J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Lady Vanishes: Miss Froy Disappears Again

Although not widely read today, Welsh mystery novelist Ethel Lina White’s work was adapted for the screen by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Alfred Hitchcock.  While the great American detective writer just did a punch-up job on the adaptation of Her Heart in Her Throat that would become The Unseen, Hitchcock inherited a troubled production and turned it into one of the defining films of his pre-Hollywood career.  For some reason, every forty years or so someone decides to remake The Lady Vanishes.  The latest premieres on PBS this Sunday night as part of the current season of Masterpiece Mystery (promo here).

Iris Carr is young, rich, hedonistic, and unencumbered by any family ties.  She and her vapid friends are partying their way through the Balkans, because that seems to be the place to be in the 1930’s.  After a jealous spat, she decides to return to London rather than continue to her pack’s next destination.  It will be a hectic journey.

Bribing her way onto the train after her reservation is suspiciously lost, Carr either succumbs to sunstroke or is knocked unconscious.  Coming to in time to make her express, the woozy Carr is less than thrilled by her compartment companions.  The sour-faced Baroness and her entourage are not exactly welcoming either.  However, the kindly Miss Froy, a governess employed by one of the Baroness’s relatives, takes Carr under her wing.  Of course, as viewers surely expect, when the drowsy Carr awakes, Miss Froy is nowhere to be found and nobody will admit to having seen her.

More faithful to the original source novel than the Hitchcock classic, Fiona Seres’ screen adaptation has no Caldicott, Chambers, or any talk of cricket whatsoever.  Max Hare, the earnest engineer-surrogate for Michael Redgrave will not be much help either.  Carr is more or less on her own, as the Baroness and her co-conspirators try to “gaslight” the “hysterical” woman into silence.  Unfortunately, Hare and his professor-mentor have the intuition of burnt toast, never picking up on the malevolent glares, pregnant pauses, and conspicuous lies coming from the villainous looking villains.

Tuppence Middleton is a bit bland, but she comes unhinged rather impressively.  Sadly, Tom Hughes is a weak, plodding presence as Hare, comparing poorly with not just Redgrave, but Elliott Gould in the questionably conceived 1979 remake.  However, the supporting cast is quite strong.  Former Bond villain Jesper Christensen is quite entertaining chewing the scenery as the sly doctor, while Pip Torrens brings humane depth to the tele-film as the Reverend Kenneth Barnes, one of television’s rare positive portrayals of a clergyman.  (The retro opening credits are also surprising cool.)

Director Diarmuid Lawrence makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, but rushes through the climatic turning point as if his cast were late for their connecting trains.  Obviously it is wildly unfair to compare this The Lady Vanishes to Hitchcock’s early masterwork, but it just does not have the same verve as Masterpiece’s first-class reboot of The 39 Steps.  Reasonably diverting for a Sunday evening unwind, The Lady Vanishes airs tomorrow night (8/18) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

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