Friday, January 16, 2009

The Lady Vanishes

I hadn't figured Alfred Hitchcock - widely known to be attentive to detail - was one of those who didn't put stock into how many bullets a single handgun held. As one of the cricket-obsessed English characters on the halted train shoots the gun out the window at the enemies, "suspension of laws" takes on buffoonish proportions, report after report after report after report, like a kid blowing off his cap gun with unceasing relish, having discovered the chamber to be miraculously endless. This is not diminished by the fact the gun he is shooting belonged to one of the enemies, and therefore has no further bullets lying around. But then you realize something: Hitchcock surely was aware of it; he simply didn’t care. And then you realize something else: neither, come to think of it, do you care.

And not because the movie makes you indifferent. Not only do you want to see how the movie ends, how the plot resolves itself, and what happens to the characters, but you have to watch the movie because it is more than watchable; it is effortless. The bullets are like the details of plot. You don't care that they are implausible if they become passable under the film's own interior reality. This interior reality, this internal logic, gravitates towards you and pulls you in, not with the "realistic realism" of a news report, but with the asymmetrical displacing of a promised story arch with a continuing concrete, "small" veering direction; with the shot of a certain face we thought we knew; of yet another door being opened onto another train car; of an old cheery English woman asking the waiter for tea, then giving him a package of tea from her purse because she only drinks that kind; of two men trying to choke and throttle each other in the lonely caboose.

Hitchcock, with his writers, got through the details of the plots of his films very much like that kid firing off his miraculous cap gun. Motivation? Schmotivation.

Bang, bang, bang. The two previously indifferent English blokes are now all into it, but with the same ruled corking of affection of their breed. Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang. Then, just when the plot demands it, the Englishman with the bottomless gun declares: "There's only one bullet left", forcing the scene to its necessary next stage - while prompting a kind of double incredulity in the viewer; once, for the gun being bottomless; twice, for the bottomless gun suddenly having only one bullet left.

The Lady Vanishes was the U.K.'s biggest grossing film up to that point in time, which was 1938. It was Hitchcock's second-to-last film before leaving for the U.S. to make movies there. It was a popular, greatly acclaimed film that came after two lesser Hitchcock films. It is the most comedy-filled of his thrillers, at times literally slapstick. It is one of the most thriller-filled of his thrillers. It is one of the great "next-to-no-budget" movies that make magical, invisible use of its limited resources.

It is also a display, as intimated above, of Hitchcock gripping you with a certain quiet but growing suspense, an inexplicable mystery, while at the same time seeing how much silliness he can cram (with the Englishman's understated dryness) in your face.

Case in point: the two men in the caboose caught in a grapple fight. The heroine of the story is there too, and she tries, ineffectually, to do something to help the hero. All featherweight kicks and hits, horribly limp, she moves energetically about. The hero who has asked her for some help, in between gasps and starts and the bad guy's hands going for his throat with the mechanical persistence of Gollum, says in the most nonchalant manner, "Anytime now would be nice".

There are animals in the caboose, and they look on, sometimes ducking, such as the rabbits that go back into their basket one at a time. The shots of the animals looking on, as the two men fight, make the scene so light and airy, and so rather creeping and disquieting. The bad guy fighting in the caboose, who by the way is not the main villain, is a pudgy-faced Italian with eyes that linger on yours too long when he's smiling at you. At one point the heroine uses some weighty cylinder to bang his head with while the hero is trying to find some evidence, thus knocking him out for short periods, from which he rises, only to be conked out again by the frightened heroine. It is comedic; the timing is so fluid and goofy, yet every time he comes back-too it is menacing.

This kind of grace fills the entire movie. The "small veering direction" of the film has as its keystone, of course, the MacGuffin. It has a beginning that, in itself, is also a kind of displaced veering. The film starts with the array of characters flooding some small foreign inn because their train has been caught in a landslide. We don't see the train or any outside, aside from some street musician playing outside one lady's window; just the world inside the inn. This beginning takes up close to twenty minutes. The characters assorted throughout the inn…the man making too much noise upstairs, the two Englishmen trying to find some food, the three bright young things, the hotel manager whose accent veers between Hungarian, German and Italian…and then - the next day, we're off, on the train, even to the complete removal of characters we thought were going to be part of the film: and the movie seems to be beginning. And here I thought it was going to be some kind of Fawlty Towers film.

Hitchcock's thrillers were never of the bent of, say, Tom Clancy. They always took up some secondary story, over and behind which there was some larger unseen story going on; and the one intimate piece in the film that connected to that larger unseen story was the MacGuffin. And we never get past the MacGuffin; and it makes the world of the characters who encounter it scarily real.

I don't feel any hesitancy to say that Alfred Hitchcock, in his thrillers and other films, employed a principle of Distributism: smaller is better. And I regard it as significant that Hitchcock was an avid reader of Chesterton's Father Brown stories. I'm not saying his films are veiled sponsoring of Distributism; that would be ridiculous. I just point out some good things.

Most of Hitchcock's films employ the MacGuffin, but in The Lady Vanishes, just when the MacGuffin is about to cease to be a MacGuffin - that is, just when we are about to be inundated with "realistic" details of government conspiracy and espionage and so forth, key to the plot of the film - a train coming in the opposite direction blares over the lady's revelatory words to the heroine; just as in North by Northwest the unraveling of the MacGuffin by the government agent to Cary Grant is plastered over by the running propellers of a landed airplane as the two men walk past it.

What is Hitchcock's intent in employing the MacGuffin? Is he merely being an obfuscator? Hitchcock's mysteries are never merely confusing; his mysteries are as enthralling as their unraveling. And his use of the MacGuffin points to something more in his artistic approach.

It is an intention of divestment. He is divesting himself of the indignity of gracelessly concerning himself with extracurricular details of plot, as if giving them attention would make the film better. It is a concern with elevation: the film, while intimately concerned with the details of the mundane (the "secondary story of the image"), is above plodding plot detail, just as a silent film is above sound.

The one word "MacGuffin" is the better explanation though. Because it is a name. And if a name exists, there must be a person to the name - a character.

Somebody, somewhere.

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