Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Attempt to Kill (1961)

Attempt to Kill, dating from 1961, is another of the B-movies based on Edgar Wallace’s stories made on a kind of production line by Britain’s Merton Park Studios at the beginning of the 1960s. It was based on Wallace’s 1929 novel The Lone House Mystery. It’s a fairly routine murder mystery B-picture.

Someone is trying to kill middle-aged businessman Frank Weyman (Richard Pearson). Weyman is a ruthless business operator (having made a fortune out of selling war surplus goods) so he certainly has enemies. He also has a jealous and embittered wife who refuses to give him a divorce so he can marry his secretary Elisabeth Gray (Patricia Mort). 

The most likely suspect is Fraser (Denis Holmes) who had been Weyman’s personal assistant until he was fired a couple of days earlier. He was fired for taking too much interest in Miss Gray so he appears to have multiple motives but as Detective Inspector Minter (Derek Farr) soon discovers things are not quite that simple. Another complicating factor is that Weyman’s friend Gerry Hamilton (Tony Wright) is also rather interested in the popular Miss Gray.

Fraser seems to have been up to something illegal or at least unsavoury. There’s way too much money in his bank account for a man on his income. It’s also apparent that Fraser’s new employer Mr Elliott (J.G. Devlin) has good reason to dislike Weyman but Elliott is confined to a wheelchair which seems to disqualify him as a suspect. Murder does soon strike, but not in the way that might have been expected.

The plot isn’t overly brilliant but Richard Harris’s screenplay is serviceable enough.

These were low-budget movies but they were made by people who knew their business. These films were cheap but not shoddy. Director Royston Morley worked mainly in television, and 1950s live television is probably not a bad background if you’re going to make inexpensive B-features.

Attempt to Kill doesn’t have much action, apart from a reasonably effective set-piece involving a speedboat. 

The acting is quite solid. Derek Farr makes a fairly convincing policeman. J.G. Devlin is nicely irascible as Elliott. Patricia Mort is a little bland but quite adequate as Elisabeth Gray. Richard Pearson takes the acting honours as the short-tempered, somewhat unethical Weyman, merciless in business but romantically inadequate (and naïve) Weyman.

Edgar Wallace’s stories, and the movies based on them, were often delightfully outrageous but this is a rather straightforward detective tale.

With a running time just short of an hour and with little time wasted on unnecessary distractions there’s not much danger of boredom.

Attempt to Kill is among the seven movies included in Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent. There are two or more usually three films on each disc but since they’re very short movies that doesn’t involve any serious compromises with the quality of the transfers.

I’m quite fond of these Merton Park Wallace movies. They’re like cinematic comfort food.


Attempt to Kill is enjoyable for those occasions when you’re in the mood for harmless undemanding entertainment. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Long Memory (1953)

John Mills might not be the first name that springs to mind when someone mentions film noir but he made several interesting British noirs including, in 1953, The Long Memory.

When we first meet Phillip Davidson (Mills) he’s just been released from prison after serving a long sentence. He was innocent of the crime and he’s bitter and as we’ll soon find out he wants revenge. We then find out what actually happened in a flashback sequence. Davidson had been hoping to marry Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars). Her father, a grizzled and drunken old sea captain (actually the skipper of a broken-down old tub), is mixed up in some very shady activities with some very shady people. There is a confused confrontation and then a fire breaks out on board. A body is found and Davidson finds himself facing a murder charge. All the witnesses lie at the trial but there is one betrayal that is especially painful. Davidson is convicted. He escapes the hangman’s noose but he serves twelve years and that’s not an easy thing to forget or forgive.

Davidson wants to track down three people, the three people whose evidence sent him to prison. Finding two of them is easy enough but the question is what is he going to do once he finds them?

Superintendent Lowther has had a tail on Davidson from the moment he left prison. Lowther was the man who arrested Davidson but the police had no reason to think, at the time, that there were any doubts as to Davidson’s guilt. He is however concerned by a report from the prison governor. Lots of convicted criminals vow to get revenge on those they blame for putting them inside but it’s unusual for them to nurse a grudge for twelve years. Lowther believes it’s very possible that Davidson may really be intending to take his revenge. Lowther is a good cop and in this case he hopes to prevent a crime. There is another reason for the Superintendent’s concern. One of the three people Davidson is looking for is the Superintendent’s wife.

Also taking a keen interest in the case is a reporter named Craig (Geoffrey Keen). He knows that there could certainly be a story here. Craig is a good reporter but he has a conscience as well (I know such a thing is wildly implausible but it’s a case where you have to suspend your disbelief).

We can understand Davidson’s desire for vengeance but at the same time we know that this time he could destroy his life completely and he’s basically a good man and we don’t want that to happen. Especially when, quite by chance, he stumbles onto something that could make his life worth living.

Unfortunately he has set certain events in motion and now, even if he were to change his mind, he may not be able to stop those events from unfolding in a way that could bring ruin to both the guilty and the innocent.

Robert Hamer was a very fine and justly celebrated director who contrived to wreck his own career through his weakness for the bottle. He does a fine job here.

This was an A-picture so there was enough money for at least one action set-piece, and it’s a reasonably satisfying one.

This movie has plenty of noir credentials. There’s a plot that is a web of lies and betrayals, there’s plenty of moody cinematography and there’s a protagonist who is a decent man who has fallen into the noir abyss and given way to impulses that might well lead him to destruction. There’s a delightfully sinister villain. There’s a Femme Fatale and there’s a Good Girl character as well. The question is whether the Good Girl can save him by persuading him to accept her love.

Mills does the noir protagonist extremely well. Davidson is an embittered man driven by a slow cold anger but we do get glimpses of the basic decency underneath. He’s trying to be hard and merciless but he’s going against his own nature. Mills was always wonderful at playing very solid and very noble heroes but he had a surprising talent for much darker and more tortured characterisations, a talent that made him ideal for film noir.

Fay belongs to the Ambiguous Femme Fatale category. She’s not an evil spider woman but rather a woman who has been put in a difficult situation and has chosen the morally wrong course of action. She has certainly managed to ruin Davidson’s life just as completely as any spider woman.

Ilse is the Good Girl. She’s a kind of stray puppy who follows Davidson home, home being the burnt-out shell of the barge that was the scene of the fatal fight that landed him in prison. Davidson wants to kick her out because he’s trying to convince himself that all he now wants out of life is revenge but she’s such a sad pathetic puppy and she’s so obviously desperate for his love that it’s not easy to steel himself to be cruel to her. Norwegian actress Eva Bergh is able to make Ilse sweet without adding too much sentimentality.

The John Mills Centenary Collection II boxed set comprises seven movies and they’re a varied bunch, which is a reasonable reflection of the breadth of his talent. It includes a couple of noirish gems - Tiger Bay and The Vicious Circle. The Long Memory gets a pretty good transfer.

The Long Memory is a satisfying crime thriller. Purists may not accept it as full-blown noir but it has enough noir credentials to please most viewers and it’s very definitely entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Flesh is Weak (1957)

The Flesh is Weak is a 1957 British production which seems on the surface like it’s going to be a lurid expose of the prostitution racket in England. And it is quite daring by the standards of the time. It has perhaps some very slight claim to be a film noir, or at least a film likely to be of interest to noir fans due to its fairly gritty approach to its subject matter.

Marissa (Milly Vitale) is just the latest in a long line of innocent girls ensnared by vice racketeer Tony Giani (John Derek) and his brother Angelo (Martin Benson). Marissa has only been in London a few days when she is offered a job as a hostess in a club. One of the patrons starts to get a bit too sleazy with her and she is rescued just in time by a handsome white knight. He will take her away from such sordid surroundings. He offers her fun and romance. He’s a terribly nice guy and of course Marissa falls for him. There’s only one slight problem. They can’t get married until his divorce comes through.

Yes, it’s the oldest line in the book and Marissa falls for it. In fact her handsome and sensitive white knight is Tony Giani and he’s a pimp. He’s persuaded her to take the bait and now he’s reeling her in.

Lloyd Buxton (William Franklyn) has been taking a particular interest in the activities of the Giani brothers. He’s a journalist and he’s working on a book. He wants to uncover the truth behind the vice racket but to do that he has to persuade the girls to talk to him, and that is easier said than done. The girls know that talking to cops or reporters is something that is likely to be very bad for their health. 

There’s little the police can do, since it’s impossible to make any charges stick as long as the girls are unwilling to talk. It’s slightly unusual for a 1950s British crime movie to portray the police as completely impotent and not overly interested.

Tony Giani believes in taking his time before putting a girl to work. He spends weeks grooming them, sweet-talking them and making sure the fall in love with him, and then he uses some ingenious emotional manipulation to persuade them that they’re actually doing it for love. The idea is to get them to be entirely willing recruits to prostitution.

Tony’s grooming of Marissa occupies a very large chunk of the film and I must confess that I found that it stretched credibility a bit. No-one could possibly be as dumb as Marissa. No-one could be that innocent. I also found it a bit difficult to buy the idea of Marissa as a completely innocent victim. After all she believed that Tony was married but she was quite willing to start an affair with him (and the movie makes it very plain that they are sleeping together). So she was quite happy with the idea of stealing another woman’s husband, but then we’re supposed to believe she’s as pure as the driven snow. To my way of thinking this movie is a bit too determined to portray the girls as totally innocent victims, bearing no responsibility whatsoever for their own actions, to an extent that isn’t quite believable.

In other words it’s a bit like so many of those awful American social problem movies of the same era, presenting a simplistic good vs evil view and emotionally manipulating the viewer into accepting that simplistic view.

Lee Vance’s screenplay is somewhat plodding. Director Don Chaffey does his best but he is unable to inject any real suspense or sense of urgency into the proceedings. A major problem is that the characters we’re supposed to feel sympathy for are extremely annoying. Lloyd Buxton is a typical do-gooder. Yes he is doing the right thing but he’s terribly earnest and he’s a bit of a bore. Marissa is difficult to take seriously, for the reasons I alluded to above.

John Derek as Tony is the movie’s saving grace. He really is incredibly charming and incredibly sinister and slimy all at the same time. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable performance and although he’s the chief villain he’s a lot of fun. 

The other characters are all clichés. There’s Freda Jackson as Trixie, the whore with a heart of gold. There’s Angelo, a generic gangster figure. There’s Shirley Ann Field as Susan, another of the girls who is almost as unbelievably dumb as Marissa.

OK, maybe I’m a hard-hearted cynic, but I just didn’t buy the premise of this movie and (apart from Tony) I just didn’t buy the characters. I didn’t care what happened to Marissa because I didn’t believe in her.

This is a message movie and that’s always a red flag. It’s trying so hard to be hard-hitting and sensitive and non-sensationalistic. Actually if they’d made it as an out-and-out exploitation movie it would probably have had more impact. 

Although there’s no nudity or actual sex scenes the fact that it’s absolutely up-front about the fact that Giani’s girls are prostitutes gave it considerable shock value at the time and it was a major hit.

The Flesh is Weak has been released on an all-region DVD by Odeon Entertainment in the UK. It’s a pretty good transfer.

I was decidedly underwhelmed by The Flesh is Weak. I can’t really recommend this one.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Man in Grey (1943)

The Man in Grey was the first of a series of wildly successful women’s melodramas made by Britain’s Gainsborough studio in the 1940s. These movies were quite unapologetically targeted at a female audience. They were costume pictures so as well as featuring gloriously overheated melodramatic plots, forbidden love and forbidden sex, jealousies, betrayals, sexy bad boys and sexy bad girls you also get some fairly lavish period sets and  gorgeous costumes. The Man in Grey makes no attempt to be art. It’s a steamy Regency romance and it was a massive box office hit in Britain.

There’s a framing story set in 1940s England which I personally thought was a bit unnecessary but it does add even more romance and that’s what this movie is all about. The actual story takes place in Regency England. A new pupil arrives at an exclusive girls’ school. The other girls are all from rich families but Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood) is a penniless orphan who has only been accepted because the headmistress owed her mother a favour. Hesther is very aware of her poverty. She is proud and resentful. She also has some definite long term plans to escape from poverty.

An unlikely friendship develops between Hesther and Clarissa Marr (Phyllis Calvert). Clarissa is Hesther’s opposite in every way. Hesther is a raven-haired beauty, Clarissa is blonde. Clarissa is all sweetness and light and assumes that everybody will like her. Hesther doesn’t care if people like her or not as long as they don’t interfere with her plans. This girlish friendship comes to an end when Hesther scandalises the school by eloping with a handsome but decidedly not respectable man.

The most eligible bachelor of the time is the young and handsome Lord Rohan (James Mason). Lord Rohan does not have a very good reputation. He devotes his life to pleasures of a frankly sensual nature and he is gloomy and moody. On the other hand he has a very distinguished title and oodles of money. In other words he’s the type of man to set female hearts a-flutter. Rohan has no interest in marriage but he does need to produce an heir so he will have to marry someone and Clarissa Marr seems as suitable as anyone. Clarissa, who is as naïve as she is sweet, accepts his proposal.

Not surprisingly Clarissa finds marriage to be very disagreeable. She seems to have found her wedding night to be particularly disagreeable. Rohan then explains the facts to her. All she has to do is to bear him a son. Once she does that they can live more or less separate lives, each free to have affairs as long as they are discreet. Lord Rohan has little time for conventional morality but he dreads scandal. The arrangement seems to suit Clarissa. And then she runs into her old school friend Hesther. She also runs into an old acquaintance of Hesther’s. Hesther and Rokeby (Stewart Granger) are in the theatre. Not a respectable profession in the early years of the 19th century and Hesther and Rokeby are traveling players, even less respectable. At the time actresses were assumed to be at lest part-time prostitutes and in fact it does seem quite likely to be true in Hesther’s case. Hesther is penniless and unhappy and Clarissa, who just wants everybody to be happy, comes up with a brilliant idea. She’ll persuade her husband to employ Hesther as their son’s governess. When she runs it by Lord Rohan he suggests something even more brilliant - Hesther can be employed as a companion for his wife.

Of course things are going to get very complicated. Rokeby, who is actually the owner of an estate in Jamaica that has been overrun by rebellious slaves, gets a job as librarian to Lord Rohan and soon he and Clarissa have fallen madly in love and are having an affair. Meanwhile Hesther has achieved her first major goal and has become Lord Rohan’s mistress. It sounds like a workable arrangement. Clarissa doesn’t care if her husband sleeps with other women - as long as he doesn’t want to sleep with her she’s happy. And Rohan has no objection at all to Clarissa sleeping with anyone she likes as long as she’s discreet.

Unfortunately not everybody is as discreet as they should be and Hesther is still plotting, still aiming at something more than just being a nobleman’s mistress. Hesther’s ambitions and Rokeby’s recklessness are going to bring everything crashing down.

As you may have gathered there’s a great deal of implied sex and most of it is very definitely illicit, if not perverse as well. And the film is pretty open about it all. It raised some eyebrows at the time and there are moments that still seem pretty damned steamy even today. Much of this is due to the casting. James Mason is of course perfectly suited to the role of the slightly dissipated, somewhat cruel and generally dangerous nobleman. Margaret Lockwood was one of the screen’s all-time great bad girls. She and Mason would team up again in The Wicked Lady and together they’re sexual dynamite. Phyllis Calvert has a difficult role since she has to make Clarissa convincingly naïve without making her seem stupid and she has to make her sweet and good-natured without being cloying. On the whole she manages it fairly well. Stewart Granger makes a wonderful reckless romantic hero (it turns out he’s really a nobleman as well but the slaves took over his estate in the West Indies).

The characterisations are not quite as unsubtle as you might expect. Lord Rohan is a bad boy but he’s not really a villain. Clarissa is sweet and wants to please people but she’s not especially virtuous. Rokeby is excitable but well-meaning. Hesther is definitely wicked, in fact very wicked indeed, but life has dealt her a bad hand so we can at least understand her motivations .

There’s a good deal of political incorrectness in this film. If it shocked audiences in the 40s it’s quite likely to shock modern audiences although for different reasons. 

Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers a fairly good transfer and, unusually for this company, some extras including a documentary on James Mason’s career. This movie has also been released in Region 1 in a boxed set in Criterion’s Eclipse series. 

This is a movie that packs as much twisted romance and illicit sexuality into its running time as it can. It’s a women’s picture, a chick flick if you like, so if you’re male you have been warned. It’s an out-and-out melodrama and it’s an unashamed bodice ripper but it’s a stylish and well-made example of both breeds and if that’s what you’re looking for then it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Counterfeit Plan (1957)

Phony money is naturally the name of the game in the slightly noir-tinged 1957 British crime melodrama The Counterfeit Plan.

The movie opens with a fine action set-piece as Max Brant (Zachary Scott) makes a daring escape from the custody of the French police. Brant had been set to face the guillotine, for murder, so we know immediately that we’re dealing with a pretty ruthless character here. Brant and Duke (Lee Patterson) make their way to England. Brant wants to renew an old acquaintanceship, with Louie Bernard (Mervyn Johns). Louie lives in a large and gracious country house. He is the personification of the respectable country gentleman. Except that his life of luxury and gentility is based entirely on crime. Louie is an engraver of genius and he has put his genius to lucrative, if dishonest, use. 

Max is planning the counterfeiting racket to end all counterfeiting rackets. It’s going to be on a very large scale and nothing will be left to chance. The plates will be perfect, the paper will be perfect, the ink will be perfect. These counterfeit notes will be indistinguishable from the real thing.

This is going to be time-consuming and expensive but you have to spend money to make money. Max is no small-time hood. He’s an entrepreneur of crime.

The plan is carefully thought out. It’s fool-proof. It is a minor concern that Louie wants nothing to do with it and has to be coerced into agreement. There’s also another small problem. Louie’s hands are no longer steady enough to do the engraving. Luckily Louie’s daughter Carole (Peggie Castle) has inherited his artistic skills so she can do the engraving under Louie’s supervision.

Mention of Carole brings us to another very tiny potential problem. Carole is a straight arrow. She also has to be coerced into agreeing to take part in this scheme. A problem that Max doesn’t even know about yet is that Carole has a boyfriend who is likely to turn up at any moment.

So obviously Max’s fool-proof plan has some major weaknesses but Max is a positive-thinking kind of guy. The thought of failure does not occur to him. He has good people in his outfit. Duke provides useful muscle but he’s more than just a henchman. He has a fine organisational talent and he has experience in counterfeiting schemes. Max also has the services of corrupt ex-cop Sam Watson (David Lodge) whose inside knowledge of police procedures should give the gang an edge.

Max intends to print so much fake money that his own gang could not possible pass all the notes themselves so his plan is to divide the country up into territories and sell the notes in bulk to other criminal gangs who will then worry about the details of distribution. It’s a very ambitious idea and obviously it means that a very large number of people are going to know about it. This is yet another potential weakness.

In fact that’s one of the things that makes the movie interesting. There are so many flaws in Max’s plan that you know it has to fail and yet it’s fun watching Max sail on so confidently, sublimely unaware of impending disaster. These criminals are both extremely clever and extremely stupid. Max’s stupidity comes from his arrogance. He thinks he’s a criminal mastermind. He almost could be, but not quite.

This is a Merton Park Studios production but it looks slightly more expensive than their usual output. It was released in the US by Warner Brothers so it’s possible that some American money found its way into the production allowing a more expansive feel (with some location shooting) than usual. Montgomery Tully was a good solid journeyman director accustomed to getting decent results on limited budgets.

The elaborate nature of Max’s scheme and the fact that the movie spends a great deal of time on the intricate planning and organisation that goes into that scheme makes this movie a kind of forerunner of the heist movies that would become such a feature of 1960s movie-making.

Zachary Scott captures Max’s crazy delusions of criminal grandeur extremely well. Lee Patterson was always reliable in this sort of movie. Eric Pohlmann is fun as a rival gangster.

There are a couple of features that might have been considered quite shocking in 1957, including a rape (you don’t see it but it’s made crystal clear what happened).

The Counterfeit Plan has been released on DVD in Britain by Network and on made-on-demand DVD in the US in the Warner Archive series. The version I have is the Network version which is uncut. The Warner Archive release is apparently a shorter cut version and given that the Network release looks superb and even has a few extras that’s obviously the one to go for.

By the way, whatever you do don’t watch the trailers before you watch the movie - they give away a huge spoiler.

The Counterfeit Plan might be about phony money but it delivers genuine entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 17, 2017

I Cover the Waterfront (1933)

I Cover the Waterfront is a lurid newspaper melodrama released by United Artists in 1933. And it delivers the goods.

Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is an embittered hardboiled newspaper reporter who covers the waterfront for The Standard. He’s tired of the job and he’s tired of the city and he’s very very tired of the waterfront. This is the middle of the Depression though and even if he hates it it is a good job and he’s good at it. He’s a good newspaperman. That’s why he hates himself so much. All self-respecting good newspapermen hate themselves, because it’s a dirty job and you can only succeed if you have no morals at all. You don’t get good stories by being a Boy Scout.

Joe has found what he thinks is a very good story. He’s convinced that local fisherman Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence) is involved in a racket bringing Chinese illegal immigrants into the country. He just can’t find hard evidence. Eli is cunning and ruthless and if he’s boarded and searched by the Coast Guard he makes sure he destroys the evidence beforehand. He does this is an effective but brutal way, by throwing the illegal immigrants overboard (weighted with chains so they sink real fast).

In the meantime there are routine stories to cover. Like a report of a young woman swimming in the sea. The fact that she’s swimming in the sea isn’t the problem, it’s the fact that she’s stark naked. He spots the girl easily enough (strangely enough men usually don’t have much problem spotting naked women) and she turns out to be Julie Kirk, the daughter of Eli Kirk. She’s played by Claudette Colbert and what follows is a delightful exchange of pre-code banter between Joe and the nude Julie (sheltering behind a rock as a token concession to decency).

Joe realises this could be his big opportunity. If he romances Julie he might get some information on Eli’s people-smuggling operation. It’s a mean low-down cynical thing to do but he’s a reporter and such things come naturally to him. Of course there are going to be complications. Julie is a sweet kid and he gets to be rather fond of her, especially after he sleeps with her. Their spending the night together follows a memorably clever and slightly kinky seduction scene (that’s assuming you think that chaining a girl up so you can kiss her qualifies as kinky). He could fall in love with a girl like Julie (it’s not that easy to find girls who like being chained up after all).

Joe continues his relentless pursuit of Eli Kirk. Eli’s methods have become even more ingenious, and even more ruthless, but Joe is a dogged newshound and his mind is as devious as Eli’s. All Joe needs is a small amount of luck and soon it looks like he’s going to get it.

There’s at least one pretty exciting action scene. There’s plenty of atmosphere - the waterfront itself becomes a character in the movie. There’s hardboiled dialogue. There’s shocking, and unusual, crime. There’s romance. There’s a decent plot and the pacing is lively.

This is a pre-code movie and it has its share of the salacious elements that pre-code fans seem to enjoy. The sexual relationship between Joe and Julie is taken for granted. There’s risque dialogue. And there’s nudity. Yes, there’s an actual nude scene although you’ll need good eyes to see anything since it’s a long shot. A very long shot. But I’m assured that if you have good eyesight you can see what is presumably Colbert’s body double’s naked bottom.

Ben Lyon is reasonably good as Joe although an actor with a bit more charisma would have helped. Colbert does her best to generate the required sexual heat and since that was something she was pretty good at (OK it was something she was very good at) she almost succeeds but somehow the chemistry between the two leads isn’t quite there. You can understand why Joe falls for Julie. This is Claudette Colbert at her most beautiful and she has those big big eyes and any man with a pulse would fall for her. It’s not so clear why Julie would fall for the morose and cynical Joe. He doesn’t even have a bad boy vibe going for him.

Colbert’s other problem is that she’s too classy to be convincing as a fisherman’s daughter. It doesn’t really matter. She’s charming and sexy and likeable and she’s a fine actress and she gets away with it.

I found a copy of this movie in one of those Mill Creek public domain compilation boxed sets, their Diva 20-movie pack (which I don’t even remember buying). The transfer is iffy in places but generally watchable. 

I Cover the Waterfront is slightly racy fast-moving entertainment and Claudette Colbert in fine form is hard to resist. It’s a lot better than most pre-code movies because it doesn’t just rely on its mildly risque elements. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based on Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. The novel is somewhat clumsy in execution and is far from satisfactory but the central story idea had obvious cinematic possibilities. Screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder were able to streamline the story and the result was a light-hearted comedy thriller that is one of the most engaging films of Hitchcock’s early British period.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a spoilt rich English girl on holiday in an obscure central European country. She feels that she has now experienced everything that life has to offer and all that is left now is marriage. She is after all in her early twenties and life has little more to offer someone of such advanced years. 

Now the season is almost over and it’s time for the motley collection of English visitors to head back to England.

Just before boarding the train Iris receives an accidental blow to the head. She’s not really injured but it leaves her with a headache and it will have consequences.

On the train she shares a compartment with a mysterious central European baroness, an amiable Italian family and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a slightly dotty late middle-aged English spinster. Iris would not usually tolerate such a companion but having left her friends behind at the hotel she is grateful to find someone who speaks English.

Then Miss Froy vanishes. It is as if she never existed, In fact everyone on the train seems determined to convince Iris that Miss Froy really is non-existent, a delusion brought on by that blow to the head.

The only person who seems to be inclined to believe her is young musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) but it soon becomes apparent that he doesn’t really believe her either. Iris had clashed with Gilbert at the hotel and conceived an immediate dislike for him but now she needs any ally she can find. Eventually Iris starts to think that perhaps she did imagine Miss Froy, and then she finds actual evidence of her existence, but the evidence vanishes as well.

If Miss Froy did exist then there is some kind of conspiracy afoot but as Gilbert points out, who on earth would want to harm such a harmless old lady? If she never did exist then perhaps Iris is not quite sane. That’s the opinion of the smooth Dr Hartz (Paul Lukacs) and he’s a brain expert so he should know.

The source novel has a melodramatic and somewhat outrageous plot but takes things fairly seriously. The screenplay makes the plot even melodramatic and even more outrageous and Hitchcock wisely elects to treat it as a light-hearted semi-comedic romantic romp. This succeeds perfectly. The film works as a fine suspense thriller, the comedy is genuinely funny and thanks to the two leads, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, the romance angle really sparkles.

Lockwood would go on to become the biggest star in British cinema in the 40s. She was just twenty-two when The Lady Vanishes was made but her performance is confident and assured. Iris is a selfish spoilt girl but being rather lonely and vulnerable on the train made her inclined to feel a certain affection towards the daffy but kind-hearted Miss Froy and the old lady’s disappearance leads Iris to perform the first truly unselfish and noble act of her life. She is going to save Miss Froy. In the course of this adventure Iris starts to grow up and starts to realise that her life might seem less empty if she tried thinking about other people rather than just herself. Lockwood handles the subtle character development very adroitly, and without turning Iris into a sentimental milksop.

Iris’s unselfish and rather courageous campaign to save Miss Froy has its effect on Gilbert as well. He had disliked Iris at first but now he suspects that there may be more to her. She might even turn out to be a young woman very much worth bothering with. Gilbert also grows up to some extent in the course of the film, and discovers that women can be rather nicer than he’d previously thought. The chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave  is perfect.

A major highlight is the comic relief provided by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as two absurd cricket-obsessed Englishmen. This comic team would be featured in several other films, in which they would be equally delightful.

There are of course plenty of Hitchcockian touches, with a bravura opening sequence typical of his British period. This film demonstrated that Hitchcock’s apprenticeship was well and truly over. The unfortunate result for the British film industry was that the film also made it inevitable that Hollywood would soon lure him away.

The sequence with the magic boxes in the baggage compartment does little to advance the plot but it adds a touch of screwball comedy and it’s glorious fun.

The Lady Vanishes is magnificent entertainment. Highly recommended.