A pile of postcards and brochures fills the screen before the credits and there's the joke, a secret agent's adventure cut short is a tourist family's class in global affairs. The dachshund that spoils the French skier's jump and the embrace that interrupts the sharpshooting game both belong to the precocious lass (Nova Pilbeam), her parents (Leslie Banks, Edna Best) on vacation in St. Moritz shrug and snip at each other most drolly. "Let that be a lesson to you, never have children." The holiday mood darkens, the thread of life is a sweater come unraveled in tandem with a foxtrot halted by a bullet—the spy (Pierre Fresnay) contemplates the bloody stain on his tuxedo with smiling surprise, then passes the intrigue on to the British visitors. Alfred Hitchcock's advancement of technique is a continuous marvel: The "purest formality" of a commissary's interrogation yields to a flash of lyrical trauma, the abducted daughter in a windswept sleigh like an engraving in a Perrault storybook. The message in the shaving brush is but the tip of a cosmos of camouflaged menace, London Bridge dissolves to a close-up of oversized wooden choppers above the dentist's office, virtually a torture chamber with hissing gas and searchlight. (The nearby tabernacle houses questionable worshippers, a zigzagging tracking shot through the congregation sets up a helter-skelter scuffle of thrown chairs surely remembered by Kubrick in Killer's Kiss.) As the criminal honcho, Peter Lorre wears a forehead scar like a concrete fissure and a smile like a veil over an inkwell of ineffable contempt: "You must pay the price for your genius." Hamlet quoted and a fairytale sung ("There came a whispered terror on the breeze..."), that's Hitchcock getting into full swing, his panning and crosscutting at the Albert Hall give an early crystallization of form. (The Manchurian Candidate originates here, just as Scarface informs the climactic shootout, another spectacle before an eager audience.) War clouds continue to loom in The Lady Vanishes, the remake resumes the family therapy. Cinematography by Curt Courant. With Frank Vosper, Cicely Oates, and Hugh Wakefield. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce