“Yes, you’re right…Hitchcock did it first,” Alan Cumming tells us in his introduction to The Lady Vanishes on Masterpiece Mystery.
You might well ask why anyone would try to do it again. Hitchcock remakes never come close to the originals in style or substance. (Simmer down Disturbia fans, the judge assures us that film is not a remake of Rear Window.) The same might be said about this one, but that is not necessarily a criticism.
The 2013 TV version of The Lady Vanishes, starring Tuppence Middleton, is lively and entertaining, and it kept me guessing until the very end, although (or because?) it doesn’t bear much resemblance to Hitchcock’s 1938 film. (If you want to see the Hitchcock version, you can watch it here.) Instead, it seems to hew more closely to its original source material: The Wheel Spins, a 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White. Our heroine is back to being Iris Carr as she was in the book—she’s Iris Henderson in Hitchcock’s movie—and the setting is the Balkans instead of an unnamed country in an unnamed part of Europe.
The fundamental premise of the story is the same: a middle-aged English governess named Miss Froy mysteriously vanishes during a train journey; Iris brings the woman’s disappearance to the attention of her fellow passengers, who refuse to believe her and, in fact, insist that no such woman ever was aboard the train.
Hitchcock’s movie had plenty of amusing moments, witty banter, and purely comic characters. This version takes itself much more seriously, which wouldn’t be a bad thing except that it also paints young Iris as a girl who’s awfully hard to root for.
Iris starts out snotty and progresses to mercurial; you never know quite how she’ll behave in any given situation, let alone why she behaves as she does. So while it’s fairly clear from the outset that there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot to deny the existence/disappearance of Miss Froy, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the other characters had refused to corroborate Iris’s story simply because they wanted to drive her nuts. She kind of deserved it. By the time they’re all on the train and Miss Froy has gone AWOL, Iris has already been remarkably rude to just about everyone, including the vicar’s gentle wife, all the passengers and crew who don’t speak English, and even Miss Froy herself.
So, when Iris becomes so intent on finding Miss Froy, I had to wonder: was she driven by the desire to secure the lady’s welfare or simply by a need to prove that she was right and everyone else was wrong?
Other things puzzled me as well: Why was Iris so insistent about taking that particular train? Why was she so rude when Mrs. Barnes showed her a photo of the little boy? (Please comment and tell me what I missed!)
The cast is fine. The circumstances surrounding Miss Froy’s disappearance are more plausible here than in the Hitchcock version. And if you overlook the fact that the heroine is a bit of a spoiled brat you’ll be pleased by the puzzle. Plus, Fiona Seres, who wrote the teleplay, has Iris describe Miss Froy as she does in the movie… so there’s one good chuckle in the script. (At least I chuckled.)
Hitchcock did do it first—although Ethel Lina White did it before Hitchcock. Now The Lady Vanishes has been done again, and in quite a different manner. Which one do you prefer?
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.