Exposition

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Looking at Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES reminded me that there was another version of the story idea — SO LONG AT THE FAIR, directed by Antony Darnorough and Terence Fisher.

Terrific thriller! It’s based on a sort of urban legend, about a couple (in the story it’s a mother and daughter, in the film it’s a brother and sister) who travel to the World’s Fair (but which one? the filmmakers wisely plump for the Paris Explosition of 1896, with the Eiffel Tower), where one of them promptly vanishes. Everybody at the hotel denies that the vanished relative ever existed.

This is one case where I’m not going to get into spoilers, although if you’ve read Hitchcock-Truffaut, you’ve read the solution. It works pretty well in the movie, and Hitchcock later recycled it for a TV episode.

Two things are striking about the film —

1) It’s successfully starry: Jean Simmons as the frightened heroine, who feels she’s losing her mind as reality is rewritten by conspiracy around her; Dirk Bogarde as the artist/swain who eventually comes to her aid; also, as if that weren’t enough, Honor Blackman; and David Tomlinson as the vanishee.

2) It’s from that period where British cinema was apparently bent on suicide, eradicating anything of interest domestically (Powell & Pressburger), while hemorrhaging talent abroad, and yet it’s a convincing film, compelling and exciting and stylish — but the talents were instantly dispersed to prevent the experiment being repeated.

Fisher of course boomeranged off to Hammer films, where he was productive and successful within that niche/ghetto of the genre sausage-factory. Darnorough, who had just collaborated with Fisher on a Noel Coward adaptation, THE ASTONISHED HEART, plunged into producing for a few years, before abandoning the industry. Jean fled to America and the waiting fingernails of Howard Hughes, Dirk fled to Europe and an amazing reinvention as art-house star. Honor became the first woman to do King-Fu in leather on telly in The Avengers, and Tomlinson was scooped up by Disney. And the writers, Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne, who did an incredible job escalating the suspense and creating endearing protags, were allowed to slip out of the industry, despite a collaboration with Rene Clement on MONSIEUR RIPOIS for Mills.

For this one brief moment, they’re all together, producing a great entertainment. Simmons and Bogarde are great together. When he volunteers to rob a hotel safe to verify her story, she gasps, “Will it be dangerous?” “Goodness, I hope not, why?” asks Dirk, genuinely surprised. What a lovable chap!

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I don’t know how the co-directing worked. Fisher had already helmed a few little movies at this point, so presumably didn’t need help. A few suspense sequences have real panache, popping out from the rest — Fisher’s work? The production design is impressive, with flags waving from special-effects towers at the Exposition, and a fatal balloon ascension, and madly cluttered Victorian rooms. Cathleen Nesbitt (THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK begins to seem like a central hub of British film), as the steely hotel-keeper, is so convincingly French she convinced the French. The wrapping-up at the end is satisfactory, especially as the film is a new romance, weaving an elaborate thriller plot just to bring together a charming young couple.

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8 Responses to “Exposition”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    If there’s such a thing as ‘period noir’ this movie is it! The young Bogarde and Simmons make a heartbreakingly beautfiul couple, and the mystery is genuinely gripping from start to finish.

    So why could the UK film industry not foster the considerable talents involved? It is most definitely our loss.

  2. The John Davis years at Rank are blamed for frittering away the energy generated by Britain’s wartime cinema. The 50s were exciting in many ways, even in the UK, but you wouldn’t know it from most of our cinema output. Rank put bureaucracy ahead of filmmaking and nurtured “talent” like Kenneth More over Michael Powell. Franchises like Carry On and the Hammer horrors did well in such a climate, but maverick talents were extirpated, and even ordinary ambition seems to have been nullified.

  3. I love this movie! I have it on VHS, and I can’t figure out why it doesn’t get released on DVD. My favorite Jean Simmons (RIP) film.

  4. It should certainly be released, it’s a delightful thriller. I’d also like to see Uncle Silas made available.

  5. […] first story turns out to be a variant on the story — an urban myth — that inspired both SO LONG AT THE FAIR and, less directly, THE LADY VANISHES. Schunzel plays a madman in it who turns out to be a complete […]

  6. I am almost certain that Christopher Lee shows up as an extra about 58 minutes into this film. He is a guest doing some business at the hotel desk while Dirk Bogarde talks to the proprietress. He looks much taller than Bogarde which fits, and this is the time when Terence Fisher is helping him get a start in films.

  7. I will check that out if my memory survives the trip home. Ought to be easy to confirm.

  8. Cheers! I’m envious of your Bologna trip, and am currently working through your Hitchcock Year having only recently discovered your blog. I actually found out about it through the essay you wrote for the Criterion Blu-ray of The 39 Steps. As a person who grew up in Winnipeg after immigrating from Scotland at the age of 3, that film holds a special place in my heart. Only Hitchcock film to mention Winnipeg.

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