Neophytes approaching Alfred Hitchhock's work for the first time should consider skipping straight to 1938's The Lady Vanishes, which functions as a point-by-point primer to his touchstones: The twisty plot assembles seemingly irrelevant pieces into a tense whole. Innovative cinematography foregrounds important objects, letting them dominate the frame, while elaborate trick shots give a setbound drama a sense of vast space. There's the signature director's cameo, the irritating yet adorable central couple, the unhurried slice-of-life conversations, and the glamorous verve. Above all, The Lady Vanishes contains one of cinema's most iconically Hitchcockian sequences, as two characters plop down right in front of a key clue to a mystery, then completely miss it for excruciating minutes on end. Nothing's happening onscreen but banal chatter, yet the tension is unbearable.
By design, the entire film is that scene writ large, with screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder feeding the viewers knowledge that they conceal from the stymied protagonists. The typically Hitchcockian fake-out opening involves frustrated travelers snowed into a European village, particularly dryly comic, arrogant British cricket fans Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford. But once an avalanche is cleared and their train departs, the focus shifts to Margaret Lockwood, a rich young adventurer heading home to a dull arranged marriage. After a stunning blow to the head, Lockwood gets help from a kindly British governess (May Whitty), but when she wakes up, Whitty is gone and everyone denies she ever existed. The audience saw Whitty and knows she must be on the train somewhere, but Lockwood is less certain, given the mass consensus against her. Smirking music scholar Michael Redgrave supports her, even though they've already gotten into each other's bad graces, but viewers can see all the hidden motivations that form an invisible conspiracy against them.
Filmed just before Hitchcock jumped from the UK to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is wryly, pointedly anti-British; Wayne and Radford provide a good deal of comedy by being blinkered blowhards, disgusted by all the non-Englishness on display in barbaric Europe. Their puffery keeps the central drama at bay for nearly 30 minutes, but that's just one of the many ways in which The Lady Vanishes ducks the standard thriller tropes. It's typical Hitchcock: taut, morbid, stylish, and determined to confound expectations all the way up to the final shot.
Key features: A stiff but informative commentary from film historian Bruce Eder, plus a second disc featuring, among other things, a François Truffaut/Hitchcock audio interview and a second feature film where Wayne and Radford reprise the roles they originated here.