“The Lady Vanishes (1938)”
A.H. “When online canadian pharmacy the reviews labelled it a Hitchcock picture, Launder and Gilliat decided forthwith to undertake their own producing and directing. Have you seen any of their pictures?”
F.T. “There was one, Green for Danger, that didn’t quite come off, and I see a Dark Stranger, that was more interesting. But the best one of all wasn’t a thriller, it was The Rake’s Progress with Rex Harrison.”
From Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, Simon and Schuster, 1985.
It’s a shame the conversation ends there, since it would be fascinating to get Hitchcock’s own opinion on his one-time collaborators’ work.
Various screenwriters who worked with Hitch later tried their hands at writing “Hitchcockian” thrillers without the master, (one thinks of The Prize, scripted by Ernest Lehman of North by Northwest fame) but none succeeded as well or as often and Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.
And to this success we must add their many popular comedies, which are as much-loved in their native Britain as they are unknown outside it.
The story doesn’t end well: Gilliat’s last credit is for originating the story of The Boys in Blue (1982), a film of legendary low quality which ended the long career of fellow movie maestro Val Guest, while Launder bowed out with The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s in 1980. Conversational use of the word “charmless” increases tenfold whenever that one gets an airing. But the preceding films are always very much charming, as well as stylistically daring in a way that is rarely acknowledged.
As for Hitchcock’s account, we must take it with a pinch of salt, as with many of the great man’s pronouncements: Launder and Gilliat did not start to direct and produce until the early forties, several years after the success of The Lady Vanishes, and Gilliat even worked for Hitchcock again, contributing dialogue to Jamaica Inn, released in 1939, a full year after the lady had vanished.
Prior to their Hitchcock hit, both men had been writing for the movies since the first coming of sound, on mostly minor British comedies and musicals whose scenarios were typically cobbled together by whole gangs of ink-stained wretches. Those were the days when, as Preston Sturges ruefully observed, “Writers were expected to work in teams, like piano movers.” 1933 saw the pair briefly united in writing a Stanley Lupino piece of fluff called Facing the Music, though it’s uncertain the writers even met, and it was not until 1936 that the two were a bona fide writing partnership, quickly churning out efficient thrillers leavened with their trademark wit.
The film for which they are best known internationally, The Lady Vanishes, is a perfect marriage of Launder, Gilliat and Hitchcock. Originally lined up for American Roy William Neill to direct, the project foundered and was picked up by Hitch some years later. The material was the perfect blend of comedy and suspense, and after he had induced Launder and Gilliat to pace up the opening and add more twists and excitement to the ending, Hitchcock was able to make of it an instant classic, the first of his films to be publicised with his name above the title on the marquee of the Empire, Leicester Square.
A great part of the film’s charm, asides from its appealing leads, plucky Margaret Lockwood and eccentric Michael Redgrave, is the way it musters its supporting players, a disparate group of Brits stuck on a train bound for intrigue. A wide cross-section of British middle-class life is here, from an adulterous M.P. (Launder and Gilliat were known at the time for their left-wing sympathies) to the bumbling Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), who were so popular that they were revived in a succession of films, first by Launder and Gilliat, then by other hands. Embodying the querulous, slightly xenophobic stereotype of the Englishman Abroad, C & C spend the whole movie worrying more about the test match results than about the international espionage going on all around them.
The Lady Vanishes raised its writers’ industry profile to a higher level, and they would go on to write a quasi-sequel for Carol Reed, Night Train to Munich (1940), after Hitchcock took the boat to America. The loveable duffers Charters and Caldicott, the loveably foolish Englishmen abroad played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, would reappear in this film and later in Millions Like Us, L&G’s first feature as directors, and the only time they officially shared the directing credit until The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery in 1966 (the last of the canonical St. Trinian’s films). The rest of the time they supported each other by providing writing or producing or second unit directing services on each others’ directorial efforts, as well as producing several films for other directors, all of which have a recognisable L&G tone (for example the lightweight but appealing The Smallest Show on Earth, 1957).
That first directorial collaboration is an amazing time-capsule of life in wartime Britain. Starring the sweet Patricia Roc and a host of luminaries including Eric Portman, Megs Jenkins, and a foetal Gordon Jackson, as well as “millions like you”, the film eschews narrative rigour in favour of touching lightly upon a series of vignettes of life on the home front, loosely held together by a core family of central characters. The propaganda element is kept well in check, with light joshing of the characters who fail to show the appropriate Dunkirk spirit. Like most of the best British war films, it’s more concerned with celebrating the virtues and quirks of the British character than with demonizing the enemy.
Patricia Roc is very sweet as the innocent young heroine, with her Stan Laurel delivery. Hugely popular at the time, she’s a natural person rather than a performer, but she adds an unaffected simplicity to the cast of quality thespians. Launder would later observe that finding British actors at the time who could be completely natural on screen was almost impossible, but Roc’s untutored approach is highly effective in this role.
But of more interest to admirers of British screen acting are Eric Portman (gruff) and Megs Jenkins (philosophical), and there’s a scene-stealing cameo by the irrepressible Irene Handl as a landlady.
The scenes with the factory girls introduce Launder’s interest in all-female environments, which continued through the St. Trinian’s comedies and Two Thousand Women (1944), set in an internment camp in occupied France.
Broadly speaking, Launder leaned towards comedy, while Gilliat was inclined to tackle the thrillers and dramas. One might also argue that Gilliat was the more experimental, Launder the more conservative of the pair. But Gilliat also made straight comedies like The Constant Husband (1955) and there are eccentric and bravura touches in many Launder films too, reminiscent of Powell and Pressburger’s sense of the fantastic, the absurd, and the just-plain-odd. The wild, expressionistic dream sequence in Launder’s stunning I See a Dark Stranger (1946) comes out of left field, like an out-take from Dead of Night (1945) inexplicably spliced into this comedy-thriller, but it energizes the film and adds to the already delirious mix of tones.
This spy story, set in recent wartime, begins with the mystery of a French town situated on the Isle of Man, is interrupted by an apologetic narrator who explains that we have started at the wrong point in the story, then lurches back in time to a John Ford vision of Ireland in which naïve but feisty colleen Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr) is raised believing her uncle’s tall tales of the Irish revolution. Coming of age, she travels to London in hopes of overthrowing British rule by direct action. Recruited as an agent by the Nazis, she finds herself mixed up in a plot to leak the location of the D-Day landings, converting to the right side only when cheap viagra online she meets and falls in love with Trevor Howard’s British secret agent.
The movie romps along splendidly, with diversions all over the British Isles, comedy policemen Spanswick and Goodhusband standing in ably for Charters and Caldicott, and comic-thriller set-pieces like an Irish funeral chase and a grand slapstick fight with innumerable Nazi spies in a tiny bathroom. The heroine’s Irish nationalism (undiminished to the end) was potentially censorable at the time, but the light tone and breathless pace kept the film from attracting unwelcome controversy.
As their joint careers progressed, both filmmakers would work with the great pool of talent Britain offered in the forties, and actors who appeared in character parts would sometimes be promoted to leads. Thus it was that Alastair Sim, an unlikely leading man on the face of it, was promoted to starring parts, based on his scene-stealing work in Waterloo Road (1945).
In Green For Danger (1946) he plays Inspector Cockrill, the detective hero of Christianna Brand’s successful whodunits. Gilliat directed, and hoped the film might spark a series, but Sim was reluctant to be tied down to repeating a role, so nothing came of this (the same scruples prevented him from starring in any of the St. Trinian’s sequels, apart from a tiny cameo in Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s in 1957). It’s a great shame, because Sim is marvellous as the detective, delighting in irritating his chief suspects, the staff of a wartime hospital (nobody since Groucho Marx has taken such glee in making stooges of those around him), and the movie has a really daring combination of elements – perhaps this is what put Truffaut off. For instance, the murders are truly frightening, deploying stylish noir shadows and a gliding camera in a way that’s reminiscent of later Italian horror films, while the comedy is, if not broad, at least unmistakeable. And just putting Sim’s arrogantly eccentric Inspector amongst more straight-laced British stalwarts like Trevor Howard and Leo Genn results in a fair bit of genre-bending in itself.
In trying to disassemble the whodunit element, Gilliat found the novel was too well-structured to be exploded like that, so he settled for debunking the clichés of detective films, resulting in one of the few endings where a “master-detective” gets things disastrously wrong. Despite Truffaut’s misgivings, the film balances its moods and styles with great panache, and manages to convert the classic mystery novel from an intellectual puzzle into a crazy, delirious entertainment, part caper, part nightmare.
With The Belles of St. Trinians in 1954, Launder inaugurated a comedy franchise to run alongside the wildly popular Carry On and Doctor films. Unfortunately, the series, from a marvellous start, declines somewhat as it loses its stars, first Sim, then Joyce Grenfell. But the first entry is pretty marvellous, with Sim magnificently grotesque yet oddly sympathetic as the distracted Miss Fitton, as well as her brother, Ne’er-do-well Clarence, and Grenfell is a delight from her very first entrance – she nails her character just by the way she enters a room. And there’s plenty of shameless anarchy from the rambunctious schoolgirls. If the following three sequels lack the coherence and energy of the original, and arguably distracted the filmmakers from worthier pursuits, they nevertheless proved immensely popular with generations of schoolchildren and dirty old men, and a new version, from Ealing Studios, has just been premiered.
During the fifties, many of Britain’s top filmmakers seemed to struggle somewhat: Lean’s fortunes declined slightly when he switched from Noel Coward to Terence Rattigan; Powell and Pressburger fell out with Rank and had difficulty finding a new home; Carol Reed and the Boulting Brothers alternated hits with misfires. The energy that had inspired the great films of the forties seemed to have dissipated.
Launder and Gilliat were occupied on the board of British Lion Films (an unproductive and frustrating experience for both men), as well as producing films for Basil
Dearden and others, and turning out mild but usually appealing comedies of their own. Geordie and The Constant Husband (both 1955) are pleasing light commercial fair, and the latter begins with an ambitious subjective camera sequence, but there seems little desire to push the boat out. Fortune is a Woman (1957), A.K.A. She Played with Fire, is another stab at a Hitchcockian thriller, based on a novel by Winston Graham, whose Marnie would be filmed by the Master in 1964. Beginning with another of Gilliat’s stunning dream sequences (a ticking metronome transforms into a windscreen-wiper as we roar down a country lane at night, then continue our forward movement into a smoke-filled mansion…) the film quickly declines into torpor due to miscasting (the excellent Jack Hawkins is no Cary Grant) and too much ordinary stuff between the highlights, although a confession from the rogue arsonist at the end features a startling scene change in mid-shot! As always with the duo’s work, amusing cameos boost the entertainment value and prevent the thing from completely flagging.
This slightly aimless career path continued through the sixties, with fewer and fewer films emerging from the duo. It’s disappointing that when the boom in British film production occurred at this time, while new and exciting talents were discovered and exploited, the older filmmakers were mostly left out, apart from those like Lean who had already gone international. Launder and Gilliat had broken new ground in realism with Millions Like Us, but they were seemingly unable to contribute to the “kitchen sink” realism of the early sixties, and their fondness for anarchic comedy and experimental technique did not translate into the era of swinging comedies.
But there was one great surprise still in store. In 1971, five years after his last film, Gilliat released Endless Night, based on an Agatha Christie mystery-romance. It’s a curiously out-of-time picture: Christie’s mystery-melodrama sits oddly in a seventies setting, with the added nudity expected at the time. But it isn’t in the least embarrassing, unlike other films of the era like Soft Beds, Hard Battles (Roy Boulting, 1974), or Val Guest’s later sex comedies. And what it has going for is an intense cinematic inventiveness, from Bernard Herrmann’s score, mixing bombastic orchestra with shrill Moog synthesiser, to Gilliat’s eccentric use of unexplained flashback imagery, almost reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s work from this same period. As if he sensed this was top be his last film, Gilliat throws everything at this one, revelling in the delirious surrealism that had always been hinted at in his work. It’s startling to see an almost unknown film from Britain that has some of the same insanity in it as Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
While it’s a little saddening to see Gilliat, once a leftwing firebrand, calmly adopting Agatha Christie’s usual view of parvenu working class men as a social menace, the political angle isn’t stressed. Instead the film ultimately turns into a psychological descent into the maelstrom, with the narrative coalescing in the best mystery tradition even as the protagonist’s mind collapses in on itself. Gilliat himself admitted that the film is “better the second time around”, but there’s plenty of stylistic tropes to keep a cineaste intrigued and amused, even on first viewing. It’s rare to find a mystery story where plot isn’t the main attraction. If the film has been undervalued and ignored up until now, it’s to be hoped that the DVD release will bring it to a new generation who can appreciate its eccentric virtues, free from the blinkers of film fashion.
Truffaut once notoriously suggested that there was something inherently uncinematic about Britain (and Hitchcock voiced no real disagreement!), and while as a lover of British films, and a maker of them, I feel compelled to disagree, I wonder if there isn’t something in our cultural climate that discourages filmmakers like Launder and Gilliat from showing what they can really do? We need only look at the treatment of Michael Powell, Ken Russell and now Terence Davies to see the dangers that lie in waiting for the filmmaker who is too individual.
Nevertheless, despite these possible pressures, Launder and Gilliat left behind them a series of distinctive, and distinctly British, entertainments which deserve to be discovered by a broader audience than has hitherto had the pleasure of their acquaintance.
David Cairns Shadowplay film blog
Bibliography: Launder and Gilliat, by Geoff Brown, BFI, 1977 Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut, Simon & Schuster, 1985