Harry Kenyon (Mike Farrell) is on honeymoon in the Rocky Mountains when his wife vanishes mysteriously without a trace. He immediately alerts Lieutenant Rudameyer (Elliott Gould), a police detective recently transplanted from New York, who seems more concerned about finding a decent corn beef sandwich than a missing woman. Eventually local priest Father Macklin (Fred Gwynne) reunites Harry with a contrite Christine (Margot Kidder) eager to go home with her husband. The problem is Harry has no idea who this woman is because she certainly isn't his wife. Yet before long the charming stranger has everyone in town, including Lieutenant Rudameyer, believing she is Christine. Which leaves Harry, his frantic protestations to the contrary falling on deaf ears, looking increasingly crazy. All the while wondering what is going on and what happened to his real wife?
In 2019 the Malaysian psychological horror film called Misteri Dilaila stirred up a surprising furore on social media. Local genre fans charged director Syafiq Yusof with stealing most of the plot from Vanishing Act, an otherwise relatively obscure American made-for-TV thriller. For his part Yusof maintained he was actually inspired by two South Korean films (The Forgotten (2017) and Challenging (2013)), arguably not doing his cause any favours. Yet it is worth noting Vanishing Act was itself the third adaptation of 'Trap for a Lonely Man.' Written by French actor, director and playwright Robert Thomas the play was inspired by two Indian films: the Bengali Sesh Anka (1963) and the Tamil thriller Puthiya Paravai (1964). But then those were loosely inspired by the British film Chase a Crooked Shadow(1958). All of which leaves a very tangled web to sift through for those crying rip-off.
Perhaps the real takeaway from the controversy surrounding Misteri Dilaila is that whereas the two previous adaptations of Thomas' play - Honeymoon with a Stranger (1969) starring Janet Leigh and Rossano Brazzi and One of My Wives Is Missing (1976) starring James Franciscus and Elizabeth Ashley - remain relatively obscure, Vanishing Act seems to have burned its way into the minds of thriller fans. Partly due to the performances which are uniformly vivid and engaging but also the excellent script written by Richard Levinson and William Link. These two were best known as co-creators of the immortal TV detective Columbo whose influence is apparent in Vanishing Act. Not just in Gould's amiable yet deceptively shambolic detective who proves far sharper than even the viewer suspects, but also the polished dialogue, semi-comic tone and what ultimately proves a fiendish reverse-mystery narrative structure.
Initially the plot seems like a forerunner of such "my wife is missing" nightmare scenarios as Frantic (1987) and Breakdown (1997), exploiting the city-dweller's sense of disorientation and unease in the snowy small town. In a cast otherwise populated by eccentrics and/or seemingly sinister characters, Mike Farrell's Harry Kenyon serves as our increasingly flustered identification figure. Far from passive victim he exhibits so much drive, resourcefulness and guile that the twists and turns of the plot prove that more delightful. Admittedly the central conceit involves an absurdly elaborate conspiracy that is pretty far-fetched with some silly elements: e.g. Harry's musical liquor cabinet, a phony poisoning, a missing body and the dog hypno-therapist (!) Yet Gould, Kidder and a post-Munsters pre-Pet Sematary (1989) Fred Gwynne imbue their quirky roles with utmost conviction enabling viewers to overlook the odd contrivance. Kidder in particular (who much like Gould at the time was struggling to re-position herself in a Hollywood less hospitable than it had been in her Seventies' heyday) savours one of her last really good roles. Here she gets to play damsel in distress, comedienne and femme fatale all at the same time. Smart enough it can't sustain the initial ruse for the entire running time, the film offers a potential solution to the mystery midway which only bolsters Harry's efforts to find out the truth before the climax makes us reconsider everything that went before. Of course M*A*S*H fans may marvel that the stars of both the film and television incarnation of the beloved anti-war sitcom somehow wound up in the same movie.