VANISHING ACT. CBS / Richard Levinson–William Link Productions, 04 May 1986. Mike Farrell, Margot Kidder, Fred Gwynne, Graham Jarvis, Elliott Gould. Teleplay by Richard Levinson & William Link, based on a play by Robert Thomas. Director: David Greene. Can currently be seen on YouTube.

   Harry Kenyon (Mike Farrell) is on his honeymoon in the Rocky Mountains after a whirlwind romance in Las Vegas with a woman named Christine Prescott. But their wedded bliss is soon interrupted and Harry reports her disappearance to Lieutenant Rudameyer (Elliott Gould), a New Yorker more interested in eating a corn beef sandwich specially imported from a delicatessen on West 87th Street. It seems to be a fuss over nothing as Christine (Margot Kidder) is quickly found – only Harry doesn’t recognize her and refuses to believe she’s his wife!

   Christine is convincing, however, and knows everything about both herself and Harry. Her reasons for disappearing are also plausible and readily supported by local priest Father Macklin (Fred Gwynne). Adding to his frustration, Harry can’t be sure whether the woman is crazy or a confidence trickster, though his frustrated protests make everyone else think it is he who is unhinged.

   This seems even more likely as the priest dies before his eyes and later reappears. Soon, Harry learns the truth of the affair, but this only plunges him even deeper into a conspiracy of which there is no escape.


   This was a made-for-television film featuring a line-up of familiar faces headed by M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell. He brings an endearing everyman quality to the role of Harry, a fellow who veers from disputatious confusion to occasional bursts of triumph as he struggles to prove himself right.

   Interestingly, unlike similar films, we aren’t asked to question his sanity. Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve-starring Superman films) is on sparkling form and veers effectively from innocently concerned spouse to roguish femme fatale. Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne, also appears as a politely perplexed priest who may know more than he’s letting on.

   Elliot Gould, meanwhile, is reliably excellent, appearing here as his 1970s film career (including a shot at playing Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye) had shifted to the small screen where a couple of failed sitcoms led him to several one-off television dramas. As Rudameyer, he is not a million miles away from that other ramshackle lieutenant, Columbo, also from teleplay writers William Link and Richard Levinson.


   This film could have fit snugly into that series. It is, however, a remake of two previous TV films and a tangled list of other antecedents including the brilliant British noir Chase a Crooked Shadow, a couple of 1940s radio plays and a French play titled, among other things, Trap for a Lonely Man. It’s this which is officially credited for Vanishing Act, though all are plausible influences. It has also sprouted several foreign language remakes, most recently the 2019 Malaysian horror thriller Misteri Dilaila, which didn’t acknowledge this heritage.

   Anyone familiar with these versions may recognize the final twist as a variation on a theme, but for others it will be genuinely jaw-dropping, surely leaving them interested, maybe even outright eager, to see the film again in order to espy any hidden significances. With the exception of one or two minor holes which could have been easily exorcized, the plot holds together admirably well, stocking itself with surprises, mild comedy and an army of red herrings. A pleasingly puzzling mystery, this is one of the best films of its kind.

Rating: ****