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.
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.
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.
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.
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.