To accompany the recent Criterion Collection release of The Lady Vanishes, there has been a flurry of journalism over what turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock's last British movie. In a Slate article titled "The Lady Vanishes — Hitchcock’s First Hitchcock Film," Nathaniel Rich asserted that it's Hitch’s best British film. It is, indeed, superb moviemaking. A perfect film that works as cream-puff entertainment (if that's all you want) but which is also stuffed much deeper insights — a balance of which Hitch was master. (The shooting of Todhunter, mentioned in the Slate article, is one of my favorite moments in the movie: Hitch makes us laugh at another's misfortune — and then wipes the grin right off of our face.)
Rich cites such virtues as its immaculate timing, delicacy, and danger as evidence for its greatness. Absolutely. The Lady Vanishes is also, possibly, the slickest of his British films. But these are mostly professional considerations, pointing to his accomplishment at mastering the craft of film. Technique is important, but sometimes skillfulness can actually distract from an art form’s artfulness.
I prefer works that go for broke and hence might have a rough texture. They're the ones that thumb their nose at conventions and morals (and often the box office), because the artists behind them have stepped through the veil of accepted paradigm to see something that no one else sees. Case in point: Vertigo, Hitch's most sublime film. Yet, for all of its layers of depth and brilliant craftsmanship, some of the dialogue and the situations don't hold up too well. Such is the nature of fevered audacity. You have to be a little crazy to make bold artistic moves, and that hint of insanity becomes part of the fabric of the finished product. Based on that criteria, I don’t think The Lady Vanishes was his "best" movie — and it certainly wasn’t the first "Hitchcock" film – that is, it didn’t, delve, as Rich states, "more deeply than ever before into the anxieties and secret terrors of prewar English society."Although it’s a tough call, I think the honor of Best Film from Hitch’s British Period goes to Sabotage.
Stevie on the bus just before he and the puppy on the seat next to him are blown to pieces.
With its death of Stevie and its ambivalent characterization of terrorists, Sabotage reminds me of Hitch's comments about another controversial masterpiece, Rear Window, in which he stated that "no amount of moral consideration could have prevented me from making this." It's a movie that is as relevant in the post-9/11 world as it was in 1936.
If we were to take a vote, I'd say that Sabotage is his greatest British film. Print this post