Posted by David Kalat on November 3, 2012
For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at secret Hitchcock remakes—movies that may or may not have taken direct inspiration from Hitchcock’s classics, but at least pretended they didn’t. Those films attempt to stand on their own merits, independent of any comparisons to Hitchcock that their content might invite.
But we haven’t yet addressed the thorny mess of overt Hitchcock remakes—the ones that openly identify themselves as updates of movies made by the Master of Suspense. Somehow that makes a significant difference—and the direct comparisons are never flattering.
So when we come to something like Hammer’s 1979 version of The Lady Vanishes, not only do we have the worrisome aspect of a direct Hitchcock remake, we also have the exceedingly problematic audience expectations generated by the phrase “Hammer does Hitchcock.”
At first glance, “Hammer does Hitchcock” probably sounds like a brilliant idea, one whose time was way overdue. Throughout the 1960s, Hammer Studios had been churning out a number of decidedly Hitchcockian suspense thrillers, thanks to the twisted mind of Jimmy Sangster—and as we saw in this space a few weeks ago, Hitch was flirting with making something that for all the world looks like a Hammer film. Was this not a match made in Heaven?
Well, you have to bear in mind, this is late-period Hammer we’re talking about. And for horror aficionados, that phrase “late-period” is fraught with meaning.
Hammer Studios had its breakout moment in 1957 with the one-two punch of Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, which ushered in a roughly decade-long period of dominance as Hammer specialized in a particular kind of lurid, high-octane gothic horror for which their company name became something of a brand name. But by the 1970s, essential changes in the film industry as a business had deprived Hammer of their best distribution partners and eliminated their most crucial exhibition outlets. In desperation and panic, the studio embarked on an increasingly frantic series of experiments, spiraling into disaster until the studio simply imploded.
The conventional line on this history is that Hammer’s best work are those meticulously crafted thrillers of the 1960s—the ones directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. And the 1970s films are widely seen as tacky, exploitative, and stupid.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s gotten used to reading me that I take a contrarian view. As admirable as the 1960s Hammers are, they are, you have to admit, formulaic. They are cleaving to a formula Hammer pioneered, one they were exceptionally good at, and they are exceedingly well-made exemplars of that formula—but, at root, they are films who aspire to be competent executions of a commercially safe recipe. By contrast, the bizarre nuttiness of the 1970s films is full of risk-taking and singular ideas. The 1970s film lack confidence, they are the works of moviemakers who are backed against a wall and willing to try anything to survive. The results include such fabulous wonders as Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, in which Peter Cushing teams up with the kung fu stars of Shaw Brothers chop-socky films to hunt Chinese hopping vampires. There is literally nothing else like it in all of cinema, and it is endlessly entertaining. And in my estimation, unique + fun=good.
But there’s a lot of people for whom good=good idea + well-made, and that does not describe much of Hammer’s 1970s output. And so we come to The Lady Vanishes, more or less made on the 40th anniversary of the original, and released to a critical savaging and box office indifference. This isn’t just late-period Hammer, it’s the end of the line—this is where the studio closed up shop and called it a day. (There is a studio called Hammer that recently restarted making low-budget thrillers, and which positions itself as the continuation of the old company—but exactly none of the personnel or artists connect back to the original Hammer).
So we need to ask, is remaking The Lady Vanishes a good idea? As noted above, when you riff on Hitchcockian ideas in films that at least pretend to be original, you can benefit from the comparison without risking anything, but when you go out and say “Hey, world, I’m remaking Hitchcock” you’re challenging the Master, and any comparisons are likely to cut against you.
And of all the movies to remake, the choice of Lady Vanishes seems problematic on several counts. For one, the original was a much-needed hit for Hitchcock after a string of misses, and its box office success was key to his negotiating a good contract with Hollywood. In fact, its box office success was so good, it was in its day the top-grossing British film ever made.
The Lady Vanishes is also funny. So funny, in fact, that one of its lasting contributions to pop culture was in the double act of Charters & Caldicott, the two cricket fans whose eagerness to return to London in time for a key match overwhelms their response to the catastrophe at hand. The two actors (Naunton Wayne and Basil Redford) reprised their characters in subsequent other movies, radio shows, and television—spilling the influence of the film into other media over many years.
In other words, of all the Hitchcock movies that Hammer could have selected to remake, for some reason they set their sights on one of enormous historical significance in British cinema history and in Hitchcock’s personal canon—those are big shoes to fill. They also chose one that had a greater emphasis on comedy than audiences would expect from Hammer—or from Hammer does Hitchcock.
Director Anthony Page was reportedly nervous about the comparisons. “We’re not competing with Hitchcock, but with people’s memories of the film,” Page told the press, as if competing with people’s memories of one of the greatest British classics of all time was somehow a solution to the problem. Hammer CEO Michael Carreras offered up the old standby, “it isn’t a remake, but a remold.” Right.
Mind you, the original was based on a book (Ethel White’s The Wheel Spins) from which Hitchcock’s adaptations took extreme liberties. It could have been possible to revisit that book, to push the film farther from Hitchcock’s template and thereby avoid some of the more direct comparisons. But screenwriter George Axelrod stuck closer to Hitchcock’s screenplay than the book.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t bring anything new to the table—in fact, it has a solid case to stand on vis a vis being “not a remake, but a remold.”
In this blog a while back, I celebrated Hitchcock’s one true unadulterated foray into screwball comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and noted that it had roots in other Hitchcock films such as Rich and Strange. I didn’t cite The Lady Vanishes at the time, but I could have—the original Lady is decidedly in tune with the screwball pattern. You have the runaway heiress (Margaret Lockwood) who engages in hostility-as-flirtation with a blue-collar hero (Michael Redgrave), against a backdrop of colorful supporting characters.
Anthony Page and George Axelrod’s concept here is to push the film all the way into screwball territory. The original plays as a suspense thriller with romantic comedy elements—the remake is a romantic comedy with suspense thriller elements. It is a subtle change, but significant enough to substantially reorient the overall tone of the film.
This doesn’t feel especially Hitchcockian, because that isn’t what it’s trying to achieve—it’s aiming for a wacky action farce vibe instead. In every instance, the thrill moments are tempered by jokes.
The Margaret Lockwood role is here played by Cybill Shepherd, roughly ten years away from her starring role in Moonlighting, which would make a weekly feast of mashing up screwball romantic comedy with suspense thrillers. (I supposed this is the best place to also note that in this version, the lady who does the vanishing is played by Angela Lansbury, also destined for TV thriller stardom in the 1980s). The screenplay even goes so far as to call her a “madcap heiress” (repeatedly), to make sure the audience hasn’t missed the point.
To their credit, Shepherd and costar Elliott Gould nail their bitchy banter, and anchor the film in the screwball mode. The original plays up the stiff upper lip British vs. shifty foreigners angle for some of its atmosphere and its laughs—the 1979 version adds in a brash, loud Americans vs. stiff upper lip Brits vs. shifty foreigners aspect.
Seen today, the result is probably easier to appreciate than it was in 1979. The problem isn’t anything inherent in the film, but in its context. This is the wrong way to approach this material in 1979—a fallow period for romantic comedies. Hammer had a devil of a time getting financing for this—it took them 3 or 4 years to pull the project together. Its status as a 40th anniversary remake was coincidental. If Hammer had flopped around a little longer, the 1980s might have been a more welcoming place for this very execution.
To suit a 1970s audience, you’d have wanted to emphasize different aspects of this story—the conspiracy angle, for example. And what about updating the trapped-on-a-train setting to something better suited to the disaster-movie addled 70s? Imagine Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould struggling against some opaque conspiracy while trapped on an airplane, from which a passenger had seemingly ceased to have ever existed?
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