The Lady Vanishes / Alfred Hitchcock / 1938

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The BBC are showing a classic Hitchcock film on Christmas day evening…It’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). I’ve posted before about Hitchcock, cinema and trains…here’s an edited text that combines bits of all these old posts.

Happy holidays to you all.

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the great film directors of the 20C.

He was born in England and enjoyed success at home and in America. Hitchcock’s career began in the silent-era and continued until the 1970s. His professional career also included a stay in Berlin, working at the UFA studios. This short, but important, period introduced Hitchcock to the potential of expressionistic feeling in film.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) comes from the end of Hitchcock’s “English” period. These black-and-white films were made in the 1930s and explore some of the ideas that Hitchcock had discovered in Berlin during the 1920s. The English films describe these psychological themes within the context of a more structured, not to say repressed, society.

The story is a modern (20C) reworking of the classic “vanishing hotel room” trick. The original version is a late 19C story about what happens when the usual reference points of civilised society are turned on their heads. Circumstances, paranoia (anxiety), and feeling, combine to reveal the social construction of reality, and the dark consensus of social conformity.

The film is in three parts; the opening and scene setting…in which the protagonists are introduced and an element of time pressure is introduced; the train journey – in which the lady vanishes and a search begins; and part three, the conclusion in which all is revealed and everyone live happily thereafter…

The link between cinema and psychoanalysis is well established. It’s enshrined in a whole body of theoretical work that devolves from the obvious association between the cinematic experience with dreams and with voyeurism. The darkness of the cinema and the flickering experience of the film also correspond to our notions of memory and dreaming – both important aspects of the psychoanalytical interpretation of the unconscious. The railway train also provides a distanced, and voyeuristic, platform for observation of the world.

By placing the action of the film on a train, the story is given an extra dimension of suspense. We know that speed and time are conspiring to bring the story to a climax. The established punctuality of railway services provids a readily understandable timeframe against which the action of the film can be played out. The time-pressure implicit in this sense of an unalterable timetable is a most effective device in creating a feeling of excitement, suspense and anxiety as good-and-bad play out along the tracks. Lastly, the speeding train gives the protagonists, and the audience, a powerful sense of unstoppable destiny. Obviously and because the train is roaring along the tracks, there is no escape from this destiny.

Hitchcock used the image of the steam locomotive in the central dream sequence of the Lady Vanishes. The visual association between train and dream makes the psychoanalytical association of images explicit.

Furthermore, the train projects its own systemic organisation onto the world – machinery, time, and motion, are integrated into a single coherent experience. Indeed, it is this specific experience of being “on track,” that is both comforting and disconcerting at the same time. The train passenger abandons the usual autonomy of identity, in favour of being driven… There’s a powerful sense of the train, and system, being unstoppable. That’s terrifying, and exciting.

At the same time, the train (especially the luxury trans-Eurpean express) is a place where social conventions are observed in their most minute detail, and are a little bit relaxed. There’s definitely a holiday mood.

For Hitchcock the train was also entirely practical. It was, first of all, widely familiar to all of his audience. Not so the car in 1935! It then had the great advantage of containing the action of the film. This constraint provided a creative challenge to Hitchcock at the same time as providing reassurance to the financial administrators of the production.

Not only did the train contain the action of the film, it provided a scenic and cinematic backdrop through the train window. The slightly detached observation of the world, facilitated through the train window, was understood as analogous to the sensation of dreaming.

Hitchcock exploited the voyeuristic potential of both film and train. The erotic potential associated with Hitchcock’s exploration of suspense was heightened by the director’s use of cool, elegant and blond-tinted actresses, chosen as lady travellers.

As Freud’s ideas gained popular currency, the film experience became increasingly understood as psychologically contiguous to voyeurism. The voyeuristic observer, hidden or otherwise, and marked with the obsessive-compulsive personality associated with sexual dysfunction, became a staple, not just for Hitchcock, but for the whole of cinema.

Cinema had been born on the station platform… The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat (1896), a short film by the Lumiere brothers, caused a sensation. Audiences jumped from their seats as the train entered the station. Later, the railway tracks became associated with the villainy of damsels in distress. Indeed, the subconscious associations between train travel, anxiety and desire were always being emphasised by Hitchcock.

Our own feelings towards trains are equivocal. We appreciate the convenience of this form of transport. But we recall, through the long history of accident and fatality that this machine-ensemble can be brutal. Suicide victims acknowledge this practicality and symbolism in their widespread use of railway platforms and bridges. The rich Freudian potential of all of these meanings was expertly used by Hitchcock, the master of suspense.

There’s also a lovely gag throughout the film about two “little Englanders,” travelling through Europe, whose main interest is the test match score. The whole world is about to go up in flames… and they are worrying about cricket!

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