BBC Capitalizes on Hitchcock Fever to Greenlight a New "Lady Vanishes"

BBC Capitalizes on Hitchcock Fever to Greenlight a New "Lady Vanishes"
Waking nightmare: Margaret Lockwood in Hitchcock’s 1938 “The Lady Vanishes”
(©1938 - Criterion )

The BBC has announced that it is to make a new version of Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological comedy-thriller “The Lady Vanishes.” Like the broadcaster’s successful 2008 redo of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” (which aired on “Masterpiece” in the US), the film has been penciled in for a Christmas broadcast in the UK. Filming starts in Budapest this month.  

Set aboard a trans-Euro express, “The Lady Vanishes” will star Tuppence Middleton as the beleaguered Iris Carr, Tom Hughes as her romantic interest Max, Selina Cadell as Miss Froy, and Keeley Hawes and Julian Rhind-Tutt as the bickering adulterous couple “Mr. and Mrs. Todhunter.” Gemma JonesStephanie ColeAlex Jennings, and Jesper Christensen are also in the cast for the 90-minute film, which will be directed by Diarmuid Lawrence (“Little Dorrit,” “South Riding”). It is to be set in 1931, reports Deadline.

Hitchcock’s classic made a star of Margaret Lockwood as Iris (Henderson). A London socialite returning resignedly from a Balkan holiday to marry an older man she doesn’t love, Iris befriends the spinster Miss Froy (May Whitty), an undercover British spy whose disappearance casts doubts, in the minds of the train’s other passengers, on Iris’s sanity. Hitchcock constantly shows her passing out or falling asleep, and her shifts in consciousness as she rewakens to new realities.

One of his most brilliant feints was to suggest that Miss Froy is the eponymous character, but it’s the “lady” in Iris – her sexually repressed side – that vanishes as she falls in love with the musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).

The train film was a staple in the 1930s, as I wrote in a 2008 essay, and Hitchcock was its finest practitioner. The great London-to-Edinburgh train episode in “The 39 Steps” would have been part of the inspiration for “The Lady Vanishes,” Hitchcock having Redgrave repeat the daredevil sequence in which Robert Donat climbs outside a carriage of the speeding train in the earlier film and makes his way from one compartment to the next.

There has been an enormous resurgence of interest in Hitchcock this year: two features have been made about him, the British Film Institute is in the midst of a comprehensive, three-month retrospective of his work at the BFI Southbank in London, and “Vertigo” controversially topped Sight and Sound magazine's poll of the greatest films of all time. However, it seems that Fiona Seres’s “The Lady Vanishes” adaptation will hew closer to crime writer Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel “The Wheel Spins” than to the Hitchcock film.

For example, there’s apparently no Charters and Caldicott, the cricket-obsessed Englishmen, in the new version. Although the 1979 remake, which starred Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould, was largely dreadful, it paid affectionate tribute to Hitchcock’s film by having Arthur Lowe and Ian Carmichael in the clubbing gentlemen roles made famous – and staunchly heroic – by Naunton Wayne (as the imperturbable Caldicott) and Basil Radford (as the perpetually indignant Charters).

With war looming in 1938, Hitchcock took the opportunity to make a statement about the risks of appeasement. As the train is attacked by a fascist militia, the British passengers show their true colors. Gilbert and Charters and Caldicott choose to fight, Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) opts to abandon his mistress and negotiate with the enemy – and pays with his life. Whether Seres’s script includes any topical resonances, or whether the film will simply be a breezy nostalgic adventure, remains to be seen.