to say, she also finds a handsome ally and romance along the way…

The film is a kind of prototype “screwball” comedy romance, made famous in the USA by films such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940) and Some Like it Hot (1959).

The main protagonists in Hitchcock’s film are played by Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. The Hitchcock film was scripted by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat as a comedy thriller. Nowadays, this partnership are best remembered for the four classic St Trinians films.

No one needs to be told of the comic psychoanalytical potential of girls in uniform…the recent re-launch of this franchise has not been successful.


One of the best jokes in the original film is that, amidst all the hiatus of the mystery, there are two British travellers whose main concern throughout remains the cricket score…This was briefly taken up in the new film, as two female horticulturalists. But, the joke wasn’t sustained. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the BBC remake was a complete absence of humour.

In the new film, the female lead, played by Tuppence Middleton, is presented as a beautiful young socialite… without any of the context that makes the disappearance so compelling. Without the various clues, the crime becomes arbitrary….it’s a question of context and style as much as anything else.

The great thing about a train is, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the combination of movement, detachment and image is very like how we understand dreaming. Freud suggested that dreams are an expression of the subconscious. So, dreams, trains and films are all variations on this theme.

It’s pretty straightforward to imagine a nightmare scenario where individual and collective realities are in opposition. That’s The Lady Vanishes…and a staple of Hitchcock   thrillers.

The academic study of psychology began during the 1920s and 1930s, to identify the idea of reality as a kind of collective and cognitive consensus. Indeed, psychological trauma and illness were all-too often associated with claims to an alternative reality….that’s certainly the case in these films, where the female protagonist is thought mad for her belief in the missing passenger.


Carol Reed made a version of this story, with the  heightened excitement of context, during WW2. It was a shame that the BBC version, in trying to distance itself from the Hitchcock original, threw the baby out with the bath water.

Notwithstanding the keen efforts of its young protagonists, the BBC Lady will vanish without a trace…



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One Response to BBCTVs The Lady Vanishes (without a trace)

  1. Jean-Jacques Lescure says:

    When I looked at the first image of this blog post it reminded me straight away of Jean Pierre Jeunet’s 2009 advertising film for Chanel N°5. . Did ‘The Lady Vanishes’ inspire him?
    I have just done a quick research and found a 2006 thesis about his work that strengthens my feeling that the answer is yes.

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