New York Times reviewer Mike Hale recently asked
Is it fair to compare "The Lady Vanishes," a new "Masterpiece Mystery!" movie with the Alfred Hitchcock thriller of the same title from 1938? It doesn't really matter, because if you've seen the original, it's impossible to do otherwise.
But you know what? He's asked the wrong question.
The real comparison should be with the book Hitchcock based his book on, The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. It s a dark psychological thriller about Iris Carr, a spoiled socialite who's always had her way eased in life by other people. But she's surprisingly unsettled by her own vapidity and these doubts flourish and fester after sunstroke fells her at a Balkan railway station en route home to England.
Revived, she's rushed onto the train feeling ill and her physical disability is a counterpoint to the mystery driving the story forward. Did she really see a middle-aged English woman named Miss Froy or not? Was this woman kidnapped or even murdered, and why do people keep telling Iris no such woman ever existed?
The book is masterfully done and beautifully written classic 1930s crime writing. Hitchcock's freely adapted version includes half an hour of heavy-handed Marx Brothers-type farce in the hotel, a brand new spy plot, and a frantic gun battle. It moves quickly enough once the train gets going but is a one-dimensional story.
Mike Hale complains that the PBS version drops two cricket-obsessed English friends that Hitchcock added and their "space in the plot is occupied by a new couple, a lugubrious minister and his slightly hysterical wife, who aren't any fun and who have a secret that only distracts us from the whereabouts of the old lady." Guess what? They're in the book.
Hale also dislikes the lack of sexual banter and its replacement by "melancholy, ominousness and sentimentality." But that makes the PBS version much closer to the very dark, nightmarish novel.
PBS offered a new film take on the book, not a remake of Hitchcock. I'm glad they did. For all its faults, the PBS version of The Lady Vanishes captures much more of the spirit of the novel it's based on. It wouldn't have taken Hale (and other reviewers) very long to figure that out. White's novel is a fast-paced, gripping read they could have finished in one sitting. It may peter out at the end, but it's a wild ride until then.