Alfred Hitchcock and the Iran Appeasement Train

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 masterpiece, The Lady Vanishes, provides a stunning portrait of an appeaser and the consequences of his actions. Eric Todhunter is a lawyer who, like President Obama, believes he is smarter than everyone with the possible exception of other powerful people, whom he instinctively trusts and admires, even when they are clearly villains.

The Lady Vanishes is the story of people thrown together when a train leaving the fictional European country of Bandrika is delayed until the next morning. One of the passengers, a young English tourist named Iris, is befriended by an elderly Englishwoman, Miss Froy, returning to England after spending several years in Bandrika, ostensibly as a governess. Just prior to departure, Iris is hit on the head by a flowerpot purposely dropped from a balcony -- and no doubt intended for Miss Froy, who is really a British spy. Miss Froy helps Iris onto the train and sits facing her. Iris falls asleep, but when she awakes, Miss Froy is gone. Mysteriously, both passengers and crew deny having seen an elderly Englishwoman, insisting that Iris boarded the train alone.

The other people on the train include Gilbert (a musicologist attracted to Iris), Dr. Hartz (a brain surgeon who turns out to be one of the conspirators), and Todhunter (a lawyer traveling with his mistress, “Mrs.” Todhunter).

When we meet Todhunter he is preoccupied with making sure no one discovers that his female companion isn’t his wife. He grabs an empty compartment and pulls down the privacy shade, “We don’t want people staring at us.” His mistress quips, “You even thought that beggar in Damascus was a barrister in disguise.”

In Todhunter’s eyes, it is the people who have no desire to hurt him -- but who probably disapprove of what he is doing -- that pose the greatest threat. Similarly, President Obama demonizes those who disagree with him on major policy issues. Rather than seeking common ground with the loyal opposition, his strategy is to disenfranchise them.

Although Gilbert and Iris had a run-in the previous night in the hotel (he created a racket in the room above hers, she bribed the manager to evict him, and he barged into her room), Gilbert is the only person on the train willing to help Iris find Miss Froy.

Iris recalls that Miss Froy stumbled into Todhunter’s compartment as they walked down the corridor, and asks Todhunter if he remembers the elderly woman. He denies having seen her, and then lies to his mistress when she asks him what the conversation was about, “Just some people in the corridor arguing.” Actually, “Mrs.” Todhunter heard every word, and when she confronts him about lying he explains, “We might become vital witnesses.”

President Obama is also very comfortable misleading people when telling the truth isn’t to his advantage. For over six years he assured both the American and Israeli people that all options were still on the table. We now know that was because he wasn’t ready to reveal his solution -- a solution based on his conviction that there really is just one option.

Gilbert and Iris discover that Miss Froy is being held in a compartment disguised as a patient with her face completely bandaged. Dr. Hartz plans to take her off the train at the final stop before the frontier and operate on her, ensuring that she doesn’t survive. One of the conspirators, a woman disguised as a nun, is English by birth and has a change of heart. She decides to help Iris and Gilbert hide Miss Froy by restraining and bandaging another female conspirator. When Dr. Hartz discovers the switch after placing the patient in an ambulance, he has the train diverted so it can be seized outside the town.

Gilbert and Iris explain what’s happening to the other passengers. When a soldier boards the train and asks everyone to transfer to waiting cars, the nun gestures to Gilbert that it’s a trick. Gilbert hits the soldier over the head and takes his weapon. Todhunter immediately protests, “I don’t believe it. The man’s explanation was quite satisfactory.”

Todhunter doesn’t trust the other passengers even though they have evidence that something sinister is going on. But Todhunter is perfectly willing to take the villain’s explanation at face value. Similarly, President Obama is wary of people who want to nix the Iran deal just because Iran’s leaders violate international treaties and conventions, lead crowds in chants of “Death to America!,” and fuel conflicts in countries around the region. But he accepts the regime’s claim that it is peaceful and only seeks justice.

When the other passengers agree to fight the villains with Gilbert, Todhunter expresses indignation, “They can’t do anything. It would mean an international situation.… I’m not going to fight. It’s madness… You’re behaving like a pack of fools.” It turns out that Todhunter has a gun, but he refuses to use it, “I won’t be a party to this sort of thing. I don’t believe in fighting.”

Sound familiar? President Obama also believes that fighting never solves anything. He trusts that the international community will prevent anything bad from occurring. And the Obama administration considers it madness for the U.S. or Israel to even consider the use of military force to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Surely Iran’s leaders, if shown proper respect, will work amicably with other world leaders to avert conflict.

Todhunter finally concludes that surrender is the only sensible course of action. “If we give ourselves up, they daren’t murder us in cold blood. They’re bound to give us a trial.” He exits the train waving a white handkerchief and is promptly shot dead.

President Obama and his supporters believe that all wars can be prevented -- it just takes really smart leaders who know how to negotiate with the other members of their elite club. Alfred Hitchcock was a perspicacious observer of human foibles and recognized this particular form of conceit more than 75 years ago. 

Ira Brodsky is a writer and technology consultant based in the Midwest.