The Lady Vanishes
1938
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
'The Lady Vanishes' became the most successful British film ever when it was released in the UK. It also did surprisingly well in the US.

An old lady disappears on a train travelling through Europe. But when a young woman tries to find her, no-one remembers seeing her. Did she ever exist, or is she a figment of the young woman's imagination?

It is a wonderful example of British cinema of the time. It is a perfect blend of suspense and comedy. The chemistry between the two leads is delightful. The supporting cast, particularly the cricket-loving due of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are hilarious, and the whole thing has a sort of understated, wry British wit, that has sadly been lost in the years since.

Francois Truffaut claimed the movie was his favorite Hitchcock film, and Orson Welles reportedly saw it eleven times.

It also contains the first film appearance of Michael Redgrave, possibly the greatest actor who has ever lived.

The opening scene finds us gliding over a mountain valley, and it is clearly a model. Nowadays, this would be created in a computer and would be totally realistic.

The model shot certainly seems hokey by comparison.

But modern filmmakers seem to miss the point. It's not about, nor has it ever been about realism. Films are not real. They are a created form of entertainment. They are a series of flickering images that remind us of reality to the extent that they evoke an emotional response.
But all films, however 'realistic' require a suspension of disbelief.
I do not believe that an audience is emotionally 'hooked' by a film as a result of its realism. We are hooked by the characters, the plot and the skill of the filmmakers in telling their story.

The ultimate example of this is a stage play. However well-staged, or elaborately designed, any stage play is an obvious artifice. The actors must all face one way, they must all speak more loudly than natural, rooms all have a wall missing, and they can never walk out of a door and go anywhere, because outside the door is off sidestage. And yet, the skill of the actors makes us forget all the artifice, and hooks us into the story.

In films, we have certain techniques that stage plays do not. For one thing, actors can walk out of a door. But films also have their own vocabulary of clear artifice. The close-up is a convention that is utterly unnatural. In real life, when a friend of ours utters something important, we do not run up to him and put our nose against his so that we can get the sense of an extreme close up.

When 'The Hobbit' came out, the director utilised a new technique of HFR, which filmed the action at twice the normal frame rate. I think the idea was that this would make it all look more real, and therefore, being more real, it would become more entertaining.

Perhaps Peter Jackson has never seen 'The Lady Vanishes'. If he did, he would perhaps realize that its hokey model shot, and its studio set that was only ninety feet long, are utterly immaterial to the entertainment and enjoyment you can get from watching it.

Paul Spurrier