Tuesday, July 28, 2009

cinema obscura: Anthony Page's "The Lady Vanishes" (1980)

It's a fool's errand to remake a classic, particularly a classic by a master. But that hasn't stopped some brave - deluded? - filmmakers from taking on even Alfred Hitchcock's increible library of films.

When such follies are attempted, the director in question ususally tosses around the word "hommage." but I also sense a hint of "All About Eve" resentment some place in there: the protégé wants to show up, outdo, the mentor, rather than honor or celebrate him/her, see?

There's a sense of divine justice in that the remakes rarely work or elicit much enthusiasm from critics or moviegoers. Case in point: Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene remake of Hitch's "Psycho" (1998), a clever conceit that, in retrospect, probably deserved more serious analysis than it received. (Still, Van Sant messed up: He couldn't quite copy Hitch's pacing - so in an effort to have his film's running time match the original's, he had to eliminate one minor sequence - the Sunday morning scene with the sheriff and his wife, set outside a church. So Van Sant's "Psycho" isn't exactly identical to Hitchcock's.)

All of this is in preamble to introduce you to a Hitchcock remake of which you are probably unaware: Anthony Page's version of "The Lady Vanishes," made and released in England in 1979 and released ever so briefly in the States in 1980. Hitchcock's, also made in Great Britain in 1938, is an undisputed classic in the great British tradition starring Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Dame May Witty. Pauline Kael praised the filmmaker, saying it was "directed with such skill and velocity that it has come to represent the quintessence of screen suspence."

So, how does one top that?

Well, Page ("I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" and "Absolution"), working from a screenplay by no less than George Axelrod, didn't really try. His version is unassuming, unself-conscious and quite companionable. He played around with the casting, offering up Elliott Gould, Cybill Shepherd and Angela Lansbury in the Redgrave, Lockwood and Witty roles, respectively. As a bonus, he found roles for such British stalwards as Herbert Lom, Ian Carmichael and Arthur Lowe.

On the other side of the camera, Douglas Slocombe photographed the piece for Page and Richard Hartley penned the music score.

So far, so good.

The plot, from Ethel Lina White's novel, remains intact: On an express train travelling through pre-World War II Germany, a flighty American heiress, Amanda Kelly (Shepherd), meets Miss Froy (Lansbury), a fussy, entertaining au pair who promptly goes missing. Other than Amanda, no one else seems to recall or have seen Miss Froy. Hmmm...

Amanda manages to finesses another American, a photographer named Robert Condon (Gould), into service. And as they search the train for her, Amanda realizes Miss Froy was much more than she appeared to be.

Page's offbeat casting seems inexplicably right, his pacing is crisp and he and Axelrod get the details and dialogue right. All in all, an honorable effort that transcends its reputation as an unnecessary remake and deserves to be seen. Or maybe it's just that I'm a sucker for train films.


Bailey said...

Never see this. Never heard of it. The cast is kinda wacky but I'd be willing to give it a try - if I could find it. I admire Page's "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden."

chris schneider said...

I wonder if that "Robert Condon" is a nod, by screenwriter Axelrod, to the *Richard* Condon who wrote the novel "The Manchurian Candidate"?

joe baltake said...

Chris! Probably! Nice catch. -J

Larry said...

You got to see this film? I'm jealous. Sounds like it could be good fun or at least an interesting oddity.

Rick Notch said...

Shepard's performance is based in Carol Lombard and is nothing like Margaret Lockwood.