Dec 27, 2007
Due In Britain
It's not just America getting some great new classic spy TV DVDs in 2008... The UK's unrivaled specialty house Network DVD has recently done one of their semi-annual updates of their website, and announced a complete series release of the ITC classic Department S for April 30, 2008. The eight-disc set will include all twenty-eight episodes of the series plus, presumably, the bounty of extra features fans have come to expect from a Network release. No specific features are mentioned yet on the site, but they do provide an enticing clip of a new interview with series star Rosemary Nicols, so that must portend great things... Umbrella released a terrific Department S set in Australia a few years ago, packed with great features like commentaries and original promotional material, but Network seems to have made it their goal to one-up Umbrella with their ITC releases, so we can probably expect even more goodies here.
Department S is, in my estimation, the best of the Avengers knock-offs that ITC produced in the wake of that series' success, and the one that comes closest to the quirky tone of The Avengers. Nicols and Joel Fabiani may get less press than their more flamboyant co-star, Peter Wyngarde, but they're equally crucial to making the show work. (I enjoy Wyngarde's solo spin-off, Jason King, but that show pales in comparison to Department S. King is much better suited to a supporting role than a lead one.) The trio specialize in solving insoluble conundrums, each one contributing a different talent to the team. King brings wits and wit (and a sense of style that may seem questionable in retrospect, but certainly lends the show some flair), Stewart Sullivan (Fabiani) brings fists and levelheadedness, and Annabelle Hurst (Nicols) brings technical-savvy, gorgeousness, and a propensity to strip down to her bra. Department S is not available at all in the US, though Jason King came out from Image earlier this year.
TVShowsOnDVD.com has had a slew of news lately on new (and old) spy TV titles coming to DVD early next year! First, and most excitingly, they reveal that Image Entertainment plan to re-release the classic Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series I Spy in newly-remastered season sets on April 29, 2008! All three seasons will come out the same day, each very reasonably priced at just $19.98. So hold off and don't shell out $80 for those old, out of print boxes from Amazon sellers! I Spy was originally issued very early on in the TV-on-DVD game, and episodes were released in single-disc themed collections (generally by location, but sometimes by director like "The Robert Culp Collection Vols. 1 and 2," to which the star/director contributed commentaries). These were soon bundled up into three box sets (Vols. 1-3), but ended up in a random order and not by season. Interestingly, these old Image boxset releases were the very first DVDs ever to utilise the "slimline" packaging which has now become (thankfully!) common with boxsets. Unfortunately, they still hadn't figured out that you can actually fit two discs to one slim case, so now those old sets that were once impressively compact actually stand out on the shelf as being rather bulky. No word on how the new season sets will be packaged, but I would guess it will be more economical.
The site also reports that Dark Sky Films will bundle their two season sets of of the 1958-59 series H.G. Wells' Invisible Man together as H.G. Wells' Invisible Man Collection on February 26. Retail is $39.98. This incarnation of The Invisible Man re-invisioned Wells' creation as Dr. Peter Brady, an agent for British Intelligence. (Brady even got a cameo in Alan Moore's recent graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, though he was described as an inferior stand-in for the original Invisible Man, Hawley Griffin.) It was the first attempt at a spy show for producer Ralf Smart, who went on to perfect the genre when he created the incomparable classic Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan. Invisible Man also features scripts from future Avengers mastermind Brian Clemens (as well as other writers who would go on to contribute to both of those shows), and early appearances from a number of actors who would become familiar faces in British spy shows and movies of the Sixties, including Honor Blackman, Desmond "Q" Llewelyn, and soon-to-be Moneypenny Lois Maxwell. Both seasons were previously available individually with very cool lenticular artwork. I hope the collected version retains this packaging!
Finally, our friends at TVShowsOnDVD also provide the tantalizing revelation that America's own leather-clad answer to Emma Peel and Cathy Gale, Honey West, is at long last headed to Region 1 DVD! Honey (Anne Francis) was technically a private detective and not a spy, but the show took a lot of cues from The Avengers--and not just in the wardrobe department! One of the best episodes found Honey battling some evil robotized toys, the very sort of plot Steed and friends foiled on a regular basis. Others, of course--as with any Cold War adventure series--featured more traditional espionage plots as well. Honey West lasted for one season of thirty episodes. They're currently available on a Region 2 set in England, but will land Stateside sometime next year courtesy of VCI Entertainment.
Dec 25, 2007
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas 2'007 from the Double O Section! I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday, whatever one you celebrate, in good spirits and good health. And I hope you're enjoying some spy-related gifts, like a Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, or a Mission: Impossible: The 3rd TV Season, or a James Bond Encyclopedia, or Criterion's The Lady Vanishes, or, if you're really lucky, a Man From U.N.C.L.E. Complete Series DVD set! Or maybe one of the new spy DVDs that came out this week, like The Kingdom or the vaguely spyish Eastern Promises. (Or Pierce Brosnan's new one, Shattered.) If you're looking for spy entertainment in the movie theaters this Christmas, you're a bit harder pressed than last year, but Charlie Wilson's War is a good if not fantastic choice, and Philip Seymour Hoffman makes one of the screen's most memorable spies of 2007 in an outstanding, show-stealing performance. (I'll get a full review up as soon as I can.)
Dec 24, 2007
Dark Horizons points the way to some new pictures from Tom Tykwer's upcoming European-set spy thriller The International, starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl. The website with the pictures, BlackFilm, also provides a release date (August 15, 2008), and some more plot details than I'd seen mentioned before. The Run Lola Run director alone is reason enough for me to see it (he's long been my number one choice to do a Bond), but the locations they mention sell me even more on the project: Obsessive Interpol agent Owen and Naomi Watts take on the international banking establishment and "follow the money from Berlin to Milan to New York to Istanbul. Finding themselves in a high-stakes chase across the globe, their relentless tenacity puts their own lives at risk as their targets will stop at nothing – even murder – to continue financing terror and war." And that picture really clinches it! (Regular readers will be aware of my particular fondness for good European locations in spy movies...) Opening in that late summer timeslot, this could well shape up to be the Bourne of 2008. Tykwer's certainly got it in him, and Owen was born to be a spy star.
Dec 20, 2007
Dec 19, 2007
Dec 18, 2007
The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones Vol. 2: The War Years (slimmer and more attractive than Vol. 1) is simply packed with espionage adventure. Though they feature a younger version of a hero best known for his swashbuckling archaeological exploits, in this series we discover that Indy cut his teeth as a secret agent for (wait for it) French and Belgian Intelligence during WWI. Not every episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles featured a spy plot, but most of those included in Vol. 2 (here re-edited into feature length "movies") do.
One need look no further than Disc 2, "Demons of Deception," for a fantastic example of this. Not only is the feature, one of the best in the series, a gripping and adult spy drama, but the truly fantastic extras take the form of documentaries like "Reading the Enemy’s Mind - Espionage in World War I." The feature itself is cobbled (rather successfully for once) out of two TV episodes. The first depicts bloody and brutal action on the front when Indy finds himself at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. He serves first as a motorcycle courier, zooming important messages between the horrors of the front and the luxury of the officers’ lives. The epic scope and impressive budget of the series are well demonstrated by a spectacular chase in which Indy, on his motorcycle, is pursued by a German biplane armed with machine guns and bombs, while the show’s intimacy and artfulness are visible in a well-cut montage at a moment when Indy must make a crucial decision. We also see Indy’s first spy work when he’s assigned to crawl across No Man’s Land and listen at the wall of the German bunker.
The second half of this feature may be the series’ finest moment. Directed by the great Nicholas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth) from a script by Carrie Fisher and story by George Lucas, it depicts Indy’s brief involvement with Mata Hari while on furlough from the front. It’s very risque for 90s TV, with typically Roeg-ish slow motion shots of Indy and Mata in bed together (yes, the famous adventurer loses his virginity to the notorious spy) and even some full frontal nudity of models in an art class. The episode isn’t just adult in content, however, but in themes as well. Fisher scripts Mata as a very three-dimensional character (fleshed out beautifully by actress Domiziana Giordano), and weaves a complex May-December relationship between her and Indy, bringing out an especially good performance from series star Sean Patrick Flannery. Their final scene together, a shouting match that ends tenderly in which he denounces her as nothing more than a prostitute and she calls him out for what he is: a child pretending to be a man, is as good as any you’ll find on TV of that decade. Despite its admirable educational mandate, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was not just a kids’ show.
Lucasfilm’s exemplary extras are equally adult. "Flirting With Danger - The Fantasy of Mata Hari" treats its subject very seriously, and doesn’t skirt around her central skill set. "I like making comparisons between diverse nations," they quote Hari as saying about sleeping with the officers and diplomats of varied European countries. The documentary portrays Hari as the victim of a witch hunt by men suspicious of a successful and promiscuous woman more than of a legitimate espionage trial. Various experts point out that spies convicted on far more tangible evidence than her managed to escape the firing squad, and that the only evidence that Hari was a spy at all is the fact that she accepted money from both the French and German intelligence services. Then again, they argue, that’s what she did. She accepted money from men.
"Reading the Enemy’s Mind - Espionage in World War I" is a shorter but no less fascinating or informative documentary. "What you’re seeing in a way with intelligence during the first world war is how modern intelligence is born," says one expert, and indeed we do see it. The featurette conveys how ill-prepared all nations were for espionage going into WWI (especially the United States), and covers subjects I’ve always found captivating, like German sabotage in America and the notorious "Zimmerman Telegram" sent by Germany seeking Mexico’s help against the US. There are twenty-seven more such documentaries on this set, as well as seven more feature-length films, each comprised of two TV episodes. I can’t wait to delve further into revisiting this childhood favorite, and most spy fans should be delighted to find this set underneath the tree come Christmas. In addition to the espionage content, this volume also features some familiar faces, such as Christopher Lee and some blond guy named Daniel Craig, exhibiting even then (albeit briefly!) the swagger that would one day make him famous.
Dec 17, 2007
Another trait that separates The Wild Wild West from that genre is the gadgetry. Jim’s spy gadgets go a long way toward keeping one spur-heeled foot distinctly in the realm of espionage. He’s still outfitted with a quick-loading rig up his sleeve that surreptitiously delivers a Derringer into his hand at the twist of a wrist. This season, the tiny pistol has been modified to accommodate a Batman-like piton trailing some lightweight rope strong enough to hold Jim. That apparatus comes in handy time after time, as does Jim’s "Rosa Klebb" boot, which springs a knife from its toe, as well as one-off gadgets like a nifty glass-cutting ring. And Jim and Arte still ride around in their 19th Century Aston Martin–a customized train car equipped with all sorts of useful spring-loaded gizmos.
The glass-cutting ring appears in the season premiere, "Night of the Bubbling Death," which nicely establishes the back-to-the basics formula by evoking the series premiere. Following an updated credits sequence, Jim and Arte venture into an entire lawless town that’s against them (a source of contention between the United States and Mexico) in order to ferret out the villainous Victor Freemantle, who’s stolen the Constitution. In keeping with past seasons, Arte is introduced in disguise–just in time to save Jim from a hulking, shirtless henchman (decked out in bandoleers) named Clint Cartwheel. We get to see the inside of Arte’s jacket, and it’s lined with enough gadgets to make Q jealous. Arte also supplies a 3D scale model of the Freemantle’s hideout (an old conquistador fortress), enabling Jim to virtually retrace his blindfolded steps and infiltrate it later, bypassing the titular "bubbling death" (acid, naturally) via his piton gun. As usual, there is a beautiful woman, Carlotta. Her treachery sets the tone for this season. In seasons past, about half the time Jim was able to seduce such vixens onto the side of law and order, but this time around the women are far more often treacherous than trustworthy. Jim rarely gets the girl in Season 3, instead awkwardly ending up with a random floozy as arm candy for the tag scene.
“Night of the Firebrand” features an exception in the form of Vixen O’Shaugn-essy (played by Diamonds Are Forever’s Lana Wood), who despite the most treacherous of names is convinced to give up her lawless ways... but not by Jim’s charm. The strong-willed young woman (the titular “firebrand”) is a senator’s daughter who’s run off from Miss Primwick’s Finishing School to stand up for her (admittedly misguided) political ideals. She hasn’t been brainwashed like Patty Hearst; she’s doing what she thinks is right. Yet she’s treated as a comical character for her beliefs, and becomes the victim of a running gag in which Jim shuts her up whenever she goes off on a rant by knocking her out with the touch of a pressure point. In the end, once she’s seen the error of her ways, she starts talking about all the good she can do in the world, standing up for the oppressed, only to fall victim once more to the old pressure point trick. It’s all pretty chauvinist, even for the Sixties. Still, the same episode offers some good action, like Jim taking another page from 007's book and rigging his covered wagon with a smoke screen during an exciting chase, or Arte proving he’s handy enough with throwing knives to join the Eccentrics himself.
Loveless’s one appearance finds the troublesome doctor faking his death and then impersonating his own “uncle,” a celebrated Swiss neurologist who exhibits a striking family resemblance. (Yes, Jim actually falls for that, somehow.) The whole scheme falls short of the criminal mastermind’s most diabolical ploys of the past, with the simple goal of revenge. Loveless does, however, retain his flair for the absurd, and the episode provides some of the season’s most Avengers-ish moments, like the doctor’s “recording” of his will, squawked out by a trained minah bird! He’s also still got style (delightfully Sixties style), accessing his cliff-side clinic via an ornate elevator lined in purple silk. Missing (and decidedly missed) once more is the fantastically love-crazed Bonnie to Loveless’s Clyde, Antoinette (Phoebe Dorin). A character named Triste fills a similar role, but it isn’t the same.
There aren’t many bad episodes in Season 3, but there also aren’t nearly as many outstanding ones to highlight, either. Most of the plots are pretty standard-issue Western or spy (with the occasional clever twist, like an OPEC-like Arab consortium trying to corner the market on cotton), but contained therein are a number of memorably off-kilter moments and striking images. Samurai warriors attack Jim and Arte in downtown San Francisco! Arte battles it out in the middle of a horde of Kubrickian mannequins! All we see of a mysterious villain is his arm on the armrest of a large chair, but when Jim turns the chair around, it turns out all there is is a disembodied arm... and a phonograph speaker issuing the voice. Jim follows some Mexican henchmen through into an Adobe hut that turns out to house a harem chamber out of the Arabian Nights, complete with a lounging Cleopatra-like consort. Mutated boll weevils get it on. Masked bandits broadside a bank with a cannon mounted on their armored wagon. Jim is lured into a stagecoach by a beautiful woman, only to have the windows suddenly shut and gas pumped into the coach, Number Six-style. And so on and so forth. Great moments instead of great episodes.
The aforementioned “Night of the Iron Fist” best exemplifies how the show’s producers tailor more traditional Western plotlines to meet their needs. It’s essentially a remake of 3:10 to Yuma, with Jim transporting the criminal Count to prison while Arte lures his gang away by impersonating the nefarious nobleman. Along the way, they encounter a lot more stock Western characters (roughnecks and bumpkins) than traditionally populate The Wild Wild West, but the fun lies in watching how sophisticates Jim and Arte deal with these types, because it isn’t usually how Marshall Dillon does it. Arte, though dressing more and more like a cowboy this season, generally does so through disguises. But, frankly, he’s no Rollin Hand, and it’s usually easy for the audience, at least, to see through them. Arte also gets to show off his tough side a bit, saving Jim’s hide more times than in the past.
It’s not all the same old thing in Season 3, however. The final disc of this set contains the season’s two best episodes, both cut from horror movie cloth. “Night of the Undead” is a good old-fashioned Southern Gothic in the guise of a zombie story. It’s got lost love, faked deaths, and revenge from beyond the grave, all served up with the creepy atmosphere of the classic Universal shockers. From its unsettling beginning (Jim interrupting a Voodoo ritual, ala Live and Let Die, and shooting a “zombie” in the heart without killing him) to its evocative bayou finale, this one’s a real treat. It also provides one of the season’s best surreal moments when a phrenologist talks to the mapped, bald model of a human head on her shelf. Suddenly the "head’s" eyes open, and the shelf itself opens up, revealing it to be a person! It’s a bizarre image, and an effective jolt. (Though it makes no sense.) The ending, with glowing, radioactive zombies enslaved by the mad Dr. Articulus, reminded me quite a lot of Mark Gatiss’ novel The Vesuvius Club. I wonder if Gatiss saw this episode?
“Night of the Simian Terror”* may tip its twist too much with that title, but it serves up another very atmospheric horror, this time mimicking the then-contemporary product coming out of England’s Hammer Studios rather than Universal. The boys visit the isolated Kansas estate of a senator who hasn’t been seen in D.C. in some time. The constant wind blowing on the eerie exteriors paints Kansas like Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor, and sure enough, there’s an inhuman creature on the loose killing people. It continues as a classic “Old Dark House” style mystery, with dark family secrets and forbidden rooms. Jim uses a stethoscope and a periscope to spy through some floorboards, and Arte dons one of his best disguises as a humorously simian ape expert. All of this leads to a very dark finale, with Jim fighting both Richard (“Jaws”) Kiel and, of course, a brutish gorilla. (At one point, the gorilla actually flings a barrel at him! Could this be the origin of Donkey Kong?) This very effective pair of atypically horrific episodes (which, somewhat distractingly, share a few sets as well as their tone) provides a satisfying conclusion to Season 3, and the hope that Season 4 (due on DVD this March) will benefit from this home-stretch burst of creative energy.
If you’re a Cathy Gale Avengers fan, give this season a miss and pick up The Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season for starters. If you prefer Emma Peel, go straight to the sublimely surreal Season 2. But if you’re already a dedicated follower of Jim and Arte’s exploits, then by all means pick up Season 3. It’s not the best, but there’s more than enough great material to make it worthwhile for fans of the series.
Over the weekend, CommanderBond.net exclusively debuted the final cover art for Samantha Weinberg's (writing once again as Kate Westbrook) third book in The Moneypenny Diaries trilogy, Final Fling. As promised in her interview with the Double O Section last summer, Stina Persson once again provides the artwork, and once again it's excellent. (Take a note, Devil May Care!) Head on over to CBN to see the whole cover in all its glory! Personally, I don't like the colors quite as much as on the last one, but it's still a stunning, retro eyecatcher, and a vast improvement over the lame art on the first two hardcovers. And they finally saw fit to mention James Bond on the cover! (Fitting, since it is a James Bond novel, and he is the primary selling point...) Final Fling comes out in the UK on May 1, 2008; the first book in the series, Guardian Angel, finally sees a US release that same month.
And speaking of Ms. Weinberg, The Literary 007 recently posted a link to her new environmental blog, Green Wife, which isn't Bond-related at all, but does make for good reading from an excellent writer - on a subject that might just be even more important than 007... if that's even fathomable!
Dec 13, 2007
Dec 12, 2007
Win Mission: Impossible Season 3!
Win a copy of the the best season yet of one of the greatest spy shows ever just in time for the holidays! Mission: Impossible hits its stride in the third season, with the classic line-up (Peter Graves, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Peter Lupus) in place for the last time. Entering is easy. Simply send an email with the subject heading "MISSION SEASON 3" including your name, mailing address and favorite spy show to the DoubleOSection by midnight, Pacific Time on Tuesday, December 18, 2007. (The favor-ite show has no bearing on results; I’m just curious!)
Read my full review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
One entry per person, please. Double entries will be disqualified. One winner will be drawn at random and announced in one week’s time on December 19, 2007. Winners’ names will be posted here and they will be notified via email. All entries will be deleted immediately after the contest’s close, and no personal information will be retained or transmitted to any third parties. The contest is open to anyone, but please be advised that these are Region 1 NTSC DVDs. They should play fine in any North American player, but may require special region-free players in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, the Double O Section cannot assume responsibility for items lost or damaged in transit.
Dec 10, 2007
Universal have started promoting The Bourne Ultimatum "For Your Consideration In All Categories" as of today's Hollywood Reporter. It would be nice if this stellar spy movie actually gets some legitimate recognition! Meanwhile, poducer Frank Marshall talked to ComingSoon.net about the prospects for a fourth Bourne movie:
"There were only three books written. I know they've written a fourth [The Bourne Legacy by Eric Van Lustbader, who also wrote a fifth] but it wasn't written by Ludlum," Marshall said. "Look, we would love to continue the franchise. We just need a great story, and we're not going to do it unless we have a great story, but we are working on coming up with one, and Matt said to me, ‘Look, you hand me a great script, I'm in.' Unfortunately, we're not able to do any writing at the moment [due to the writers' strike], but we're all thinking about it."
Sounds to me as close to an announcement as we're likely to get. Damon's in, Marshall's in; it all depends on a good script, and presumably that's just a matter of time. Great news!
Be sure to read the rest of ComingSoon's interview for bits on Marshall's other projects, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Dec 9, 2007
Dec 7, 2007
Dec 6, 2007
New Young Bond Cover Art
The Young Bond Dossier spotted this excellent new artwork online for the upcoming (and long overdue) American hardcover edition of Charlie Higson's third Young Bond novel, Double Or Die. (Yes, America is just getting around to Number Three even though the fourth, Hurricane Gold, has already been released in the UK.) This cover, by regular Young Bond promotional artist Kev Walker, comes as welcome news after the recent revelation of a fairly lacklustre cover for the upcoming Bond novel Devil May Care.
Nick Fury In The Incredible Hulk?
Aintitcool News runs a rumor that Nick Fury might not only appear in the upcoming Marvel film Iron Man (which itself is still unsubstantiated), but also in The Incredible Hulk! It would be pretty cool to see the one-eyed superspy popping up regularly around the Marvel Film Universe, but I still can't get behind the supposed Sam Jackson casting.
New Nick Fury Figure
Speaking of Fury, there's a great new 4-inch metal figurine of him (classic version, Steranko-style) out now from Corgi! Pictures and further details coming soon...
New Eurospy Double Feature DVD
"Euroguy," a member of the Eurospy Forum, discovered a new legitimate Eurospy DVD in the offing from Wild East Productions (who generally specialize in Spaghetti Westerns). Spy Double Feature: Red Dragon and Five Golden Dragons will be available sometime next year. The latter film co-stars Christopher Lee.
More Chan From Fox
Even though they've now released all the surviving Charlie Chan films starring Warner Oland, Fox will continue to release Chan collections with a brand new set of DVDs starring Sidney Toler in the title role. The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 4 will be out on February 12, 2008 and include the films Charlie Chan In Honolulu, Charlie Chan In Reno, Charlie Chan At Treasure Island and Charlie Chan in the City of Darkness. The latter is a spy movie set in Paris on the eve of WWII. The set includes more of the incredible extras that have made all of Fox's previous releases in the series such a joy, and seems like a good indication that the studio plans to continue these releases until all the surviving Chans are on DVD. Once WWII hits, most of the Toler entries involve espionage elements.
Dec 5, 2007
Dec 4, 2007
Dec 2, 2007
What's not acceptable is that credit! "Sebastian Faulks Writing As Ian Fleming?" What the hell is that??? It's disrespectful, off-putting, presumptuous and confusing. Surely Faulks can't be happy with that? How could Fleming's estate allow it? No other continuation author has ever dared write AS Ian Fleming. It diminishes the name of James Bond's creator and undercuts the critical respectability he's enjoyed in recent years. It makes "Ian Fleming" seem like a brand instead of an author. It's fine for "James Bond" to be a brand, but not for his creator! Ian Fleming was a real person, not a mantle anyone can pick up like "Franklin W. Dixon" or something! There was nothing wrong with the possessive credit found on the American editions of the Gardner novels, "Ian Fleming's Master Spy James Bond In ________ By John Gardner."
Nov 30, 2007
The satisfyingly thick liner notes to Criterion’s superb new DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes call it "not a slice of life, but a slice of cake." A commentary track and a "video essay" on Disc 2 then go a long way to refute that, and illuminate all of its subtext. So is it the pure, escapist entertainment that a "slice of cake" implies? Or is it something more, layered with hidden meaning and symbolism? Like most Hitchcock movies, it’s both. It’s a richly layered cake!
The Lady Vanishes was one of Hitchcock’s last English films before decamping to Hollywood, and a key bridge between his somewhat stagier early British productions and his glossy, high budget American ones, notable for their intricate setpieces. Unlike Foreign Correspondent or Saboteur, this isn’t one setpiece on top of another. Instead, most of the movie is a single setpiece (prefiguring more radical experiments like Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window): a suspenseful, romantic spy adventure entirely confined to a train.
Well, not entirely. First we have a lengthy set-up at an Alpine hotel (its exact whereabouts disguised by the gibberish language its staff speak, assembled from odds and ends of various European dialects) introducing us to all of the characters. This portion is played mostly for comedy, although (as commentator Bruce Eder points out), here we are also unknowingly introduced to the film’s MacGuffin.
Primary figures include wealthy socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her frivolous companions, elderly (and ever-so-proper) British nanny Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), playboy musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), adulterous couple Mr. and "Mrs." Todhunter, and the comic duo of cricket-obsessed "overgrown schoolboys" (to borrow a phrase from Eder) Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). All of these vacationers are trapped in the hotel overnight while they wait for snow from an avalanche to be cleared from the train tracks.
Amidst farcical hijinks about overbooked rooms and noisy neighbors and an It Happened One Night-style "meet-cute" between Iris and Gilbert, there is an incongruous and rather alarming murder, but we’re not remotely privy as to why. And as it goes unnoticed by all of the characters, it’s purely for the audience’s benefit, reminding us that we’re in Hitchcock territory (even if it doesn’t quite feel like it yet) and that there is something sinister lurking beneath all this frivolity. Kind of like prewar Europe, still partying on the eve of strife. You see? The cake has layers! And like all of the director’s work of that time, they’re not particularly subtle.
Everyone boards the train the next day, and it isn’t until the thirty minute mark (roughly a third of the way into the film) that the lady in question actually vanishes. That lady is the nanny, Miss Froy. After helping Iris onto the train following a nasty bump on the head, and treating her to tea in the dining car, Miss Froy disappears. Iris awakes to find her gone, their compartment filled with severe Teutonic faces. All of the occupants claim to have no recollection of any English woman. Neither does the porter, or the waiter who brewed Miss Froy’s unique tea. Against all evidence to the contrary, Iris insists on her friend’s existence, leading neurologist passenger Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) to diagnose her as suffering hallucinations following her head trauma. Gilbert agrees to help her in her search, on a lark at first, but then more seriously as clues start amassing that suggest she’s telling the truth.
The brilliance of this part of the movie is that Hitch and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder provide separate, plausible reasons for all of the characters we’ve gotten to know to lie about having seen the governess. The adulterous couple doesn’t want to risk exposure should there be an official inquiry. Charters and Caldicott don’t want to do anything that might delay the train for fear of missing a crucial cricket match back in England. Even a stage magician traveling with the apparatus for his trick "The Vanishing Lady" has his reasons for lying.
It’s difficult to discuss the final act of the film without revealing too much, but when one of the characters turns out to be a British agent, the film becomes a rare early example of the "hero spy" genre. Spy films of this era (including many of Hitchcock’s) tended to portray spies (usually German) as the enemy, fifth columnists thwarted by an everyman hero. While The Lady Vanishes adheres to that everyman (or, in this case, "everywoman") tradition for heroine Iris, the actual spy is a good guy too, and a very atypical sort of movie secret agent.
The train eventually ends up in unfriendly territory, surrounded by the Gestapo-like secret police of a foreign power. All the British characters are gathered in the dining car (for tea, of course!), and wind up rallying around their nation’s agent, shooting it out with the enemy to provide cover. This scene exemplifies the sort of propagandist themes Hitchcock would infuse most of his wartime films with: patriotism (in this case British, and not American as in Saboteur), international responsibility and anti-isolationism. The film’s pacifist (a term at the time more associated with cowardice and Nazi collaboration than with a legitimate peace movement) abandons his British brethren, exiting the car waving a white flag. For his efforts, he’s gunned down. Everyone else, men and women, rich and poor, risk everything to escape. Even the comic bumblers Charters and Caldicott prove themselves refreshingly handy with firearms. This final scene, confined not just to the train, but to a single car, represents a uniquely Hitchcockian blend of humor and suspense. The situation is a real nail-biter, but the "veddy English" stiff-upper-lip resignation of the characters about the whole bothersome affair lightens the mood.
Film historian Bruce Eder discusses the more obvious symbolism of this scene and more subtle touches throughout the film in his solid, highly informative, wall-to-wall commentary. The guy never even pauses to take a breath! He’s well-prepared, and he knows his subject, making for a good track. (Although he does occasionally inject some personal opinion not directly related to the film, particularly about current US foreign policy!) Throughout the commentary, Eder gives plentiful production tidbits, delivers a plausible origin for the term "MacGuffin" (generally attributed to Hitchcock himself), and makes an interesting comparison between the opening of this movie, in the hotel, and that of Rear Window. In The Lady Vanishes, we’re introduced to all the characters by briefly eavesdropping on snippets of each of their conversations; in Rear Window, we’re similarly introduced to Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors via his own voyeurism, but mostly sans sound. (It should be noted Hitchcock makes excellent use of sound and music throughout The Lady Vanishes, something various other directors coming from a silent film background were never able to master.)
Disc 2 includes a "video essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. This is basically another, shorter commentary, delivered over a thirty minute montage of scenes from the movie cut together with behind-the-scenes stills and posters. While it covers some of the same ground as the audio commentary (both men discuss the framing of a scene in which someone’s glass is poisoned in the dining car, for instance), it also offers a nice counterpoint to it. Leff and Eder disagree on certain interpretations, particularly with regards to the Charters and Caldicott characters. Leff believes that they’re supposed to be gay, while Eder refutes that and argues that they’re essentially overgrown schoolboys, representative of a certain class of British men of that period. Both make plausible cases for their points of view.
Of particular interest to spy fans, Leff takes a whack at defining the "spy picture," a task I’ve pretty much concluded is impossible after rethinking every definition I ever come up with. Leff calls it a "subgenre of the crime picture" and states that it came out of fiction. (Didn’t pretty much every film genre?) One phrase he uses to describe spy movies that I quite like is "just inside the borders of the possible." He postulates that Hitchcock’s sextet of British thrillers leading up to and including Lady all fall within the spy genre, but after further consideration concludes that they’re something different: "The Hitchcock picture." I think that both labels are apt, but I do agree that Hitchcock is essentially a genre unto himself. I’d love to pinpoint Foreign Correspondent as the genesis of the contemporary "action movie," but since it failed to spawn any serious and successful imitators on an equivalent scale (besides others by the director himself) until... probably Dr. No, I cannot identify it as the genesis of anything. One inescapable conclusion, however, is that Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely integral to the development of the spy genre. The video essay is both instructive and thought-provoking, and leaves a viewer with plenty to ponder.This disc doesn't include any of the making-of documentaries we're used to from the Warner and Universal Hitchcock sets, and lacks the welcome comments from the ubiquitous Pat Hitchcock and Peter Bogdonovich, but, while I miss those, the alternative is frankly preferable. Those featurettes do start to run together a bit after you've watched so many of them, and they become somewhat repetitive. The "video essay" is less than a full-on documentary featurette, but really much more than the printed essays, or text features, that Criterion loves so much. A featurette might tell you about the making of the movie, but a video essay tries to interpret it for you, like a film school lecture. At least they offer a few different interpretations to choose from! And it does offer some behind-the-scenes info: it goes into detail about what Hitch himself added to the existing script, which was adapted from a novel.
We also get to hear from the auteur himself, in an eight-minute excerpt from Francois Truffaut’s "legendary 1962 audio interview" with Hitchcock. Even he discusses the much-mooted "poisoned drink" scene, and offers a few unique insights on the film while attempting to talk over a French translator.
By far the biggest extra on Disc 2, if not the most instantly captivating, is the inclusion of an entire other movie, Crook’s Tour. Crook’s Tour is a spin-off from The Lady Vanishes, featuring the popular Charters and Caldicott characters (who also appeared in Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich, again supporting Margaret Lockwood, and their own radio serial) in starring roles. Crook’s Tour is definitely not Hitchcock, and clearly much lower budget, but it’s a very generous inclusion nonetheless, and a film that’s never been available on DVD before. The transfer is also superb for a B picture of its vintage, if not up to the quality of the truly remarkable picture and sound on the main attraction.
The Criterion disc is rounded out by a comprehensive gallery of international poster art and behind the scenes stills (featuring young Hitchcock with lots of hair!) and two interesting and very readable essays (by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr) in the aforementioned booklet. All of this is wrapped up in a very handsome package. Not many DVD cases compel me to write about their beauty, but everything about this design–from the vintage poster artwork to the colors to the attractive spine to Criterion’s relatively new logo, which has finally grown on me–is so pleasing to the eye that it bears mention. It’s the kind of DVD that you’d be happy to add to your collection even if it didn’t contain such a wonderful movie just because it looks so good on the shelf! This is one of the best Hitchcock DVD releases to date, and a must-purchase for fans of the director.