"The Lady Vanishes," an exceedingly superfluous remake of a classic Hitchcock entertainment, permits Cybill Shepherd to make a hateful spectacle of herself all over again. She suddenly pulls ahead of Ali MacGraw in their unofficial tug-of-war for supremacy as the least adroit and ingratiating leading lady of the contemporary American screen.
A model of suspenseful economy and incisive characterization, Hitchcock's film depicts how the British passengers on a transcontinental train are implicated in foreign intrigue when one of their number disappears.
Stepping into a romantic heroine's role that Margaret Lockwood had embodied inoffensively, even attractively, in 1938 Shepherd has been encouraged to affront the viewer with a characterization (madcap Yankee playgirl) and personality traits (the arrogant pouty mouth, the shrill bitchy voice, the pugnacious jaw just begging to be socked) that turned her into a person non grata only yesterday.
Following the career-demolishing one-two punch of "Daisy Miller" and "At Long Last Love," which simultaneously flattened Peter Bogdanovich, Shepherd had been wise (or well-advised) enough to keep a low profile. Incredibly, whoever talked her into "The Lady Vanishes" also conned her into repeating her performance from "At Long Last Love." She's even been dressed for facetious bad luck: her single garment is a replica of the backless white satin evening gown she wore while swaggering and sneering her way into disgrace in "At Long Last Love."
Copying a famous, durably appealing movie invites a measure of hostility to begin with. Allowing an incorrigible amateur like Shepherd to expose her worst mannerisms without a hint of directorial restraint or solicitude suggests appalling ignorance at best and self-sabotage at worst.
At least Bogdanovich won't have this particular offense on his conscience. The principal mercenaries of record are director Anthony Page and screenwriter George Axelrod. The screenplay supplied Hitchcock by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder has not been cleverly revised or updated by Axelrod, once a pretty clever fellow. Every significant character, setting, situation, episode, clue and illustrative detail in the remark originated in the Hitchcock production. They've merely been restaged and reshot with less flair; though Page, a director of no style, seems impelled to reproduce Hitchcock's set-ups.
Page does have the luxury of a real train for all the exteriors. Somehow, Hitchcock achieved a more satisfying illusion of romance and espionage emerging in the course of a train journey while being obliged to make do with miniatures and mock-ups. The implicit locale of the original film -- somewhere behind the Third Reich on a passenger express bound for the Swiss border -- is also specified in the remake as "Bavaria, 1939" without improving or intensifying the suspense.
If anything, the suspense is undermined by facetious touches that would have been unthinkable in a thriller conceived at a time when Nazi Germany represented a serious threat. For example, Shepherd is introduced drunkenly mocking Hitler in a Bavarian restaurant. Her upper lip smudged with a greasepaint mustache, she climbs onto a table and taunts the natives with a chorus of "heils" A convenient group of justifiably provoked Brownshirts upends the table and sends her head over heels onto the parquet.
This idiotic episode rationalizes the original bump on the head suffered by Margaret Lockwood, when a falling flowerpot meant for the Lady destined to vanish -- an English governess called Miss Froy and played by Dame May Whitty -- hit the heroine instead. The conk on the noggin is used to throw doubt on the heroine's insistence that she has made the acquaintance of Miss Froy (now played by Angela Lansbury) after her sudden, mysterious disappearance from their train compartment. Nevertheless, could anyone with his wits about him regard this substitute excuse as an improvement?
The filmmakers' lack of urgency (and attentiveness) may be gauged by the fact that Eliott Gould, inheriting the hero's role originated by Michael Redgrave has been allowed to make the following crack not once but twice: "This is Nazi Germany! War's gonna break out in about 20 minutes!" tAxelrod's major changes in the Gilliat-Launder script consist of padding the espionage case with unneccessary explanations and Americanizing the repartee between hero and heroine. To no one's surprise, Shephered and Gould fail to recapture the charm of the '30s screwball romance.
The curious thing about this mismatch is how innocuous Gould becomes when paired with an actress as provocatively obnoxious as Shepherd. His own abrasive tendencies vanish. Indeed, it becomes difficult to understand why such a nice (and presumably Jewish) guy should tolerate such an abusive shiksa.
When Shepherd playfully snarls "Swine!" or "Dummy!" at Gould, the connotations are not adorable or forgivable. She'd make more sense (and be deliberately funnier) if she were cast as a fanatical Nazi tart. Her fadeout ultimatum to Gould, "Don't just sit there, dummy, gimme a little kiss!," has all the romantic appeal of a Gestapo officer giving his captive a choice of death by bullet or cyanide pellet.