He was more the Monster than the Master. Widely regarded as our greatest ever film-maker, Alfred Hitchcock could be a despicable man. When Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds, rejected his advances, he got an assistant to tail her every move to make sure she wasn't seeing any other men. He was not someone with whom you would want to sit through a Hitchcock retrospective.
And yet, such monstrous behaviour has done little to damage the film-maker's reputation. Thirty-three years after his death, we are more fascinated by him than ever before. Two films – Hitchcock (with Anthony Hopkins as the lugubrious director) and The Girl (in which Toby Jones spent four hours a day in make-up to re-create the film-maker's look) – have recently been released. The 39 Steps has received acclaim in fresh incarnations on screen and stage. And last year, he was accorded the honour of a six-month retrospective at the British Film Institute.
Now BBC1 has remade one of his most celebrated films, The Lady Vanishes. Scripted by Fiona Seres, previously responsible for The Silence, the updated version is set in 1931. It centres on Iris (Tuppence Middleton), a spoilt young socialite who is travelling alone on the train back to the UK after a holiday in the Balkans. In the broiling heat, she faints on the platform. Recovering on the train, she is looked after by the kindly Miss Froy (Selina Cadell). Iris falls asleep in her carriage, but when she wakes up she discovers that Miss Froy has disappeared into thin air. She is the lady who vanishes.
Iris embarks on an increasingly frantic search for her new friend, but she is met with incomprehension and hostility from her fellow passengers, who start to think she is mad. No one believes that Miss Froy ever existed – except a dashing young Englishman called Max (Tom Hughes, Cemetery Junction), who helps Iris in her quest. It is a mystery as impenetrable and atmospheric as the smoke drifting from the funnel of the steam train.
The cast and crew of The Lady Vanishes admit that the considerable shadow of Hitchcock loomed over them as they filmed their remake of the classic 1938 movie. “If somebody says, 'Do you want to remake a Hitchcock film?', the wise thing would be to say 'No',” says the director Diarmiud Lawrence. “Unfortunately, I didn't fall into the category of the wise man who says, 'I don't want to do that!'”
Lawrence tackled the Hitchcock issue head-on by peppering his interpretation of The Lady Vanishes with nods to the great movie-maker. “I've tried to salute him from time to time in the film. He had a wonderful ability to manipulate audiences. For instance, my film opens with a wide shot across an infinity pool on a beautiful day. One of Hitchcock's traits was to open his movies with a similar sort of wide shot of a gorgeous scene, as if to say, 'It's a lovely day – what could possibly go wrong?', before showing you exactly what could go wrong.”
Why do we keep coming back to Hitchcock's work? “Because he is the master,” says Middleton. “In everything from shot selection and editing to storytelling, he set trends in film-making that are still in use today. He got it right every time – he didn't make a dud. His films are always relevant because they are timeless. You'll always find something new in them.”
Hughes hopes that the new version of The Lady Vanishes captures some of Hitchcock's mastery of suspense. “I think there is real tension in our version. It's a psychological thriller that delves into ideas of trust and delirium. It's very well structured so that you never quite know whether you're with Iris or not.”
“It's also very subtle. The fear is largely in your head. You never think a baddie is about to jump out from behind a curtain with a knife. You can rest assured that there are no shower scenes in The Lady Vanishes.”
'The Lady Vanishes' is on 17 March at 8.30pm on BBC1