The Lady Vanishes (1938) [Blu-ray]

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I can say without reservation that Alfred Hitchcock is my all-time favourite movie director, and of course The Lady Vanishes is without doubt one of his best and most beloved films. Lauded by the critics and a huge commercial success in its day, it secured Hitch’s already glowing reputation and booked him his golden ticket to Hollywood under contract to David O Selznick – although that early association would prove to be a fractious and bumpy ride for all concerned.

lady-vanishes-bluEven if you’ve never seen the film before, it’s likely you’re familiar with the plot (written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a novel by Ethel Lina White) thanks to the number of times it’s been hommaged and pastiched or just plain ripped off in the 75 years since The Lady Vanishes was made. Margaret Lockwood stars as Iris, who is returning home to England to be married. She’s travelling by train from the (fictional) central European country of Bandrika and soon makes the acquaintance of an elderly governess by the name of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). But when Iris wakes from a nap, Miss Froy has disappeared – and more disturbingly, all the other passengers tell Iris that there was never anyone by that name or description on board in the first place. The only person who will listen to her is a musician named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) despite the fact that they had spectacularly fallen out the night before. The pair manage to put their differences aside, allowing them to team up and slowly untangle the various motivations everyone has for denying Miss Froy’s existence, before finally stumbling on an espionage plot with international significance that leads to a deadly shoot-out in a forest.

Admittedly the film does get off to a bit of a rocky start for modern audiences, starting with a slow pan across a painfully obvious model railway followed by a sequence set in an overcrowded snowbound hotel that plays like a typical 1930s screen version of a creaky light comedy stage production. It’s not even initially clear who the stars are going to be, with the first noteworthy dialogue going to Miss Froy and then much of the first quarter-hour centring on the comedic pairing of two English travellers called Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). However what all this does do is succeed in performing an effective introduction to the various characters in the supporting ensemble, before gradually resolving to put Iris front and centre. Even so, it’s not until they’re on the train and the mystery is already underway that Redgrave also emerges as the co-star of the film alongside Lockwood. Once that happens, however, it doesn’t take long before the film springs its trap and tightens its grip on the audience, quickly morphing from a quaint film typical of the period into a fine example of one of Hitch’s most lethally effective and well-oiled suspense creations.

Since it’s clear that I love this film to bits and will cheerfully rewatch it anytime, there’s little more that needs to be said about The Lady Vanishes itself, so I’ll move on to commenting on this latest home entertainment release. It’s the first time that the film has been issued in high definition in the UK but of course it’s been out many times on VHS and DVD. This latest release seems to use the same print as Network Distributing also used for their most recent DVD in 2008, and that’s by no means a bad thing as it’s a very solid remastered print that’s been exceptionally well cleaned-up, save for some very infrequent spots where the damage to the aged film master is now too severe to completely overcome. It does feel as though there’s slightly less picture ‘wobble’ on the Blu-ray, although it’s still present – to be honest, a completely stabilised picture would feel rather artificial and unnerving in a film of this age. The sound is significantly better than previous releases, stronger and less ‘tinny’ and with clearer dialogue throughout after a lot of work removing hiss and crackle.

The age of the film and the quality of the film stock mean that the boost to high resolution hasn’t resulted in significantly more detail in the picture, which is still very soft at times – ironically, it’s the shots of the toy train set that come out looking the best a lot of the time. The main advantage of the boost in bit rate is to allow better handling of the film grain: on the DVD it ends up causing a lot of clearly digital artefacting, but on the Blu-ray the grain looks much more natural and consequently less distracting despite there being more of it.

However, if I have any quibbles with this new release then they start with the contrast of the picture, which is really very flat and grey. It’s as though the team behind it were so worried about not losing any of the available fine detail in the frame and wary about not blowing out the highlights or filling in the black spaces that they’ve ended up leaving the dynamic range of the picture much compressed in the middle of the spectrum instead. It’s nothing that can’t be sorted out by tweaking the video settings on your TV and projector, and I did this without too much inconvenience and ended up with a very nice result at the end, so you can argue that it really was just my A/V set-up to blame – I’ve certainly not heard any similar complaints from other reviewers of this release. That said, I’ve been watching DVDs and Blu-rays for years without needing to make such adjustments in the past so it was most curious that this one did.

The other quibble is more objective: the special features are somewhat basic, consisting of a four-minute filmed introduction by movie historian Charles Barr, the original theatrical trailer for the film, an image gallery and some additional PDF material. Pretty much all of this was on the previous DVD release so it’s very much the least that Network could do to carry it over. However it remains a long way from the hefty package of extras to be found on the Criterion Blu-ray of The Lady Vanishes in the US that include an audio commentary and entire extra second feature called Crook’s Tour starring Charters and Caldicott in their own spin-off adventure. As a result, this new high definition release still feels a long way off being the long-awaited definitive version of the film for the UK.

For a Hitchcock completist like myself, the Blu-ray is without question a good enough improvement to be a must-buy along with the new editions of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young & Innocent (known as The Girl Was Young in the US) which are similarly classic Hitch movies from the 1930s also being released by Network in high definition for the first time in the UK. The price for each is very reasonable (just over ten pounds apiece from and even less if bought direct from Network) so it’s hard to carp too much about the lack of additional material in the circumstances. It’s just that we’ve become accustomed to being spoiled in recent times by other niche media companies like Arrow Films and Eureka’s Masters of Cinemas label which consistently go far above and beyond the call of duty in their own releases of cinema classics, whereas there’s no similar sense of ambition in these releases which are merely ‘okay’.

The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young & Innocent were released on Blu-ray by Network on January 26, 2015 and are available from the usual stockists online and in the high street for RRP of £14.99. The films are also available as separate DVD titles and were previously released as part of Network’s excellent Hitchcock – The British Years boxset which is sadly no longer being produced, but is available second-hand.

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