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Lady Vanishes (1979), The
The remake of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes flopped big time when it was released in 1979. American critics were inclined to dislike remakes in general, but to rework one of Hitch's best-loved films was considered downright sacrilegious. The critical backlash was thus assured before the cameras had even turned over. (In Britain, however, the film garnered mostly very good reviews.) Audiences stayed away in droves, too. In a feeble effort to make this British film and very British story more palatable to American audiences, the leading roles were played by Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould, neither of whom were box office draws by 1979. Even Sam Arkoff's AIP turned the picture down, and The Lady Vanishes was barely released in America.
Today the film is virtually forgotten. Hitchcock scholars usually dismiss it in a single sentence, and it's rarely shown today. There are no imminent plans to release it on DVD in America, but Carlton Visual Entertainment has released a good DVD of the picture in PAL format, enabling scholars to give the film a second look.
This reviewer was expecting the worst, and happily surprised to discover The Lady Vanishes is not nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest. The film is a perfectly legitimate and entertaining remake, remarkably faithful to Hitch's 1938 original, with modest alternations that improve the pace or offer historical hindsight to what has since become a period setting.
The story takes place in 1939, just weeks before the start of the Second World War. Boarding an express train in Bavaria, a rich divorcee, Amanda Kelly (Shepherd), meets a sweet British nanny, Miss Froy (Angela Lansbury). Soon after the two become acquainted, Froy inexplicably vanishes. Making matters worse, the other people sharing their compartment, as well as the waiter who served them tea, all deny Miss Froy ever existed. Undeterred, Amanda enlists the aide of an American photographer (Gould) and a gentlemanly doctor (Herbert Lom) to find the missing woman, whom Amanda believes is still somewhere aboard the moving train.
The Lady Vanishes seems to have grown out of the unexpected success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), director Sidney Lumet's light-hearted, all-star mystery from Agatha Christie's story. The success of that film led to a series of Christie adaptations, and indirectly to the TV series Murder, She Wrote, which, of course, starred Angela Lansbury. To remake The Lady Vanishes then, what with its European train setting, its glamorous period costumes, and proven story must have seemed like a safe bet.
Screenwriter George Axelrod (The Manchurian Candidate) and director Anthony Page (The Missiles of October) wisely retain everything that worked in Hitchcock's original, with some scenes, such as the disappearance of Miss Froy and the reappearance of her name spelled out on a dining car window, recreated line-for-line, shot-for-shot. All the familiar characters are here, too, including aging cricket fans Charters and Caldicott, nicely played in this version by Arthur Lowe and Ian Carmichael.
Axelrod's script has been criticized for being too light-hearted, a strange complaint given that Hitchcock's film is basically a comedy with suspense. Those who complain about the "screwball" interpretation of its leads surely forget the biting comic repartee of Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in the original.
That said, the picture does have a major liability in Cybill Shepherd. Where Lockwood's Iris slowly begins to think she may be going mad, Shepherd's Amanda knows she isn't. Axelrod's script casts her as a stubborn and frivolous American, which suits Shepherd, but she's not even up to that level. Instead of creating a frivolous character, Shepherd has the air of a frivolous actress, reading lines and going through the motions like a reluctant participant on one of those murder mystery train rides, with Shepherd along for the ride because her friend made her go.
Shepherd's performance doesn't ruin the picture, but it gives little for co-star Gould to play off of. He is cast in a variation of his familiar, generally likeable screen persona, but for him it's an uphill battle, as all his scenes are opposite Shepherd.
Beyond its footnote status in Hitchcock's oeuvre, The Lady Vanishes is also noteworthy as the very last movie produced by Hammer Films. The picture was an all-or-nothing, $4 million roll of the dice by Hammer Films head Michael Carreras. Its more than adequate production values belie its House of Horror origins, and the film bears no resemblance to anything the studio had ever done before. That the film flopped is a shame; though forgotten, it was an admirable effort.
Video & Audio
The Lady Vanishes was filmed in Panavision, and presented here in letterboxed format, anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 televisions. The image seems a trifle soft, but some of this may be due to the particular style of legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. The Dolby Digital mono sound is acceptable, and hard-of-hearing English subtitles are offered.
The only extra is a trailer, also in 16:9 format, which does a thuddingly bad job selling the picture.
It may not be a classic in its own right, but The Lady Vanishes is entertaining enough and certainly undeserving of its dismissed status. It's certainly better than any of the remakes of and sequels to Hitchcock films that have been done since, and despite a disinterested performance by Cybill Shepherd, The Lady Vanishes is a diverting little thriller.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf EThe Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.