Alfred Hitchcock, born in 1899, had the unique distinction of being the only director most American audiences had ever heard of, before it became the fashion to know who directors were and what their styles were. After working at UFA in Berlin, Hitchcock had his first major success as a director in 1926 with the silent film The Lodger. He made The 39 Steps in 1935, which brought him notice in the States as well as in Britain. This film followed, three years later, and was a big success on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award. Hitchcock would begin his long career making pictures in Hollywood the next year. Gaumont-British, the studio who produced this film, had a financing arrangement with the American studio MGM starting with this one – MGM would provide partial funding for the production and in exchange it could distribute the film in Great Britain, though it was released in the States by Twentieth Century-Fox.
It was released in November, 1938. Two months earlier, in September, the Munich agreement traded Czechoslovakia’s independence for what British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, called “peace in our time”, so this film might have seemed topical to audiences concerned with news from continental Europe. The screenplay was by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. We’ll later see Green for Danger in this series, which is a film Gilliat made after he became a director. Continuity is credited to Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, who worked with him on many of his projects. It stars Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as the girl and boy, and Dame May Whitty as the title character. The Caldicott and Charters characters, played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as a comic turn depicting the serious concerns of Englishmen abroad, later were featured in subsequent films.
Hitchcock said, about this movie, “It’s a very light film. The story is inspired by that legend of an Englishwoman who went with her daughter to the Palace Hotel in Paris in the 1880s at the time of the Great Exposition. The woman was taken sick and they sent the girl across Paris to get some medicine in a horse vehicle; it took about four hours and when she came back she asked, “How’s my mother?” “What mother?” “My mother. She’s here—she’s in her room, Room 22.” They go up there. Different room, different wallpaper, everything. And the payoff of the whole story is, so legend goes, that the woman had bubonic plague and they daren’t let anybody know she died; otherwise all of Paris would have emptied.”
The reviewer Leslie Hallowell wrote, “The disappearing lady trick brilliantly refurbished by Hitchcock and his screenwriters, who even get away with a horrid model shot at the beginning. Superb, suspenseful, brilliantly funny, meticulously detailed entertainment.” The critic Otis Ferguson wrote, at the time of its release, “No one can study the deceptive effortlessness with which one thing leads to another without learning where the true beauty of this medium is to be mined.” And the critic Pauline Kael later wrote in the seventies, “Directed with such skill and velocity that it has come to represent the very quintessence of screen suspense.” I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.