BR: Disapearance, The (1977)

September 10, 2014 | By


Disappearance1977_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: A

Released:  August 13, 2013

Genre:  Suspense / Crime

Synopsis: The sudden disappearance of his wife may be connected to a hitman’s latest contract killing.

Special Features:  Isolated stereo music track / 101 min. Director’s Cut (SD only) / Excerpt from recut and re-scored U.S. version (15:27) (SD only) / 2003 Interview with director Stuart Cooper (10:00) / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.







Although directed by a British-based American, The Disappearance is very much a CanCon production, stacked with key Canadian talent to ensure the film’s costs were minimized by tax breaks, but unlike the usual disposable fodder that briefly populated theatre screens and became mainstays on Canadian TV for years  (especially specialty cable channels), this particular work is an attempt to transcend the hitman film by transgressing into art house terrain with a non-linear structure, an impressionistic use of a classical music theme, and a muted performance style and minimal dialogue.

Director Stuart Cooper called on his old mates – the former Dirty Dozen (1968) actor studied his craft with Disappearance‘s supporting actors John Hurt and David Warner – to seed the film’s attractive cast for investors, and when original choice Lee Marvin passed due to the central character of hitman Jay Mallory being too similar to prior roles (the film has a blatant montage patterned after Marvin’s low-angle, hallway stomping scene in the hitman film Point Blank), Cooper called on Donald Sutherland.

The Canadian actor initially passed on the offer, but he felt future wife Francine Racette (with whom he co-starred in the 1974 CanCon western Alien Thunder) might be right for Mallory’s missing wife Celandine. Cooper eventually persuaded Sutherland to star in the film after some rewrites and an overhaul of the ending.

With financing set and locations locked for chilly Montreal and damp Surrey, England, Cooper filmed his fractured hitman tale, using Paul Mayersberg’s thin adaptation of Derek Marlowe’s novel. It was only after locking a distribution deal with U.S. indie World Northal that Cooper’s efforts were ruined by severe re-editing. Gone were the temporal flashbacks and Robert Farnon’s score, and what remained was a supposedly disjointed mess supported by a dated synth score by Craig Huntley (who also contributed a theme song).

Following the publication of savage reviews, the film was pulled and The Disappearance lived up to its name by vanishing from theatre screens and ending up on TV and home video. Years later, a longer cut closer to Cooper’s version surfaced, which Julie Kirgo asserts may have come from producer / supporting actor David Hemmings (Blow-Up), but this ancient full frame video transfer may be the only copy left of the Director’s Cut [DC].

Meanwhile, Cooper also heard of a third edit created by an unknown person who retained some of the flashback material and, like the DC, contained the previously junked Farnon score based on a Ravel piece. The dilemma for Twilight Time was how to release a film that now exists in multiple edits.


Three Versions, One Flawed Film

The Blu-ray contains a 1.85:1 HD transfer of the third cut (91 mins.), the surviving 101 min. 1.33:1 SD transfer of the DC, and the first 15 mins. of the World Northal’s original 88 min. U.S. theatrical cut from a surviving 1.33:1 SD master. For the viewer who’s never seen the film, the quandary is which version to watch, since the DC lacks the ‘scope and stunning colours and clarity of the HD transfer of the third cut, but represents Cooper’s original version.

The DC is a deeply flawed edit that reveals some of the issues which likely caused World Northal executives to exercise drastic action. Prior to 1977, the label had distributed mostly Asian martial arts films, and The Disappearance seemed to be a fledgling effort to diversify its catalogue. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that in spite of its disastrous handling of the film, they also distributed Hemmings’ horror film Strange Behavior (1981), and several art house films including Derek Jarman’s Tempest (1979), Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979), and Nicholas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980). Cooper’s movie may also have opened the door to more British productions, as World Northal also distributed Hussy (1980), The Unseen (1980), and one very special CanCon stinker, Jules Dassin’s clinically awful Circle of Two (1981) before folding in 1983.

The re-editing that befell Cooper’s film has echoes of the Weinstein’s recutting art house movies for broader audience appeal, but Disappearance is too existential for the masses, which may have necessitated a recut rather than outright butchery. The problem with the DC is that it preserves Mayersberg’s banal dialogue, and the clichéd lovers’ chatter which often makes it easy to guess Celandine’s scene-closing line. Racette is also a limited actress, and because Cooper and Mayersberg reduce her character to a type of ghostly ‘apparition,’ she lacks depth, and hovers through the film like a fading male fantasy of warmth, much in the way Eric Heisserer’s limited depiction of Paul Walker’s wife in the flashback-heavy Hours (2013) reduced that important character to a precious male evocation of the wife / mother.

Disappearance is also very slow, and as exquisite as John Alcott’s cinematography may be – his images of Montreal’s misty cold harbour are stunning – Cooper’s narrative scenes just aren’t very interesting in the longer, meandering DC, which feels like an edit that should’ve been set aside and revisited a month later, but was hastily submitted to the distributor to meet strict deadlines.

The 91 minute edit does improve pacing and hastens the story’s needed shift from Mallory’s bunker-like apartment to verdant Surrey, England, where his next target resides, but there’s still a slowness that pervades the scenes as Mallory discusses the contract with his Brit handler (John Hurt) before getting the go-ahead and returning to the remote country home where his target (Christopher Plummer) lives with wife Catherine (Virginia McKenna).

A major benefit in sticking with the HD transfer is Alcott’s shots of the former Expo ’67 pavilions (several of which were used in Robert Altman’s own 1979 CanCon venture, Quintet), which include restaurants, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, the Habitat 67 residences designed by Moshe Safdie, and striking island views of Montreal.

In her liner notes, Julie Kirgo is quite accurate in tracing relationships between the emotionally detatched Mallory with his remote home, its solid construction, and the cruel grim lighting over an ice-encrusted St. Lawrence River. In terms of locations, Cooper lucked out in exploiting Montreal’s riverside architecture bathed in its chilliest weather.

Cooper’s strengths lie in developing a mood that has characters trapped in prolonged states of inertia, whether scenes are set in the day or night. The shots are meticulously composed to maximize the angles and lines of the modern and Brutalist architecture, especially Mallory’s concrete apartment complex (filmed in the actual home of architect Safdie) where the wind just keeps howling outside. Cooper also set up some clever visual tricks, notably a shot where the focus is on Mallory’s gun at the centre of the breakfast table, but as the camera starts to pull back, a sudden movement reveals Sutherland’s been standing by the dark window the entire time.

Sutherland is also very strong as a ‘cultured’ killer, living in a quality-designed seventies apartment, and wearing immaculate suits and jackets – all the more interesting because he drives a weather-beaten Pontiac which, perhaps in the character’s eyes, need only be functional, like a banal work expense, and not a reflection of his refined self.

Twilight Time’s extras includes a stereo isolated score track of Robert Farnon’s score on the HD transfer of the 91 min. edit; a needed explanatory essay by Julie Kirgo on the film’s very odd life-cycle to being somewhat restored; an interview with Cooper who recalls his career and the film’s troubled production; and the first 15 minutes of the World Northal U.S. cut (which, for completists, would’ve been nice to have in its entirely). That edit is awful, and the distributor committed two grievous sins: applying a dated synth score, and main titles that rattle off the stars, many of which don’t appear until the film’s final third – thereby spoiling Cooper’s surprise casting choices. (Those wanting to see the original U.S. edit can find it archived on YouTube.)

Only qualms: the disc would’ve benefitted from some information by an historian versed in CanCon productions, noting the quirks of the point system which enabled vital tax incentives, hence the use of Canadians Sutherland, Racette, Plummer, Farnon (who also scored the CanCon productions A Man Called Intrepid and Bear Island), and the participation of a really peculiar batch of international producers: Canadians Garth Drabinsky (co-founder of Cineplex) and James Mitchell making their own debut as producing team, Brit David Hemmings (co-founder of Hemdale), and production consultant Gavrik Losey, who worked with Hemmings on Melody (1971) and father Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976), in which Racette had a small role.



After a lengthy gap in feature and TV productions, director Stuart Cooper made the TV mini-series A.D. (1985) and a string of TV movies, including The Long Hot Summer (1985). Paul Mayersberg is best known for writing The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), and Croupier (1998), and for directing the arty Patty Hearst riff Captive (1986).

Author Derek Marlow also wrote the novel and script for A Dandy in Aspic (1968), and several episodes of the TV series A Married Man (1983), First Among Equals (1986), and the superb thriller Jack the Ripper (1988) starring Michael Caine.

Interestingly, Christopher Plummer, who plays Mallory’s final target, later played a murderer / robber in Garth Drabinsky’s next film, the superb The Silent Partner (1978). Drabinsky’s other CanCon productions of the tax shelter era include The Changeling (1980), Tribute (1980), and The Amateur (1981).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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