In this corner of Eastern Europe an avalanche in the mountains has caused a delay to the journeys of many visitors, and although the path will be cleared for the railways by morning, it still means the local hotel is packed with people hoping for a room for the night. Some are luckier than others, as two Englishmen, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) discover. All they want is to get back home in time for the Ashes, and this hitch has concerned them greatly, though elsewhere another Brit, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is having more luck with her accomodation...
There are quite a selection of passengers waiting for their place on the delayed train, and many are not what they seem - some will even surprise themselves as to their true nature as the adventure progresses. This was the film which offered its director Alfred Hitchcock the chance to work in Hollywood; he had made waves with his particular brand of thrillers before, but the praise he received from his choices in this comedy thriller was enough to convince the Americans he was worth hiring. Some have observed he may have been getting out of Britain while he still could what with the war brewing, but nevertheless he stayed loyal to his homeland.
After all, one of his first assignments after arriving in Hollywood was the expert propaganda piece Foreign Correspondent, so he was doing his bit for those he had left behind by drumming up support, and indeed in The Lady Vanishes you could accurately perceive Hitchcock and his cohorts making it plain that there was trouble coming for Europe, and you could either lie down and let it roll over you or stand up to it, even at personal risk. Though there are no Nazis identified in the plot, when seen in light of the political situation there at the time it seems obvious the film was expressly stating it was on the stand up and fight side of the argument, but acknowledged there was an obstacle to get over first.
That obstacle was the characters', and by extension the audience's, self-interest, and as the film begins just about everybody is selfishly thinking of themselves. Take Iris, who has been indulging her freedom before getting married when she returns to London, when she is trying to get to sleep she has no idea of her potential as a vital component against fascism, and for that matter neither does Gilbert (Michael Redgrave dashing in his debut), a musicologist who is the one keeping her awake with his tunes at all hours. In somewhat predictable fashion they will join forces later on when they realise they have bigger problems than the ones they thought they started out with, and the heart of those is the lady of the title, not Iris but a little old governess called Miss Froy (Dame May Witty).
She has been enjoying a folk musician playing outside her window that evening, but when we see him dragged off camera by a pair of large, grasping hands around his neck it's clear this was no music critic but someone more sinister. Once the characters are on the train the next day - this was one of the earlier movies to show the potential of keeping its cast cooped up in carriages on a moving locomotive - Iris befriends Miss Froy after getting a bump on the head (who was the dropper of the window box aiming for, if anyone?), but is alarmed when she vanishes and not only does nobody know where she went, they deny there ever was an old lady at all. It was a variation on an old urban myth which Hitchcock readily admitted, but employed with great flair by screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, soon to be major players in the British film industry and brought to life by a willing cast, not least the Charters and Caldicott characters, embodying the failings and strengths of the British personality. Aside from that, it was a masterwork of moving from comedy to thrills.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.