Friday, June 29, 2012
"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Eleven "The Winds of Death" Commentary
A recent critic of "CENTENNIAL" once complained that the miniseries had failed to breach the topic of land environmental issues in an effective manner. Author James Michener allowed this subject to dominate his 1973 novel. But this critic seemed to hint that producer John Wilder had more or less dropped the ball on this topic in the television adaptation.
Looking back at the previous ten episodes, I do not know if I agree with that critic. I did notice that the subject of who was qualified to be the true inheritors of the land - at least in regard to Northern Colorado - appeared throughout the miniseries. "CENTENNIAL" also focused on how the story's many characters used the land. One could argue that the subplot regarding the Wendells' origins as stage performers and scam artists had nothing to do with land environmental issues. And I would disagree. The Wendells' murder of the businessman Mr. Sorenson in "The Crime" and Sheriff Axel Dumire's death in "The Winds of Change" allowed the family to become the biggest landowners in Centennial. They used their ill-gotten money - acquired from Mr. Sorenson's satchel - to not only acquire land, but also become successful owners of a real estate company. The Wendells' new profession allowed them to play a major role in the major subplot featured in "The Winds of Death".
This eleventh episode began in 1914, with the arrival of Iowa farmers who had recently purchased land from Mervin Wendell. Among the new arrivals is a young couple named Alice and Earl Grebe. These new farmers are warned by Hans Brumbaugh and Jim Lloyd that they would be wise not to farm the land sold to them by the Wendells - namely the neighborhood's drylands near Rattlesnake Buttes. That particular location had already witnessed previous tragedies such as Elly Zendt's death, the Skimmerhorn Massacre and the range war that led to sheep herders Nate Pearson and Bufe Coker's deaths. Alice and Earl Grebe attempted to create a farm there and were successful for several years. But obstacles such as the land's dry state, the deadly winds that plagued the Great Plains during the 1920s and 1930s finally took their toll, and a free fall in wheat prices after World War I. Earl and his fellow Iowans received good advice from an agricultural consultant hired by the Wendells named Walter Bellamy on how to till their land during potentially bad times. But they ignore Bellamy's advice and pay the price by the end of the episode. Especially the Grebes.
"The Winds of Death" focused upon other subplots. It marked the deaths of three major characters - Hans Brumbaugh, Mervin Wendell and Jim Lloyd. Wendell died as a happy real estate tycoon, oblivious of the damage he has caused. His only disappointments seemed to be his continuing lack of knowledge of Mr. Sorenson's final resting place and the contempt his son Philip still harbors. Brumbaugh's labor problems were finally resolved in the last episode with the arrival of Tranquilino Marquez and other Mexican immigrants. In "The Winds of Death", he spent most of his time helping Tranquilino's family settle in Centennial, while the latter endure six years in a Colorado prison on trumped up charges and years of fighting a revolution in Mexico. Unfortunately for the beet farmer, he died minutes before a possible reunion with Tranquilino.
Jim Lloyd faced a few crisis during this episode before his untimely death. The cattleman insured that his son-in-law, Beeley Garrett (son of sheep rancher, Messamore Garrett) would continue to manage Venneford Ranch. Jim and his wife, Charlotte, also helped Truinfador Marquez maintain his cantina for Centennial's Latino population in the face of bigotry from the local sheriff and the courts. But Jim's biggest conflict turned out to be his resistance to Charlotte's plans to breed the ranch's cattle to an unnaturally small size for stock shows and fairs. This last conflict led to his fatal heart attack.
For me, "The Winds of Death" proved to be the last well-made episode from "CENTENNIAL". Mind you, it did not strike me as perfect. I feel that the episode's running time could have stretched to at least two hours and fifteen minutes, instead of the usual 90 minutes or so. "The Winds of Death" was set during a twenty-year period from 1914 to 1934 or 1935. And there seemed to be a great deal going on in the episode's narrative for a mere 90 to 97 minutes.
I also have issue with the story's suggestion that Hans Brumbaugh's labor problems ended with the influx of Latino immigrants. What exactly was Michener trying to say? That Latinos was the only group that lacked the ambition to be something other than agricultural field workers? I also had a problem with the Lloyds' efforts to help Truinfador keep his cantina. The subplot struck me as a bit contrive and politically correct. Perhaps Jim seemed capable of tolerant understanding of Truinfador's problems, considering his past relationships with the likes of "Nacho" Gomez, Nate Pearson and especially Clemma Zendt. However, the miniseries had never hinted any signs of such ethnic tolerance from Charlotte in past episodes.
My last problem with the episode proved to be a minor quibble. I noticed that the generation that featured Philip Wendell and Beeley Garrett seemed to conceive their offspring, while in their late 30s to 40s. Why? I can understand one of them having children so late in life, but all of the characters from this particular generation? Philip Wendell's son (Morgan) will not be introduced until the next episode. But he will prove to be around the same age as Beeley's son, Paul Garrett.
Despite my problems with "The Winds of Death", I cannot deny that screenwriter Jerry Ziegman wrote a first-rate script. The episode did an excellent job in re-creating the West of the early 20th century. Not only did it explored the problems that Western farmers faced during that period, it also provided viewers with a more in-depth look into the travails of Latino farm laborers - a subject barely touched upon in American cinema or television. One of the episodes highlights proved to be the two major dust storms that plagued Centennial during the 1930s. Duke Callaghan's photography, along with Ralph Schoenfeld's editing and the Sound Department's effects did an excellent job in creating the nightmarish effects that left parts of the Great Plains covering in dust. The storms sequences left me feeling a bit spooked and sympathetic toward Alice Grebe's reaction.
I suspect that many viewers were disappointed to learn that the Wendells failed to suffer the consequences of their crimes. Honestly, I was not that surprised. One cannot deny that they were the kind who usually flourished in the end. After all, "Centennial" was not the first or last work of fiction that mingled reality with drama. However, the episode's pièce de résistance centered on the experiences of the Grebe family's twenty years in Centennial. It was fascinating, yet heartbreaking to watch Alice and Earl Grebe enjoy their brief success during the 1910s, before the post-World War I years slowly reduced them to a near-poverty state. And considering the tragic event that marked the end of Alice and Earl's stay in Centennial, viewing their experiences seemed like watching a train wreck in slow motion . . . or the unfolding of a Greek tragedy.
"The Winds of Death" featured some superb performances by the cast. Truinfador Marquez's efforts to save his cantina led to a conflict between him and his more conservative father, Tranquilino; which also resulted in a superbly acted scene between A Martinez and Byron Gilbert. William Atherton was brilliantly convincing as the aging Jim Lloyd. I found it difficult to remember that he was barely out of his 30s when he shot this episode. Lynn Redgrave was equally superb as the caustic Charlotte Lloyd, who seemed ruthlessly determined to get her own way, whether it meant creating a new breed of cattle for Venneford or helping Truinfador. Anthony Zerbe continued his excellent performance as the charming, yet venal Mervin Wendell. Although Lois Nettleton did not get much of a chance to shine as in this episode as the scheming Maud Wendell, the actress still managed to give a first-rate performance in her brief scenes. Morgan Paul did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of the adult Philip Wendell, who not only remained haunted by Axel Dumire's death, but also proved to be just as ruthless in business as his parents.
Claude Jarman was excellent as farmer Earl Grebe, who struggled to keep his farm and family together. The episode also featured solid work from Alex Karras, Silvana Gallardo, William Bogert, Geoffrey Lewis and Alan Vint. But for me, the stand out performance came from actress Julie Sommars. She gave a superb performance as the fragile Alice Grebe, whose doubts about farming in the drylands of Colorado would come to fruition some twenty years later. She never seemed more sympathetic, yet frightening in those last scenes in which the high winds and dust proved to be the last straw for the fractured Alice.
I almost regretted finishing "The Winds of Death". Not only did it convey an excellent portrait of the West during the early 20th century, the episode featured some excellent performances from the cast. More importantly, it proved to be the last one I would find engrossing. The next and last episode is "The Scream of Eagles" and I have to be brutally honest . . . I am not looking forward to it.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
"THE ENGAGEMENT NEWS"
RATING: PG-13 Adult language.
SUMMARY: Friends and family receive news of Cole's engagement to Olivia McNeill. Set after "The Power of One". AU Season 6.
FEEDBACK: - Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: The Charmed Ones, Leo Wyatt, Darryl Morris and Cole Turner belong to Constance Burge, Brad Kern and Spelling Productions. The McNeills, Cecile Dubois, and other characters are, thankfully, my creations.
"THE ENGAGEMENT NEWS"
Cole strolled along Jackman, Carter and Kline's sixth floor corridor, with his mouth stretched unknowingly into a wide grin. He greeted passing co-workers without his usual reserve, generating surprised reactions from them.
"Good morning!" he cheerfully greeted a fellow attorney from the Corporate Law Division. The man stared at him, goggle-eyed and quietly returned the greeting.
A familiar figure approached Cole from the opposite direction and stared at him. "Cole?" she uttered in a bewildered voice.
The half-daemon smiled happily at his colleague. "Veronica! Good morning!" The dark-haired, statuesque Veronica Altman halted before him. Still staring at him with a stunned expression. Cole frowned at her. "What?"
"Are you taking drugs, or something?" the other attorney commented sarcastically.
Cole threw back his head and laughed, startling his colleague. "I keep forgetting about that crazy sense of humor of yours." Then another smile stretched his lips. "You have a nice day, Veronica. See you." He brushed past her and continued toward his office.
After surprising his assistant, Eleanor, with a cheerful grin, Cole finally entered his office. He dumped his suitcase on the desk and settled into his leather chair. Not long after he had closed his eyes, the familiar odor of gardenias filled his nostrils. He sighed, as his eyes flew open. "Veronica, what are you doing here?"
"You never did answer my question," Veronica replied. She gave Cole an appraising look. "You seem very happy this morning, Turner. And that's rare. Especially for you."
Cole leaned further back into his chair. "What are you talking about? I've been in a good mood, before."
Veronica rolled her eyes. "At this level? Oh please! C'mon Turner, what gives? Right now, you make Bozo the Clown seem like the Grinch."
At first, Cole felt hesitant to reveal the news he now harbored like a loving secret. Both he and his better half - namely one Olivia McNeill - had decided not to tell her family the news, until tonight. But since it seemed unlikely that Veronica would ever have the opportunity to break the news first . . . he decided to tell her. He took a deep breath. "You remember Cecile Dubois, don't you?" he said. "My latest client, who also happens to be dating a close friend of mine?"
"Of course, I do. The computer software designer from New Orleans," Veronica replied. "What about her?"
Cole continued, "She and Andre - my friend - just became engaged a few days ago. They're getting married in January. Or maybe February."
Veronica smiled. "How nice. That's the reason why you're wearing a shit-eating grin, this morning?"
Shooting his colleague a dark look, Cole continued, "No! I . . ." His smile returned. "Let's just say that Andre and Cecile aren't the only ones engaged." He paused dramatically and waited for Veronica's reaction.
A slight moment passed before the other attorney's gray eyes grew wide, as realization struck her. "Oh! Oh my God! Are you . . .?"
"I had proposed to Olivia, last night," Cole said, still smiling. "And she accepted."
Veronica reacted with delight. "Well congratulations!" she cried. Then she bombarded him with a dozen questions. Had the happy couple set a date? What kind of wedding ceremony will they have? Where did they plan to honeymoon?
Cole interrupted his colleague's question in protest. "Veronica? Please? One question at a time. For your information, the answer for each question is . . . I don't know. Well, except for the second question. The ceremony will probably be the same as the one for her brother Bruce's wedding."
"You know, I had no idea that the McNeills were into one of those New Age religions." Veronica regarded Cole with a questioning gaze. "Are you?"
"I'm not into any religion at the moment. However," the half-daemon gave Veronica a friendly smile, "you are certainly invited to the wedding."
Veronica smiled back. "Great! And what about our employers, Mister Jackman, Carter and Kline? Will you invite them, as well?"
Cole responded with a pained expression. "Must I?"
A frustrated grunt escaped from the suspect's mouth, as Olivia McNeill snapped a pair of handcuffs around his wrists. "Jeremy Alvers, you have the right to remain . . ."
"I'm gonna get you, bitch!" Alvers cried, as he attempted a swipe at the female police inspector. "No woman is gonna take me! Especially some bitch cop!"
Ignoring the stares of her colleagues, Olivia grabbed hold of Alvers' arm and pressed - not too gently - into a particular nerve inside his elbow. The suspect groaned with pain. "Listen here," she hissed under her breath, "I'm not in the mood to deal with your misogynist bullshit. Now, get your act together, so I can Miranda you and haul your ass inside that squad car. Understand?" When Alvers failed to respond, Olivia pressed harder into his nerve. "I asked if you understood."
"Ye-e-ess!" Alvers groaned.
Olivia nodded. "Good. Now - Jeremy Alvers, you have the right to remain silent . . ." She continued to read the suspect's Miranda rights. When she finished, she summoned two uniformed officers to escort him to a squad car.
A sigh left the redhead's mouth, as her partner and squad leader, Darryl Morris, approached her. A frown creased his brow. "That guy give you any trouble?" he asked.
"Nothing I can't handle," Olivia replied jauntily. "What about Hector Aquilar? Was he caught?"
Darryl nodded. "Scott and Marcus got him." He scrutinized Olivia through narrowed eyes. "You seemed to be in a good mood, this morning. Has it anything to do with Cecile and Andre's engagement?" Olivia's family had invited Darryl and his wife to attend the engaged couple's celebration party, last night.
Olivia allowed herself a private smile. "Not quite. I mean . . . I'm happy for both of them."
"Uh-huh." Taking the redhead by surprise, Darryl grabbed her right hand.
Olivia protested. "Hey! Darryl! What are you . . .?"
The older cop interrupted. "Then I can only assume that your present good mood has something to do with this!" He lifted her hand, displaying the ring on her finger. "Something new?"
With a sigh, Olivia said, "It's a ring."
"No kidding," Darryl shot back. "It's interesting that it's on the very finger that Sheila had worn her engagement ring, years ago." One of his brows rose questioningly. "Does this mean you have some news to announce?"
After a long pause, Olivia finally confessed. "This goes no further than you, until I say so. I haven't even told my family or Cecile, yet." Then she allowed herself a radiant smile. "Cole had asked me to marry, last night. And I said yes."
Darryl immediately enveloped her into a bear hug. "I thought so! Congratulations!" Then he sobered quickly. "So . . . you don't mind marrying a half-demon, considering what had happened to Phoebe and Cole?"
"If I did, I would have said so." Olivia broke away from his embrace. "Cole isn't exactly the first daemon to get involved with a McNeill, you know."
With a sigh, Darryl replied, "You're talking about something that happened nearly a thousand years ago." The two partners watched the squad car drive away with Alvers inside.
"I know that," Olivia said, "but don't forget that I still carry the blood of that incubus within me. Or else I wouldn't be . . ." She paused, as a uniformed cop strode past them. ". . . Keeper of the Aingeal Staff. Besides, I had come pretty close to killing Cole last summer, thanks to Leo. I'd say that Cole and I could be a danger to each other."
Olivia and Darryl climbed into their car. The latter heaved a sigh. "I guess you have a point. So, when is the happy event?"
"I don't know." Olivia sighed. "We haven't set a date, yet. To be honest, I'm not really in the mood for a long engagement. Maybe we'll get married before Cecile and Andre's wedding. Or after." She patted Darryl's arm. "Don't worry. You, Sheila and the boys are definitely invited."
Darryl murmured, "I only hope that it'll be less eventful than Bruce's wedding. Or Piper's. Or Phoebe's." He switched on the car's engine and seconds later, guided the car through San Francisco's streets.
The New Orleans couple stared at the half-daemon and the witch, after the latter made their announcement. The two couples had met for lunch at Gweneth McNeill's second restaurant - Morgan's.
"I can't believe it!" Cecile exclaimed. "Only you two would get engaged, while having a fight."
Olivia smiled. "What can I say? We were inspired."
"This inspiration is getting to be a habit. Didn't you two first start dating, after a fight?" Olivia and Cole merely exchanged a private smile and ignored Cecile's question.
Andre grinned at his close friend. "So, you had finally decided to give her that ring after all. Huh?"
Cecile frowned. "Finally?"
Cole's face turned red with embarrassment. "I, uh . . . I had bought the ring, over two months ago. I just needed the right mom . . ." He broke off, under Olivia's direct stare. Which reminded him of their argument, last night. "I mean I just finally worked up the nerve to ask her." Olivia smiled.
"When is the wedding date?" Cecile asked. "I hope it won't be around the same time as ours." She and Andre had planned their wedding for mid-February.
Olivia shot a quick glance at her fiancé. "Well, I'm not exactly in the mood for a long engagement . . ."
"Neither am I," Cole added. "How about next month? At least a week or two before the Winter Solstice and Christmas?"
After a brief pause, Olivia commented, "Sounds good to me."
Andre threw back his head and laughed. "Oh man! You two should hear yourselves. You sound like a bunch of lawyers negotiating over a contract."
Cole allowed himself a brief smile. "Well, both of us have studied the law. What do you expect?"
"Oh, I see. I guess you consider that a great requisite for a happy marriage."
Cecile asked, "What about your honeymoon? Andre and I have decided to go to Bermuda."
"That sounds nice," Cole commented.
However, Olivia had another idea. "How about Walt Disney World?"
The half-daemon stared at her with disbelief. "Are you serious?"
"Of course I am."
"Disney World is for children," Cole protested.
Olivia argued, "Maybe, but it's also one of the top honeymoon resorts. Why not? We can stay at the Grand Floridian."
"Sounds good to me," Andre commented. He turned to Cecile. "You know, maybe we should consider . . ."
Cecile declared firmly, "I would prefer Bermuda, thank you very much."
"So would I," Cole protested.
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Why don't we talk about it, later?"
Shaking his head, Cole turned his attention to Cecile. "By the way, I had received your message about your upcoming meeting with Jason Dean."
"You have a meeting with Jason?" Olivia asked her friend.
Cecile nodded. "Tomorrow morning. Jason and I had a talk about my new software program, at your folks' party, last Thursday. It seems that he's interested in becoming a customer."
"Hmmm." Olivia lifted a dubious brow. "I'd be careful, if I were you, Cecile. I realize that you're an experienced businesswoman, but Jason is one of those types who collect companies and conglomerates like old stamps. He might try to buy your company. Or hire someone to create a program design, similar to yours."
Cecile's mouth twisted into a caustic smile. "And your daddy and little brother are above such things?"
"Of course not! They're businessmen! But they know you a lot better than Jason does. Hell, if they had tried a stunt like that, you would probably find a way to get even. And they know that." Olivia returned her friend's smile with one equally tart. "And you would, wouldn't you?"
Cole spoke up. "As Cecile's new West Coast attorney, I can assure you that everything she has created for her company has been patented under her name. If someone does try to steal her software designs, I'll make sure that she'll end up with at least twenty-five percent of that person's assets."
Cecile gave him a smile. "Isn't he great? Everyone should have a lawyer like him."
A smirk curved Olivia's mouth. "Yes, he is. As for Jason, I don't think you have to worry about him, now. From what Paige has told me, he's recently preoccupied with another matter. Like trying to convince a certain girlfriend to accompany him to Hong Kong."
Inside the supermarket, Paige Matthews guided her shopping cart along one aisle. She struggled to maintain her patience, while her older sister babbled endlessly over a personal matter.
". . . mean, oh my God! Hong Kong? That's like on the other side of the world!" Phoebe Halliwell exclaimed. She strode beside the younger woman. "But I can't keep putting it off. Sooner or later, I'll have to tell Jason, no."
Paige added in a laconic voice, "Even though you want to go?"
"Even though I . . ." Phoebe broke off and glared at her sister. "What makes you think that I want to go?"
Rolling her eyes, Paige reached for two cans of tomato paste. "C'mon Pheebs! It's written all over your face. You would like nothing more than to go to Hong Kong with Jason. Why bother reading that Chinese-English dictionary he gave you?" She and Phoebe continued along the aisle.
"Cantonese," Phoebe corrected. "There's no such thing as the Chinese language. They speak many different dialects throughout China. Cantonese, Shanghainese, Mandarin, and . . ."
Paige rudely interrupted, "Excuse me, but I didn't realize that we were in the middle of a Discovery Channel program, here."
With a sigh, Phoebe continued, "As I was saying, I can't go."
"Why not?" Paige paused, before she guided the shopping cart around a corner. The two sisters started down another aisle.
"Hel-lo? Power of Three?" Phoebe paused, as a woman walked past them. She continued, "How can we kick demonic ass and protect the innocent, when I'm on the other side of the Pacific?"
Paige heaved a long sigh. "God, Phoebe! You're actually going to give up a chance to be with the man you love for that? Besides, you and Piper did just fine, while I was in Scotland, last summer. For a whole month."
"What if you encounter a demon that requires the Power of Three to vanquish it?"
Paige retorted, "Then I'll ask Olivia or Harry for help. Or maybe even Cole."
Doubt crept into Phoebe's eyes. "I don't know . . ." she began.
"Well, I do!" Paige snapped. "Look Phoebe, if you want to be with Jason that badly, maybe you should go to Hong Kong, after all. Something tells me that if you don't, you'll probably regret it someday." With that, she dumped a box of LIFE cereal into the cart and continued along the aisle. Phoebe followed in her wake.
His secretary's voice rang clear from the intercom box. "Mr. McNeill, your cousin is on Line Four."
Jack McNeill glanced up from the report on his desk and frowned. "Cousin? Which one?"
"A Mr. Sean McNeill, calling from Australia."
"Thanks, Beatrice." Jack allowed himself a smile, as he pushed the intercom button for his telephone. "Sean? Is that you?"
Sean McNeill's Australian accent seemed as thick as ever. "Jack! How are things in California, mate?"
Jack leaned back into his chair. "San Francisco is just fine. How's Sydney?"
The two men shared a common great-grandfather - one Charles McNeill, whose own father had been the first in the family to arrive in San Francisco, near the end of the 1840s. Charles' younger son, an Alec McNeill, had immigrated to Australia, over ninety-five years ago. One of Alec McNeill's grandsons happened to be the 57 year-old Sean. "Actually, I'm calling you from the airport in Melbourne," Sean said. "I just finished a three-day visit with Belinda and her family."
"And how is my little sister?" Jack asked in a warm voice. His only sister, Belinda, happened to be nine years younger than him. She had married an Australian university professor named Warren Grant.
In a hesitant voice, Sean replied, "Oh . . . she's fine. I think. I, uh . . . I gave her and Warren some news that I think they found . . . well, surprising." He paused. "And I think you'll also find it surprising."
Now, Jack became intrigued. "What exactly is this news?"
The sound of a PA system vibrated in the background, as Sean replied, "I'll tell you when I get to San Francisco, tomorrow afternoon. I have a stopover in Honolulu. Look, I have a flight to catch. See you later mate. Bye." He hung up, after Jack had bid him good-bye.
The middle-aged witch slowly turned off the phone's intercom. Then he leaned his chair further back, as he pondered over his cousin's mysterious call. What kind of news did Sean harbor that proved so surprising to his younger sister?
END OF Part One
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Below are images from "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS", Sidney Lumet's 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 novel. Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot.
"MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS" (1974) Image Gallery
Saturday, June 23, 2012
"THE LADY VANISHES" (1938) Review
During a seventeen year period between 1922 and 1939, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock became one of the more prolific directors during the early years of British cinema. Films such as 1934's "THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH" and 1935's "THE 39 STEPS" caught the attention of film critics and Hollywood producers. But it was 1938's "THE LADY VANISHES" that paved the way for Hitchcock to achieve Hollywood fame and fortune.
Based upon Ethel Lina White's 1936 novel, "The Wheel Spins", "THE LADY VANISHES" is about a young English woman named Iris Henderson, who stumbles across a mystery surrounding the disappearance of an elderly woman and fellow Briton from a train traveling westward, across Europe. In the fictional country of Bandrika, a group of travelers eager to resume their journey west is delayed by an avalanche that has blocked the railway tracks. Most of the travelers bunk at a local hotel, where Iris and her two friends had been staying for their holiday. Later that night, a folk singer plays a tune that catches the attention of the elderly Miss Froy (May Whitty), who has been working abroad for several years as a governess. Before the singer can finish his tune, he is silenced . . . murdered.
The following morning, the rail tracks are cleared and the passengers are able to resume their journeys. Iris, who plans to marry a wealthy man upon her return to England, becomes one of the train's passengers. While waiting to board the train, a flower pot meant for Miss Foy, hits Iris on the head. Other passengers include a young English musicologist named Gilbert; Miss Froy; a adulterous couple named "Mr. and Mrs. Todhunter", who are returning home to their respective spouses; Caldicott and Charters, two friends eager to return to England for a cricket match; and a Central European surgeon named Dr. Egon Hartz, who is accompanying a patient to his clinic. Iris and Miss Froy become acquainted, first in their compartment and later, in the dining car for some tea. Upon their return to their compartment, Iris falls asleep. When she awakens, the the governess has vanished, and Iris is shocked to learn that the other passengers in her compartment claim that Miss Froy had never existed.
Many film critics have claimed that "THE LADY VANISHES" was Hitchcock's best film during his English period as a director. I cannot agree or disagree, since the only other Hitchcock film made in Britain that I have seen was "THE 39 STEPS". Unfortunately, I have not seen that particular movie since I was a teenager. However, I cannot deny that "THE LADY VANISHES" was a first-rate, yet slightly flawed movie. I also cannot deny that I consider it to be one of his better movies during the first half of his career as a director.
"THE LADY VANISHES" possessed several aspects that made it very enjoyable for me. One, the movie is set during a journey - in this case, a train journey across Europe. I am a big sucker for "road" movies, especially when it is well made. Two, Hitchcock and the movie's two screenwriters, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, made several changes to White's novel - the most important that changed the Miss Foy character from an innocent who had stumbled across a secret to a genuine spy with some vital information for the British government. This particular change injected an air of necessity into the movie that allowed its story to be more suspenseful and urgent. The movie also benefited from some first-class photography by cinematographer Jack E. Cox. He did a solid job of conveying the illusion of travel. But I was especially impressed by two scenes featuring Cox's use of a train window - a moment in which Iris sees Miss Foy's name on a dining car window, and Gilbert's discovery of Miss Foy's existence by his glimpse of a tea box wrapping pressed briefly pressed against another window.
Hitchcock originally considered Lilli Palmer as his leading lady. But he changed his mind and went with unknown actress Margaret Lockwood, who was a fan of Ethel Lina White's literary heroines. Personally, he made the right choice. I have nothing against Lilli Palmer, who was a talented actress in her own right. But Lockwood really made Iris her own with a passionate and intelligent performance. Iris could have easily become one of those beautiful, yet slightly bland damsels that solely depended upon men to help her. But Lockwood infused the character with a strong will and an intelligence that allowed her to be a major participant in the deduction of Miss Foy's whereabouts. A successful stage actor, Michael Redgrave did not want to be a part of the "THE LADY VANISHES", being reluctant to leave the stage to be in a film. John Gielgud convinced him to accept the role of Gilbert and Redgrave became an international star, following the movie's release. And it is easy to see why. The man had a natural talent for the screen. And that is not something I can say about many other stage actors who have been lured into movies. Not only did he have a natural grace and charm, his portrayal of Gilbert struck me as both subtle and very funny. He and Lockwood projected a strong screen presence together. And I am surprised that "THE LADY VANISHES" proved to be the first of only two movies they made together. Pity.
"THE LADY VANISHES" was also blessed by a first-rate supporting cast. Paul Lukas gave a very subtle role as the European doctor that proved to be the main villain. Although her character proved to be the story's main catalyst, Dame May Whitty had very few scenes in this movie. Yet, her warm and intelligent performance as the mysterious Miss Foy proved to have a strong presence throughout the story. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford had worked on both the stage and in films throughout the 1930s before they worked together for the first time in "THE LADY VANISHES" as the two cricket-loving passengers, Caldicott and Charters. The pair created screen magic and would end up working together as a first-rate comic team for years to come. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers provided some subtle melodrama as a pair of adulterous lovers returning home to their spouses in Britain. Parker's character, the pretentious "Mr. Todhunter", ended up serving as an allegory of the appeasement supporters who preferred caving in to Adolf Hitler's demands, instead of war. Mind you, the use of the "Mr. Todhunter" character seemed a bit heavy-handed, but effective.
As much as I enjoyed "THE LADY VANISHES", I cannot deny that I found it somewhat flawed. All right, I found it flawed . . . period. The movie's first twenty minutes at the Bandrika inn struck me as a little boring. Only Iris and Gilbert's first meeting kept me from falling asleep. And if I must be frank, I found that scene a little hard to accept. After getting kicked out of his room for disturbing Iris' sleep, Gilbert barged his way into her room and threatened to sleep there if she did not retract her complaint. Why was Iris' room unlocked? What woman (or man) would leave his hotel room unlocked in a strange country, far from home? Even in 1938?
My biggest problem with "THE LADY VANISHES" turned out to be the British xenophobia that marred the movie's last half hour. Now, a part of me realizes the movie may have been a propaganda piece against fascism. But in "THE LADY VANISHES", I believe that Hitchcock, Gilliat and Launder went too far. One, the English-born "nun" (read actress) whom Dr. Hartz hired to guard the unconscious Miss Foy became outraged when she learned that her prisoner was also English. Let me see if I understand this. "The Nun" had no problems helping Dr. Hartz maintain a prisoner, as long as the latter was not a fellow Briton? Really? Even more incredulous was the shoot-out scene in which all of the English passengers found themselves inside the dining car and engaged in a shoot-out with Hartz and his fellow countrymen, after the train is diverted to a side track. Why not allow passengers from nations such as France, Belgium, Holland or the Scandinavian countries participate in the shootout? Why was it so important to Hitchcock and the screenwriters to allow only Britons to duke it out with Hartz and his men? This scene was one of the most blatant forms of xenophobia I had ever come across.
But you know what? Despite the xenophobia and the movie's dull beginning, "THE LADY VANISHES" remains a big favorite of mine. It is still a first-rate political thriller that is infused with sharp humor and a very believable romance, thanks to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. I am not surprised that in the end, "THE LADY VANISHES" ended up serving as the catalyst for Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood career.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Below are images from "ANGELS AND INSECTS", the 1995 adaptation of A.S. Byatt's 1992 novella, "Morphia Eugenia". Directed by Philip Haas, the movie starred Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit.
"ANGELS AND INSECTS" (1995) Photo Gallery