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Twilight Time appears to have reached out in a different direction for this new Blu-ray release, and uncovered a gem of a picture that had slipped into obscurity. Once shown on Los Angeles's "Z" Channel and seen almost nowhere else, Stuart Cooper's 1977 The Disappearance now arrives in pristine condition and full High Definition.
Schooled in England, American Stuart Cooper befriended a number of famous actors-to-be, and pursued his own brief acting career that peaked with a role as one of the condemned criminals in Robert Aldrich's original The Dirty Dozen. Cooper turned to directing short films and docus, and making his biggest career splash with the remarkable Overlord, a docu-drama about preparations for D-Day that utilized amazing footage held by the British War Museum.
Cooper's second feature film The Disappearance is a superior effort with a disastrous distribution history. Independently produced by friend David Hemmings and staffed with some of the top U.K. talent of its year, it fell into the hands of a distributor that re-edited it into utter incoherence, replaced its delicate soundtrack with electronic rubbish, and then barely put it on the market. The original 101-minute cut apparently survives only in a drab videotape transfer, but Cooper has given his full blessing to a third 91-minute cut that abridges it with sensitivity and intelligence. It's an opportunity to see great performances by Donald Sutherland, Christopher Plummer, John Hurt and David Warner.
Told differently The Disappearance might be yet another spy movie about an unhappy assassin, like the seriously strained James Coburn effort Hard Contract. Paul Mayersberg's layered screenplay makes all the difference. Suave contract hit man Jay Mallory (Donald Sutherland) dispatches his latest "Shy" (victim). When he comes home to his swank wharf-side condo in Montreal, he finds that his beautiful wife Celandine (Francine Racette) is missing. Distraught and depressed, he ignores the pleadings of his contact Burbank (David Warner) to begin his next job in England, and instead mulls over past events with Celandine for clues to why she may have left him, and with whom. Burbank confesses that he's talked to Celandine, which worries Mallory. Mallory also contacts Edward (David Hemmings), Celandine's former companion. Burbank is mysteriously "replaced" by the unlikeable Jefferies (Peter Bowles), and Mallory decides to go through with his job. On the way he learns more about his target, and meets new people that may or may not be trustworthy. New company recruit Atkinson (John Hurt) turns up on a country road to guide him to the kill. Catherine (Virginia McKenna) is the wealthy, unhappy wife of the intended Shy, Deverell (Christopher Plummer) -- a top man in the "agency". Mallory remembers Celandine's words: that if she left him he wouldn't know why until it were over; and that he needs to be truthful, and needs to need her.
This tale of clandestine murders and a secret organization is told in swank environments, among wealthy people. The Montreal home of Jay Mallory is a designer's dream yet comes off as dreary in the snow and ice that blankets the harbor. John Alcott's cinematography emphasizes the clean but lifeless quality of most locations. The cast of characters could have come from a John Le Carre novel, as nobody talks plainly about the business being transacted. "Top talent" Mallory has no way of knowing whether his officious, insulting superiors have sinister plans for him, or are just prigs. Running parallel with and taking precedence over the spy hi-jinks is Jay Mallory's romantic dilemma. Jay is genuinely in love with a wife that he took far too much for granted. His now mopes and pouts and broods over her, and takes memory excursions into their relationship. Mallory knows that his work requires absolute unemotional concentration, and he's in a very quiet panic.
The Disappearance is all about romantic illusions vs. pragmatic cynicism. That's a good thing as the hit man genre framework is not all that original. Practically every assassin saga brings up the obvious idea that anybody can be a target, including loved ones and the hit man himself. Jay Mallory always seems confident that he's not on anybody's Shy list, but we sure don't know why. We see him pulling off slick work in the past and the present, in particular avoiding a classic ambush on the road. He carefully deducts the mystery of the identity of his Shy in time to do some investigating, and satisfies himself about the identity of the victim (no spoilers). But he can't be sure of who actually contracted the killing. The surprise of The Disappearance is that the revelations of the last reel reward our earlier attention... the Jay Mallory character "pays off" in satisfaction.
Original author Derek Marlowe also wrote the Anthony Mann spy movie A Dandy in Aspic, another tale of a hit man assigned to ironic targets. From Murder Inc. forward, movies about discount contract killing companies seem to end up by killing their own personnel. The Disappearance is not an exception, but it has a lot more than just a story about people shooting people.
The slick visuals of John Alcott's cinematography help make The Disappearance an interesting puzzle picture. Cooper and Mayersberg skip back in time to examine slices of Mallory's memory, assembling an image of Celandine in much the same way Laura is presented in the old Otto Preminger film noir. To the credit of ace editor Eric Boyd-Perkins, we're never confused by the shift between images past and present.
Donald Sutherland carries the movie with ease. As Ms. Racette is his off-screen wife, the movie was an opportunity to work together, and Sutherland commits the same kind of sensitive performance that he gave Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. When Sutherland's Jay Mallory stalks a country estate at night, holding a Mauser pistol at the ready, we're really concerned about what will happen to him.
Ex-model Francine Racette gives her 'memory love object' Celandine some nice shadings. We can't quite tell if Celandine is waiting patiently for Jay to take her seriously, or if she's a colder personality who has already betrayed him. David Warner, John Hurt and Christopher Plummer contribute strongly felt characters. None are typical faceless espionage thriller types, which only makes us worry more -- which can Mallory trust? Christopher Plummer's presence is so strong that, even though we see him only for a few minutes in one scene, we feel as if he's been lurking around the corner all through the picture. The Disappearance's penultimate confrontation is a real winner.
The movie's original release was a complete non-starter. 1977 was the year of Star Wars and quiet, cerebral thrillers were not exactly welcome at the multiplexes. Since it wasn't even noted as a failure, everybody involved simply went forward with their careers. Mayersberg wrote for Nagisa Oshima and again for Nicolas Roeg (Eureka). Stuart Cooper proceeded directly to work for TV movies and mini-series. It's good to have the essentially lost The Disappearance back in such a beautiful edition.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Disappearance is a slightly different package than their licensed fare from Fox and Sony/Columbia. We have a feeling that the release was put together through personal contacts, in the same way that Stuart Cooper made his movies back in the 1970s. In a new interview Stuart Cooper sketches his background as an actor and docu filmmaker before telling us what he knows about the mutilation of his film by its first distributor. The first fifteen minutes of this "garbage" version is another extra; what we notice is that its new 'supervising editor Fima Noveck 1 has removed several flashbacks. The shots of Donald Sutherland smoking and drinking alone in his condo are now utterly meaningless.
Also present is Stuart Cooper's original 101-minute cut of the film, albeit in a not very attractive flat videotape source. It is perhaps what showed on the "Z" Channel thirty years ago. I skimmed through it and noticed a few new moments and a couple of reshuffled events, but saw no major differences from the 91-minute "main feature" version of The Disappearance, which beautifully transferred is in full widescreen HD. As mentioned above, director Cooper approves of this cut heartily, saying that it retains his structure and visual plan, and that the changes are in keeping with the tone of the movie as he envisioned it. Cooper also says that he doesn't know where this fine version came from. We don't know whether that's 100% true, or whether the version's genesis has been obscured to protect the innocent. We don't care, as The Disappearance now looks and plays great.
Twilight Time fans will recognize familiar hands at work, as the release includes an Isolated Score Track of composer Robert Farnon's delicate music. A rather haunting piano piece played by Celandine figures strongly in the film's texture. Julie Kirgo's insert liner notes express the special qualities of Stuart Cooper's film and delicately explain the tangled release that caused it to fall into undeserved obscurity.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Disappearance Blu-ray rates:
1. If he's the same person, the Fima Noveck that sliced and diced The Disappearance into its disliked theatrical release version is the same film doctor, editor and post-production supervisor that worked on many exploitation pictures of the 80s and 90s, eventually ending up at Full Moon productions where friends of this writer were also editing. His reputation is as a problem solver and a good editor; I'd say that in the case of this picture his whole reason for being hired was to yank out and rearrange the flashbacks. It only takes a few hours to toss the entire creative concept of a movie into the editorial trim bin.
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T'was Ever Thus.