Based on a contemporary story/urban legend, Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde star in this disappearing-man-mystery set in Paris at the 1889 World’s Fair. Johnny (David Tomlinson) is visiting the Fair with his sister Vicky (Simmons); but, the next thing she knows, he’s gone missing, what’s worse is that no one whom he came in contact with remembers him at all.
Vicky enlists the aid of George (Bogarde) to solve the mystery. An important detail is not only does no one remember her brother, but his hotel room doesn’t exist. So, is Vicky going nuts, ala Gaslight? Or, do we have a Twilight Zone-ish parallel universe? Also on hand are Betty Warren, Felix Alymer, Marcel Poncin, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Rhoda O’Brien.
Arriving in Marseilles on a cool sidewheeler steamboat, Vicky and Johnny discuss their itinerary. The Parisian street scenes are magnificent. At their hotel, they’re missing a suitcase, but at least their rooms are in order. Vicky’s maid shows her an Exposition brochure with a picture of the maid’s fiancee.
We meet George, who notices Vicky. At a restaurant, she talks Johnny into going to the Moulin Rouge. There’s funny scenes where Johnny and Vicky are taken to be married, or at least lovers. Back at the hotel, Johnny’s feeling worn out. George pops back in too. Johnny loans George some change for cab fare; they acknowledge that they’ve seen each other here and there. The ground is laid for a future romance as Johnny tells him that Vicky’s not his wife, but his sister.
The next morning, the mystery begins: no Johnny, no Johnny’s room, no memory of him from the hotel staff. Vicky’s pissed, confused; they even tried to tell her that she arrived alone. They’re starting to wonder about her. Next stop, British Consulate.
She pretty much blasts her way in. The Consul (Alymer) isn’t amused “what have you lost, your purse or your dog?” Interestingly, she’s an orphan, John was her guardian. So, in a sense, she’s lost anyway. He gives good advice–especially to find the maid who had met John the previous day. The elderly guy tailing them, Narcisse, (the hotel) looks like Woodrow Wilson).
There’s a cool gas balloon which one can ride on: and it happens to be the maid’s turn now. Ahh! Just like that, the balloon catches fire, killing Vicky’s best witness. If this is a conspiracy, it’s very elaborate. Ok, so now she goes to the police. The desk guys are galant, but bemused. The chief (Trevor) talks to her.
Back quickly to the hotel, it does indeed seem that there’s something suspicious afoot. The chief goes with Vicky to quiz the hotel staff; they think she’s “mad.” Or, that she’s running a scam to extort the hotel. Possibly it’s the other way around. Anyway, both the British and French authorities have written John (and Vicky) off.
But George, having made Johnny’s acquaintance, wants to give him a painting; so he remembers Johnny too, and also wonders what the deal is. The hostess has a slip when she refers to the “rooms” of hers, as though there were not just one. A ticket for England is provided for her, and Narcisse takes her to the station.
Rhoda O’Donovan (Blackman) looking for her, with a message from George. It refers to John having “helped” him, and an invitation to both he and Vicky to visit him. She’s seen boarding the train, presumably for the coast; instead she simply exits on another side of the car and zips off to see George. Now it’s clear that, not only does/did John exist, but others know it as well. Plus, she’s not going nuts.
George, in his studio, confirms that indeed he met her brother, the guy that loaned him fifty francs. He even recalls the infamous room number–which doesn’t compute with the present hotel’s physical layout. She’s overwhelmed with relief and astonishment.
Back at the hotel, they have a cynical satisfaction that Vicky’s gone. George intends to investigate for himself. He finds room 19; and he sort of tricks the hostess into speaking of his English “friends”, the Bartons (plural). What! There has been a plot.
Hmm. The O’Donovans come calling at George’s when he’s out. When he’s back, they tell him they’re leaving for Nice. He tells her she can stay at his place, while he stays at the hotel. His theory is that they switched the room numbers (on the doors) to deceive Vicky. He says that the hotel keeps another desk register, which will show Johnny’s name.
Skulking around that night, he asks for the bathroom–which isn’t numbered. In the actual room 19 (now 29), Narcisse shows up, nearly discovering George. For proof, George makes off with some of Johnny’s possessions, which, with his clothes, are still lying about.
When Narcisse is distracted, George swipes some receipt books off the desk, of which pages are torn out. More damning, some of Vicky jewelry has been pilfered. George’s cunning plan is to go to a masquerade ball at the hotel; with their disguises, no one will notice Vicky. In George’s room, they embrace; Narcisse enters, and prepares champagne. George goes out over the balcony to investigate what seems to be an unaccounted for sets of shutters (masking a room, perhaps).
No way in like that, but another ploy is to get into the adjoining room and see what turns up (a secret passageway?). Sure enough, behind a cabinet, they find their way into the mysterious room 19. Breaking through the shutters, they discover, not a window, but the hallway. Busted, you hotel folks.
So now the chief grills Narcisse and Madame Herve. They admit they concealed the room; they think a doctor knows of Johnny’s whereabouts. She claims that the night Johnny disappeared he was very ill, and had to be taken to a doctor. But she refused to say any more.
Vicky and George look in on a British doctor, who can literally find the path to the French doctor in question. Now, we recall that Johnny had complained of being tired the night before he went missing. When the English doctor asks how they came to Paris, Vicky relates they started out from Naples, by way of Marseilles. Hmm. I’m thinking either that he was drugged, or is a plague victim.
At the hospital, there’s no Barton, but there was an Englishman; he has already died though, from a gunshot wound. Vicky still wants to see him. “That’s not Johnny.” Now they ask the staff did the shadowy French doctor bring Johnny there? Well, now that you put it that way. And, one of my guesses was correct, Johnny has the plague. The cover-up was a PR thing–all of Paris would’ve freaked out had anyone known an epidemic was possible. Vicky, but not the viewer, finally does get to see him. He has a chance to survive. The end.
What an outstanding mystery. We really have no idea what has happened to Johnny until the very end. Although the denouement is creepy–the hospital is positively medieval–it’s not jarring. That’s even better than having Johnny die in some gruesome fashion, for him to have a double, or that he’s really not who we think he is, a spy, criminal, a ghost, etc.
Almost any other explanation is either too banal or too ludicrous. I can see why the story became an urban legend–it’s just plausible enough to have actually happened. The plot is neatly divided into three complementary parts: the festive beginning, the frantic Vicky-going-nuts middle part, and George’s role in ferreting out a satisfactory conclusion.
Along the way we have an authentic view of the period, not least because of the untranslated French that fills a good portion of the dialogue. The performances were uniformly good, especially Simmons. Strangely, for a movie with a very romantic milieu, there’s no romance. We can forsee one for George and Vicky, but we’re not made to see it, nor do we have to.
If Hitchcock had done this, we might have had it turn out that John was really Vicky’s husband (he’s her guardian anyway), so he has to disappear because she wants to marry George…or something. Then Johnny kills George, or drives Vicky nuts, so he can marry someone else. All that sounds nuts, but before I hit on the plague angle, I thought that there was some connection between the two guys.
As near to perfect as things get, I wouldn’t have wanted So Long At The Fair any different way. Anyway, any sort of Fair gets Farmermouse’s approval, so ten sacks of pomme frites for this. 10/10.