Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Review: The Lady Vanishes (1979)

    Hammer's last film is a dud.

    It sounds like a good idea: a Hammer Films remake of a Hitchcock classic with Elliot Gould, Cybill Shepherd and Angela Lansbury. But like most good ideas, they’re only good at the idea stage. The Lady Vanishes was not only one of Hitchcock’s greatest British films, but one of his greatest, period, so any remake (or, it should be noted, re-adaptation of the Ethel Lina White novel The Wheel Turns) already has the deck stacked against it. But comparisons aside, Anthony Page’s film is still a drag to get through - despite an admirable cast and an admittedly exciting finale.

    The Lady Vanishes concerns the eccentric passengers on train traveling through Germany in 1939, where the flighty young heiress Amanda meets an elderly British nanny by the name of Miss Froy. The two of them get along swimmingly, but after awakening from a nap Amanda is surprised to see Miss Froy missing from their passenger cart. She asks the other passengers where the lady went, but they all say there was never a lady there in the first place. Everyone on the train thinks she’s delusional, except for maybe the smart-ass photographer Robert. Convinced there’s a conspiracy onboard, Amanda and Robert set about to find the vanished lady.

    What saw through Hitchcock’s original film was the central concept, in which the protagonist begins to doubt his or her sanity in the face of overwhelming paranoia. The central conflict of a missing passenger that everyone on board claims was never there in the first place is a perfect dilemma for our heroes, as we can all relate to the feeling of the world working against, albeit in not quite so extreme a fashion. Hitchcock also made great use of his leading lady Margaret Lockwood, who although was something of a frivolous party-girl, still had an immediately likable quality to her; there was more to her than just outward appearances.

    And that’s where Page’s movie falls apart irrevocably. Cybill Shepherd is thoroughly unlikable as the main character, giving no greater depth or humor or anything or substance to make her character more palatable. Whereas Lockwood had a devilish sense of humor behind her eyes, there’s nothing in Shepherd except blankness. Considering the main hook of the movie revolves around our sympathies for Shepherd’s character, the movie has shot itself in the foot before it even begins.

    Which is a shame, as the rest of the cast acquits themselves rather well. Elliot Gould doesn’t have a lick of chemistry with Shepherd (all the more disappointing given the charming chemistry between Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in the original), but is otherwise a lot of fun to watch as the bumbling photographer Robert. The character is no daring action hero, something which is shown when he proves incapable of fending off a would-be attacker in the luggage car. Gould was one of the very best actors of the seventies, so it’s a shame this wasn’t more of a showcase for his abilities, comic or otherwise.

    Angela Lansbury is also wonderful as the sweet yet mysterious Miss Froy, although her relationship with Amanda is hampered by the film’s rush to get all the principals onboard the train. The entire film is hampered - instead of the lax-paced opening of the original, where we got to know each of the film’s eccentric and quirky collection of characters in a lengthy introduction. Still, in this version all of them are portrayed effectively enough: Herbert Lom does a fantastic job as the “friendly” doctor who helps Robert and Amanda, while Arthur Lowe and Ian Carmichael also get some big laughs as the cricket-obsessed, eternally British Charters and Caldecott (who were so popular in the original, they were spun off into a series of their own). But as colorful as the train passengers may be, they still suffer from a script that feels like it’s ticking off boxes on a checklist. It feels a bit disingenuous to keep constantly comparing the film to Hichcock’s, but it goes out of it’s way to replay whole scenes just as they were in the original; which makes the film feel more like a dull echo. One thing the film does improve upon is the action climax, which here is well-staged in a more exciting and stunt-driven way, but lacks the impact of the original due to the lack of urgency Hitchcock wringed out of every situation.

    The Lady Vanishes bombed upon it’s initial release, suitably shutting down Hammer Films for close to thirty years as a result.

    * Wolf Kohler, aka the Nazi who gets his face Hoovered in Raiders of the Lost Ark, makes an appearance as an SS officer here as well. Talk about typecasting.

    ** The scene at the end where all the British passengers must decide whether to protect Miss Froy or turn themselves in to the Nazis (essentially a metaphor for whether or not Great Britain should get involved in the war) is given a strange undercurrent in this version by making Robert and Amanda into Americans.

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