At the movies · Notes from West London

“The Lady Vanishes”

What a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon, lying on the bed watching “The Lady Vanishes”, unquestionably one of my favourite films. It was shown on BBC2 yesterday. My son, who turns 12 next week, was in and out of the bedroom at various times and couldn’t be persuaded to watch the whole thing, but I made sure he was watching when Michael Redgrave uttered my favourite line, around 78 minutes into the movie. More about that later.

I first saw this film sometime in the 1980s, a matinee at a Repertory Cinema in London, and saw it for a second time in Cambridge at the old Arts Cinema. It was a late-night screening during my first year there. I had persuaded a few friends to come with me, which was not as straightforward as it might have been. If it had been the latest Agatha Christie adaptation or something starring Dustin Hoffman it would have needed no explanation but this was a black and white Hitchcock movie from the 1930s. One of my friends refused on principle to see anything made in black and white.

If you are over 40 there’s a strong chance that you will have seen “The Lady Vanishes”, and I don’t need to describe it in too much detail. If not, how much should I tell you? Well, here’s a start. It begins in the fictional European country of Bandrika and follows a group of passengers as they attempt to return to England by train. They include Iris (played by Margaret Lockwood), a young woman heading home to get married, Gilbert (played by Michael Redgrave), a student of European music, and an older woman (Dame May Whitty as Miss Froy) who claims to be a governess. It’s Miss Froy’s disappearance that gives the film its title. Iris and Gilbert’s search for her uncovers a conspiracy to deny that she was ever on the train.

Towards the end of the film, the carriages containing all of the English passengers are disconnected from the rest of the train and diverted to a branch line, far from the safety of the border that they were expecting to cross. A policeman comes aboard and tries to persuade them to accompany him.

One of the two cricket-mad Englishmen (Charters or Chaldicott) says, “We’re grateful. lt’s lucky some of you chaps speak English.”

The policeman replies, “l was at Oxford.”

Charters (or Chaldicott) replies, “Really, so was l.”

Gilbert interrupts, asks the policeman to listen to something one of the other passengers is trying to say, and then smashes a chair over his head.

One of the outraged passengers asks, “What did you do that for?”

Gilbert replies, “l was at Cambridge.”

It’s my favourite line from the movie, and it brought the house down at that late-night screening at the Arts. It had passed me by on that earlier afternoon in a London Repertory Cinema but now, whenever the film is broadcast, I make sure to watch at least the last 25 minutes.. Usually, though, I am transfixed through the whole 97 minutes. I have recordings of it on video, on DVD and as an MP4 file, so can watch it just about anytime, but there’s something different about watching it “live”. If there were another screening next Saturday afternoon, I’d probably sit and watch it through again.


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