There are times when the story behind the making of a film (and its subsequently mishandled and heavily criticized release) becomes a point of interest so strong that it effortlessly eclipses whatever interest was initially held by the film itself. Case in point: Stuart Cooper's 1977 icy noir 'The Disappearance,' starring Donald Sutherland and his wife Francine Racette.
The story behind 'The Disappearance' is, of course, the oft-heard tale of a filmmaker who got too filmmaker-y (read: artsy) with what was intended to be a commercial product, and consequently saw his cut of the film re-edited for the purpose of reaching a wider audience. In this case, the studio intended to make Cooper's flashback-heavy film more linear, and add a new, musical score (read: synthesizers) by Craig Hundley in lieu of Robert Farnon's fantastic and melancholy piano score that took the film from gloomy and despondent to an incompatible and contradictorily upbeat sound. The end result, then, was a rather dry, drab, unassertive edit that radically altered the tone, temperament and pacing of Cooper's work.
In the time since 'The Disappearance' came and went in theaters – vanishing (pun!) overnight – the movie has gained some traction amongst film enthusiasts, as misbegotten products of this ilk are often wont to do, and as luck would have it, a third edit of the film (purportedly done or overseen by the late actor David Hemmings – who makes an all too brief appearance in the movie) found its way onto this Blu-ray disc from Twilight Time.
Now, you'll note that nearly everything spoken about the film thus far has been in regard to the less-than-storied history of Cooper's work here and not so much the movie itself – which is a fine film, but one that is far more interesting for how it goes about telling the story at hand, rather than having much of a compelling story to begin with. And as such, the lion's share of the praise given to the Twilight Time release of the film lies in the construction (re-construction?) of the film itself, and how the non-linear aspects of Cooper's storytelling augment a deliberately cold, emotionally frozen picture by obscuring the conceit and placing the narrative primarily within the confines of Donald Sutherland's forlorn hitman, who is tormented by the disappearance of his wife.
Based on the novel 'Echoes of Celandine' by Derek Marlowe, 'The Disappearance,' as adapted by screenwriter Paul Mayersberg ('The Man Who Fell to Earth,' 'Croupier') and through Cooper's unique direction, is obsessed with the notion of memory, and romantic memory at that – a fact that requires the narrative be told in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth between the present and weeks, months or even years prior, to adequately establish the desperation and longing Sutherland's chain smoking, milk-swilling, soup and cereal-loving contract killer, Jay Mallory, is feeling over the disappearance of his wife, Celandine. Concurrent to his domestic problem, Mallory is tasked with taking on a problematic "shy" (the term used for a contracted murder or hit), the details of which remain off the record, even for the operative in question. Soon, Mallory begins to suspect his dual situations are not merely coincidental and that his employers at "The Office" may be involved with the titular disappearance of Celandine.
Filmed in Montreal and London, both locations are uniquely attuned to the film's dreary, isolated tone. Mallory's Canadian residence, a famed, ultra-urban apartment building that overlooks the St. Lawrence Seaway, plays host to the vast majority of his recollections and the subzero stillness that exists beyond the structure's drab, concrete walls and glass-covered walkways, which expertly emphasizes the disaffection and separation Mallory feels toward his occupation, his co-workers and his past. As the film moves from bleak, wintry landscape to the subsequent gray-lined skies of England, where Sutherland briefly runs into the likes of John Hurt ('Alien,' 'Hellboy') and Christopher Plummer ('The Insider,' 'Beginners') the tone of 'The Disappearance' remains consistent: romantic, yet simultaneously despondent, and wistful without being mawkish or self-pitying.
The story here is rather slight and the characters feel deliberately drawn in the thinnest way possible to accentuate Mallory's all-consuming fixation on his absent spouse, but the narrative is delivered in such a unique, layered fashion – which is further highlighted by the sublime cinematography of John Alcott ('A Clockwork Orange' 'The Shining') whose eye is particularly well-attuned to the film's visual motif – that, slight or not, 'The Disappearance' manages to be a rather affecting, almost haunting depiction of obsession and isolation.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Disappearance' comes from Twilight Time as one of only 3,000 copies in a limited edition run. The disc itself is a 50GB Blu-ray that also plays the Stuart Cooper director's cut in standard definition, along with several special features of particular interest to those who have sought this film out. The disc also provides a look at the Twilight Time catalogue, which displays all the films from the company, and whether or not they have been completely sold out. In addition, the disc comes with a four-page booklet featuring stills from the film, as well as an essay from Julie Kirgo.
The high-definition transfer for 'The Disappearance' offers a marked improvement over any previous incarnations of the film, and, when viewed in comparison with either the director's cut or the 15-minute segment from the studio cut of the film, it looks even better. Although not perfect, the image maintains a consistent look that accentuates Alcott's cinematography and coincides with the somewhat dreary, austere tone that permeates the movie.
Overall, fine detail is quite good, as actors' are represented with facial features on full display, while other elements such as texture on clothing and surfaces looks tremendous. There is also a great amount of detail on the frozen landscape of mid-winter Montreal that really lends a great amount of atmosphere to the film. Beyond the great chunks of ice floating listlessly in the water outside Mallory's windows, the ground is either teeming with untouched expanses of snow or parking lots are covered in refrozen sheets of drab colored ice that's been soaking up exhaust fumes and dirt from tires. Adding to the detail is a consistent color palette that keeps things well within the cold, earthy tones of Mallory's apartment and winter landscape.
Contrast is superb throughout with blacks looking appropriately dark and helped along with superb gradation. There are some scenes can get a little too dark, though, but they are few and the moment is generally intended to be mysterious and threatening, so there's little to complain about there. However, as good as the transfer is, there are a few segments where the wear and tear of time has begun to show, and although the image is almost completely devoid of noise or other artifacts, there is one conspicuous instance of screen flicker and some bleeding of color that is certainly detrimental to the overall transfer, but thankfully doesn't completely mar the whole package.
'The Disappearance' has been given a superb DTS-HD Master Audio mono track that continues to demonstrate how impressive these lossless monaural tracks can actually be. Here the sound is lush and vibrant, with dialogue always ringing clear and precise. Moreover, the film's score mingles brilliantly with the actors' dialogue and never interferes or sounds as though it has been balanced improperly. There are a few instance of sound effects (this is a movie about a hitman, after all), and any instance of gunplay, car or plane engines or just some average effects like the breaking of a dish, or the sound of a door opening all register cleanly and with superb resonance.
There's little to complain about here, as the sound mix offers everything listeners could want in a clean sounding package that's free of things like scratches or hissing or any other noise that could otherwise be a detriment to the audio. And while the mix doesn't offer any of the usual bells and whistles like multiple channel surround sound or impressive LFE, it does deliver a competent and easy to listen to experience that is pleasurable enough you won't have to actually think about it while you view the film.
The essence, mood, and ambiance of 'The Disappearance' are certainly far more memorable than the film's more rote hitman elements. But that mood, combined with a fantastic performance by Sutherland that is simultaneously detached from the world around him and consumed by his inner thoughts and fixations, helps to make a fairly basic storyline far more significant than it would have been had it stuck with a more straightforward approach to the narrative. Being able to see two complete versions of the film, as well as a lengthy snippet of the much-maligned studio cut helps to make you appreciate Cooper's direction and vision for his movie all the more. With great video and audio and a host of interesting features, this one is certainly recommended.