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Essential Cinema: The Lady Vanishes

Tuesday, October 10----If it had not been for the success of THE LADY VANISHES, David O. Selznick perhaps would not have imported its director, Alfred Hitchcock, to Hollywood. If Hitchcock did not have his astonishly long and prolific career in Hollywood, who knows what the landscape of film art would look like. Yes, he was (and is) that influential.

Hitchcock was not only the most popular director in Hollywood history because of his films, although their continued shelf life remains an industry standard. It was because he eventually learned to market his persona (or at least, the persona he wanted us to believe) to a mass public, making the director the star of the picture. Not many others (Capra, Ford) had that kind of cult of personality. In fact, the word Hitchcock became a noun, and even an adjective, to describe a particular kind of exhilirating fear of the unknown.

Hitchcock had been working in the UK film industry for almost a decade, having moved up the ranks from apprentice to director in the late 1920s, to becoming the first director of a sound film, BLACKMAIL (1929). Early successes such as THE THIRTY NINE STEPS (1934) and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1936) helped his name recognition outside of his native England. However, in 1938, when THE LADY VANISHES appeared, the impact was immediate. The film became a major box office hit in the United Kingdom, and eventually in the United States and the rest of Europe.

The film established several key Hitchcock themes, including the audience identification with an innocent, who is suddenly knee-deep in mystery and terror. The premise certainly seemed innocent enough. A rail traveler, played by Michael Redgrave, the pere of Vanessa and Lynne, becomes embroiled in international intrigue when his casual encounter with an old lady throws him into a cauldron of deception and lies. Fifteen minutes into the picture, the lady (played by the indomitable Dame May Whitty) simply vanishes....and Redgrave attempts to uncover the mystery of her disappearance.

The film's success around the world established Hitchcock's reputation as the "master of suspense". The producer David O. Selznick, drowning in Oscar glory following the release of his epic GONE WITH THE WIND, invited the rotund English director (and his screenwriter wife Alma Reville) to come to Hollywood.

Alfred Hitchcock and The Birds

What emerged from this stormy collaboration with Selznick were two film classics: REBECCA, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine (the Best Picture Oscar winner of its year 1940) and SPELLBOUND (1944), a psychological mystery starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman.

For the next four decades, Hitchcock would produce some of cinema's most challenging and evocative masterworks, including such films as SHADOW OF A DOUBT, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO and THE BIRDS.

All the themes of those classic films are played out, in one manner or another, in THE LADY VANISHES. The film, with a spanking new 35mm film print, screens on Wednesday, October 11, 4:15pm; Thursday, October 12, 9:15pm and Tuesday, October 17, 1:00pm as part of the 50 YEARS OF JANUS FILMS celebration at the New York Film Festival. Pounce.

Sandy Mandelberger
Festivals Editor


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New York Film Festival
Online Dailies coverage of the 44th NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL September 29 – October 15, 2006

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