Friday, January 4, 2008

THE LADY VANISHES - Hitchcock's Most Political Film?

Another article on Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes has just hit the street, or, at least, the Internet. In an article in the Guardian, Matthew Sweet states: "The Lady Vanishes is one of the least analysed pictures in the Hitchcock canon; critics have always preferred to pick over the railway-bookstand Freudianism of his American films. When Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote their pioneering study of the director, they concluded that the film "requires little commentary". The critic Geoffrey O'Brien has argued: "The Lady Vanishes is the film that best exemplifies Hitchcock's often asserted desire to offer audiences not a slice of life but a slice of cake." Watching the film again, in a bright new print struck by the British Film Institute, that seems to me to be an unsupportable position. The Lady Vanishes is the most political film that Hitchcock ever made. It is a parable about Britain during the appeasement years."

I agree with Sweet’s otherwise dismissive article on Hitchcock that The Lady Vanishes is an often overlooked masterpiece. But I can’t join him in his assertion that that the movie was "the most political film that Hitchcock ever made." That’s an ignorant statement. Foreign Correspondent (1940), for instance, is essentially a propaganda piece (made for general distribution), whereas, he also made two more bona fide propaganda pieces, Adventure Malgache and Bon Voyage (both 1944) to support the war effort in France. Sabotage (1936) might his "most political" British film. Other Hitchcock films could be cited as being deeply political.

Other observers have commented that Hitch's films are merely personal dramas that take place against a political or wartime backdrop. The implication is that the wartime setting is merely background scenery and that it has little to do with the dramatic story. I don't think that's quite accurate. I'd say that the romantic dramas in his films are inextricably (in the most profound sense of the word) linked with their political subplots. Topaz (1969) is fundamentally a "statement film" about the Cold War and its corrosive effects on the individuals who participated in it. The same goes for Torn Curtain (1966). Notorious (1946) likewise examines the effect that WWII patriotism had on the people working to avert its disastrous outcomes. The beauty of Hitch’s films is that they work so profoundly well on both the personal and the political level.

In fact, one of the primary themes of Hitch films is that there's a bit of good in the bad guys and a bit of bad in the good guys. That very theme brings the personal and political together and implies that "all is one" – personally, politically, ecumenically (to borrow from Johnny Depp). (C.f. North by Northwest and Thornhill's complaint that `maybe you should begin learning how to lose a few Cold Wars' – a political conclusion based on Thornhill's personal experience.)

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3 comments:

green said...

I've never seen this film. Will definitelyu look for it.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the movie and couldn't more strongly agree with this assessment. In fact, after seeing the film, I went online to see what Neville Chamberlain looks like, since his views are obviously expressed in the film through the extremely unlikable character of the cheating husband, who gets killed trying to surrender. Hitchcock was clearly making (at least) two political statements in the film - one, that appeasement leads to getting murdered, and that in the end Nrits will stick together for their country. Combine this with the evil portrayal of the foreigners and you have an enormously and transparently political film.

I have to suspect that those who don't think so do so because they have no sympathy for the pacifist and patriotic message in the movie. Or they are brain dead.

Anonymous said...

Just watched it and was amazed that few others regarded its political commentary; " Why climb a fence when you can sit on it".