Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Lady Vanishes

My favourite cinema in Oxford - nay, in the world - is The Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road. True, it's not especially palatial, and the uncharitable might comment that it's only ultimate in the sense that you might die there - but it's head and shoulders my favourite cinema. It even has its own website, but that is its only concession to modernity. That and electricity. I don't know when it was built, but it has an aura of the 1960s about it, inside. I would say they've not updated it since the 1960s, but only yesterday they seemed to have changed the seating. It still feels old.

The first time I went was to see Vera Drake in 2005. I'd spent my first term at Oxford believing it to be boarded up, but discovered that this was in fact simply their decor choice. My friend Phoebe and I went, we were the first people there... we entered this dark, old room - painted inside entirely in very dark red - and it felt rather like something from a horror film. Towards the end the film simply stopped in the middle of a scene - I thought perhaps it was a clever arthouse comment on the film's theme of abortion, but it turned out that the reel had come unstuck, or something.

I love everything about this cinema - from the raffle-style ticket they give you as you enter, to the entire lack of machinery, to the friendly amateur style of those who run it, to the fact that the whole exterior somehow resembles a railway station. If you're ever in Oxford, do try and see it - it holds loving cult status amongst Those Who Know.

And all this is just the charm of its aesthetic. The films it puts on are equally wonderful. The Ultimate Picture Palace does play some recent films, a couple of months after they hit big chain cinemas, but also does a great line in old films, foreign films, and old foreign films.

And so yesterday I went to see Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). I hadn't seen it before - though I have seen the 1979 remake, on television years ago - and have wanted to for a while. The ticket cost me more than the DVD would on Amazon, but the UPP is such an experience. Only 7 of us were at the screening - perhaps they thought it was The Lady Varnishes, which would be like watching paint dry [a quick credit to my library colleague, another Simon, for that witty quip].

Perhaps everyone has already seen The Lady Vanishes - if not, I recommend you do so. Despite loving 1930s literature, I find it difficult to track down 1930s films with the same success, so it's wonderful when they are available. The plot was taken from Ethel Lina White's novel The Wheel Spins, and is summed-up in Hitchcock's choice of title. A young woman called Iris befriends an old governess in an hotel, and gets onto a train with her - shortly after having been hit on the head by a flower pot. The old lady, Miss Froy, looks after Iris - gives her tea, sits with her in the compartment. The blow which Iris sustained to her head gives her concussion and she drifts off - when she awakes, Miss Froy has vanished - and everybody else in the carriage denies that she ever existed. Is Miss Froy a hallucination, or is something altogether more suspicious going on? With the help of cocky Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in the role which made him a big name) Iris is determined to work out what's happened.

I was delighted to see Dame May Whitty - who was rather wonderful in Mrs. Miniver and is another who'd make an admirable Miss Hargreaves - as the Vanishing Lady in question. The rest of the cast is wonderful, including Margaret Lockwood and Googie Withers, and a wonderful pair of characters called Charters and Caldicott. These very English gentlemen watch proceedings with a no-nonsense, cynical eye, more concerned about the cricket they're missing than the woman who's missing. Exploring Wikipedia, I discovered that the characters, played by Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford, were so popular that they popped up in another two films and several radio broadcasts. The actors also played very similar double-acts in a further sixteen films and radio serials. The days of established double-acts in films, appearing as different characters but always together, seem to have gone.

And, of course, Alfred Hitchcock isn't a bad director either. Some stunning moments - I especially liked one where the train travels over a viaduct, really beautifully shot. You can forgive the opening pan across a toy train and some plastic figures...

I'd love some recommendations for other 1930s, '40s and '50s films to watch. I love Mrs. Miniver (as long as you don't think about the book), Went The Day Well?, and, of course, Brief Encounter. Others in a similar vein, please...


  1. That film sounds wonderful! Back in the days of ITV digital I used to have the TCM film channel and they used to show all the old classics. 'Spellbound 'with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman is one of my favourites - absolutely horrendous Freudian melodrama but a must see all the same! And 'An Affair to Remember' with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr is an absolute tearjerking classic, you must see that!

  2. We watched Sabotage by Alfred Hitchcock recently and loved it, made in 1936 it should fit the bill nicely.

  3. I love old movies, and watching them in an old theatre would be absolute bliss.

    Almost anything from Hitchcock is a treat as far as I'm concerned. Suspicion is a favorite of mine, but I know a lot of people don't care for it. For something sentimental, I love Random Harvest. It brings me to tears every single time.

  4. The 39 steps- Robert Donat version

    Green for Danger- Alastair Sim

    ? I Know Where I'm Going!-Wendy Hiller

  5. I enjoy thirties movies like The Thin Man, Libeled Lady ... those are both Myrna Loy films. I adore her because of the way she plays everything so straight. Not sure if you are looking for any humor though.

    I love Spellbound too. And have you seen Laura? Classic film noir.

  6. Simon, I second Green for Danger, Random harvest, Suspicion & I know where I'm going. I'd add Rebecca, Waterloo Bridge (with Vivien Leigh & Robert Taylor)some of Bette Davis' best, Now Voyager, Old acquaintance & The letter, A place of one's own, The wicked lady (both these with Margaret Lockwood), Intermezzo. Most of these are the cinematic equivalent of our favourite reading, middlebrow fiction.

  7. Simon, regarding the origins of your favourite cinema:

    "The Ultimate Picture Palace is a small single screen theater located on Jeune Street near St. Clements Street, off Cowley Road. This theater was built around 1911. After operating as a cinema for a few years it closed around 1920. From then, the building was used for storage for almost six decades before opening as a cinema again in 1974.

    The building is Grade II Listed". This information (unverified by me) comes from

  8. Have you ever seen the Oscar-winning All About Eve? That's a cracker. And I'm a Cary Grant fan and loved Notorious with Ingrid Bergman (that was colour, mind you, so probably a bit more recent). And... um, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday is always worth a look.

  9. I really envy you seeing The Lady Vanishes on the big screen. I'd second the recommendation of I Know Where I'm Going! and would add A Matter of Life and Death (and pretty much anything by Powell and Pressburger, really) to that.

  10. I've seen this film on TV but never on the big screen. But I am now back in Oxford so will certainly be going to the UPP soon -- perhaps I'll see you there! When I lived in Oxford in the 1980s it was called the Penultimate Picture Palace, by the way -- I wonder when and why it dropped its pen?

  11. The UPP is my favourite cinema in oxford too! And I had never really noticed what the top of the building was like. I went for the first time with *you* to see Once (Irish musical thingy!) and also had a traumatic HSM3 experience there with some Japanese children!

    I second Brief Encounter as I love it and Bette Davis rocks.


  12. One of my favourites is I Know Where I’m Going. It was shown on BBC4 this week as part of their Scottish season, so they may put it on again. Whisky Galore is another good one of the period.

  13. I love that film. But I've never veen to the UPP - wrong end of town for me, but if they're showing things like that, then I must make the trip!

  14. You should also see "Rope", a 30's Hitchcock film all shot with one camera, about two young men who decide to murder an acquaintance, just to see if they can. They serve dinner over the trunk in which the body lays, and the cat-and-mouse is whether their teacher (Jimmy Stewart) can work out what they've done. Really great acting & gorgeous camera work. Think it's been colorized, but the B & W version is better, in my opinion.

  15. I wish I could have come to see this! Love the UPP and Hitch, and have never seen this film. Googie Withers is utterly gorgeous, and Nauton and Basil are great too. Oddly enough, all three star in one of my favourite films, 'Dead of Night' (1945), which is possibly the scariest film I've ever seen. Basil and Nauton are the 'light relief' in one of the stories (it's a portmanteau film), playing a pair of golfing friends - when one of them dies, he haunts his friend who has married his fiancee...


  16. I had a similar experience watching To Kill a Mockingbird in a shabby old theatre, complete with film breaking partway through. Perfect.

  17. I loved The Lady Vanishes too and that set me to thinking and my mind is still at it! Have you seen "Trio" it's one of I think three? films that are based on selections of short stories by Somerset Maugham ..I've looked it up it was three see amazon
    My favourite is "the Verger" in trio but the others are good too

  18. I'm so glad you got I Know Where I'm Going! Loved that film! Have you seen This Happy Breed? I keep thinking of ordering it on Amazon but it is only available (in the U.S.) as a Korean import. Makes me hesitate...

  19. I'm really glad to see somebody else giving some much-needed praise to the magical Ultimate Picture Palace! I loved it so much I've named my film blog after it: (

    Good work!



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