Vanished is a 1971 made-for-TV political thriller starring Richard Widmark as fictional US president Paul Roudebush and featuring a slew of supporting star character actors from that era, including Larry Hagman, Tom Bosley, E.G. Marshall, Murray Hamilton, Betty White - and, of course, William Shatner, who plays relentless and intrepid reporter Dave Paulick.
The movie, directed by Buzz Kulik, was originally aired in two parts (each 90 around minutes, plus commercials), making it the first ever mini-series (source).
The movie is adapted from a novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel (who also wrote the political thriller later turned into a classic movie Seven Days in May).
The complicated plot goes thus:
A dead Chinese soldier mysteriously washes up on the north-east coast of the US. Meanwhile, the Roudebush administration, struggling in the polls, is gearing up for next November's presidential election.
Presidential advisor and close friend Arnold Greer (Arthur Hill) and provisional (awaiting a presidential appointment) press secretary Gene Culligan (James Farentino) meet with a young scientist at the Greer household.
The scientist has apparently discovered a top secret CIA program, organized via a dummy foundation, to recruit nuclear scientists to spy on potential defectors and scope out what the other side's scientists are up to. Appalled at such "bribery" the young scientist threatens to go to the press, unless the program is stopped.
Not long after, Greer's wife calls Culligan, concerned that her husband seems to have disappeared while out playing golf.
Culligan and FBI agent Larry Storm (Robert Hooks) find Greer's abandoned car at the golf course.
At the next day's press conference, Shatner's character, reporter Dave Paulick, demands answers as to what happened to Greer.
The official line is that the President has asked the FBI to investigate after two men were seen helping another man into a car in the area where Greer disappeared.
Storm and Greer conduct an investigation of the disappearance, learning that Greer withdrew a substantial sum of money from his bank account before he went missing. Meanwhile, CIA head Arthur Ingram (E.G, Marshall) is concerned that Greer may have defected either to Red China or the Soviet Union. The president, in turn, chastises Ingram over the agency's secret foundation, and orders the nuclear scientist funding program stopped.
The politics of the disappearance are soon milked by opposition party Senator Gannon (portrayed by Robert Young; the story never mentions specific political parties), eager to help his presidential candidate, a state governor, in the upcoming elections.
Things go from bad to worse as the investigation discovers from a landlady that Greer has been having secret weekly meetings with another man in a rented apartment - could there be a potentially scandalous secret homosexual relationship involved?
The entire US national security establishment is soon on the case (including NSA boss Jerry Freytag, played by Larry Hagman).
But the FBI head (played by Michael Strong) tells the group that he has been ordered by the president not to discuss the matter with the other agencies. The president then emphatically orders the CIA off the case, something that further infuriates its head.
The president's curious refusal to publicly address his friend's potentially treasonous or scandalous disappearance soon turns into a political firestorm:
Meanwhile, it turns out that Greer's mysterious acquaintance is one Dr Luben, also a nuclear scientist - and now he has gone missing too!
Not long after that, yet another scientist also disappears.
Not only that, but extensive contacts with communist China are suspected. An angry CIA boss, disobeying the president's orders, decides to brief the mischievous Senator Gannon as to what he knows - all but guaranteeing a leak to the press.
Meanwhile, the investigation continues to piece together the activities of the missing men, who appear to have left the country:
The investigation takes FBI agent Larry Storm to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Bill Shatner's character also finds himself:
Storm then settles on an apparent focal point for his investigations - the tiny south Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha.
All the while, pressure mounts on the president over his continuing silence on the Greer case - even his press secretary has had enough, threatening to resign.
Many, many more twists ensue, including Bill Shatner's character ending up aboard the USS Enterprise.
So what's with all these disappearances? Why has the president blocked the CIA's investigation? What does Roudebush know and why won't he say? That's where we'll leave it, as we don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't seen Vanished.
There is so much to applaud about this production that it's difficult to know where to begin. The attention to detail given to the unprecedented depictions of the corridors of US power is just one example of a dedicated and professional spirit that evidently infused this production - the Oval Office...
...and sections of the West Wing...
...are recreated in a highly accurate and realistic manner...
...with real Washington D.C. locations also used.
The acting talent on display is second to none, with Widmark's president and E.G. Marshall's CIA director both giving outstanding performances. For 1971, it's also highly laudable that the role of the intrepid FBI investigator who gets to do all the James Bond-type action stuff went to an African-American actor, Robert Hooks.
But most laudable of all is the script - slowly and inexorably, it draws the viewer in, adding layer upon layer of gripping mystery and drama into the heady, tension-filled mix. At over three hours, Vanished does not feel too long at all; with each turn and each new revelation, the sense of "what the hell is going on??!" only grows.
Knebel's novel was adapted for television by Dean Riesner
For those of you who have watched the most famous mid-1970s American political thrillers (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men) Vanished represents a surprisingly worthy addition to that classic sub-genre - one whose story is all the more interesting given that the project was made before the Watergate scandal even broke.
Now, let's take a look at the toup:
Bill Shatner is in his early "Lost Years" period, before the full extent of his career slump really began.
The toup - a fairly decent looking top-piece - is almost identical to the one the actor wore in The Andersonville Trial and Sole Survivor, both of which Bill Shatner made before his appearance in Vanished. Which leads to an obvious question - did Bill Shatner provide his own toups, or did he, in some cases, rely on productions to provide them? And if he liked them, and then kept them, did he then wear them in subsequent productions?
As to why Vanished hasn't been released on DVD (or video for that matter) - that brings us to "Shatner's Toupee - Our Two Cents":
DVD and Blu-Ray technology is doing much to ensure that films and television series are being restored; in some cases, such restorations occurred just in the nick of time, reversing the deterioration of film negatives before they suffered irrevocable damage or fading. But what of TV movies? This genre has, we believe, not been given the attention that it is due. From merely looking (largely via bootlegged VHS copies) at such projects that Bill Shatner was involved in, we feel that TV movies such as The Horror at 37,000 Feet, The Babysitter, Disaster on the Coastliner and Vanished deserve to be preserved as much as any other piece of cinematic or televisual history. In particular, Vanished is more than just a TV movie, it is a highly notable piece of televisual drama featuring an impressive and prestigious display of acting talent (many of those involved are still alive, offering a great, perhaps final, opportunity for a DVD documentary); and it serves as a historical and cultural record of the turbulent times in which is was made. TCM (and possibly NBC Universal) appear to be the rights holders - we at the William Shatner School of Toupological Studies strongly urge them, or other potential interested parties, to enable the re-mastering and release this worthy title commercially.
Despite an ending that doesn't quite offer the pay-off that the previous three hours of drama would seem to demand (how could it, really?) Vanished, we believe, is an outstanding and highly entertaining piece of drama and one that is inexcusably far, far more obscure (we couldn't even find a single detailed review online) than it deserves to be.