Label: Twilight Time
Released: November, 2014
Genre: Suspense / Mystery
Synopsis: After a mother reports her child missing, the lack of evidence seems to suggest she may be telling an elaborate fib.
Special Features: Audio commentary with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, film historian Julie Kirgo, and producer Nic Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
After tackling a quartet of big budget, large cast productions in a row – the epic Exodus (1960), the lengthy Advise & Consent (1962), the regal The Cardinal (1963), and the star-studded WWII saga In Harm’s Way (1965) – producer-director and industry brand name Otto Preminger made a move typical of drained, exhausted filmmakers in need of something creative, challenging, but manageable, and that was a small film. A production with a modest cast, simple locations, and a story that was fairly linear and didn’t involve explosions, tanks, musical numbers, or crowds of thousands in the desert.
Scripted by then-married writing team John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey) and Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater), this stark adaptation of Marryam Modell’s novel was reportedly a project Preminger had wanted to make some time ago, and harks back to his Fox noir dramas in which characters are placed in desperate situations in tight, constraining environments, and most of the production is shot on location.
Most of the director’s fans will fell Bunny Lake is Missing as a gem often ignored by film fans because it’s the antithesis of his prior quartet in scale and tone; this is essentially a two-person character piece in which a mother, Ann (Carol Lynley) tries to convince everyone from the children’s school to the police that her vanished daughter is 100% real.
It’s a game of who’s telling the truth, who might be crazy, and whether the film that’s unfolding is real, a dream, or as Twilight Time commentators allege, a dream akin to Alice in Wonderland, where Ann has tumbled down a deep rabbit hole and finds her world completely deranged to the point of being a candidate for a sanitarium.
One can speculate the presiding detective may have been a lesser part on paper, but once Laurence Olivier came on board, his delicate underplaying of a realist transformed the cop into the film’s anchor: always reliable, ever-patient, and the arbitrator of who’s crazy, who’s a pervert, and who’s a bit more than a dotty eccentric and shut-in.
The richness of the characters and dialogue make the script of the best psychological thrillers of the sixties, and ensured stars Olivier and Lynley gave some of their finest work (especially Lynley, who’s never been given such a tough role and constant screen time). Keir Dullea’s always gotten a bad rap for his acting style, but he’s rather well-suited in playing the peculiar brother Steve who initially allows people to believe he’s Ann Lake’s husband until the disappearance of Bunny mandates a clarification.
Every role – major, minor, and virtually silent – is played by a veteran Brit, plus then-newcomer Anna Massey (Frenzy) as the school’s low-level headmistress who doesn’t seem to care about Bunny’s disappearance nor take kindly to the irritating Americans who’ve decided to make London their home. With the exception of the detective, everyone is quietly telling Ann and Steven to pack it in and just go home, especially now that they’ve misplaced their possibly made-up child.
Martita Hunt is delightful as the school’s rambling co-founder, Finlay Currie has a small part as a ‘doll surgeon,’ and Noel Coward is just plain creepy as the landlord who exploit’s Ann’s traumatic mental state by inviting himself for some tenant fondling. Clive Revill (Fathom) has a largely silent but memorable part as a supportive detective, and the TT commentators routinely point out many more actors and related collaborations and relations between cast, crew, filmmakers, locations, and subject matter. (This is also reportedly the film where Coward leaned over to Dullea and whispered ‘Kier Dullea, gone tomorrow,’ alluding to the Canadian actor’s perceived limited skill set.)
The real star of the film is arguably not the cast but the fabulous collaboration between cinematographer Denys Coop (Billy Liar, Inserts) and Preminger, in rending one of the most beautiful B&W scope films of the period, with the director’s penchant for precise blocking creating fluid long takes. The brilliance of the visuals – from lighting, camera operating, and focus pulling – is remarkable, especially since the pre-Seadicam camera regularly prowls and tracks down narrow corridors and stairwells, following groups of actors who break apart and rejoin.
There’s isn’t a single misstep in the film’s visual design, and as much as Preminger loved to live the part of a Prussian-styled, autocratic director with international brand recognition, he was a consummate technician in telling a story that yes, was edited in-camera, but always served the story and characters.
Also fascinating is Paul Glass’s score which is ostensibly a bittersweet lullaby that periodically degrades into dissonance, hinting at some unseen rot among the characters. There is one weird search montage that’s weirdly scored with the full lullaby – a strange choice – but Bunny was among a handful of rare scores by this underrated & underused composer. (The RCA soundtrack album has gone in & out of print over the years, perhaps due to the three tracks by The Zombies, who appear in a broadcast airing in a local pub.)
TT’s disc sports a perfect transfer, and Glass’ score also appears in an isolated stereo track. Supporting the film is another great conversational commentary by screenwriter Lem Dobbs, film historian Julie Kirgo, and producer Nic Redman, offering a wealth of production details, and another fine examination of Preminger as a great filmmaker who’s downfall lay in trying to pick projects time for box office appeal.
Many actors found him to be a genuine sonofabitch – Cardinal’s Tom Tryon claimed he lost his lust for acting because of Preminger’s incessant bullying – and yet with a producer’s touch, he packaged his projects like a pro, not unlike Alfred Hitchcock (who similarly lost his mojo after The Birds, and took a while to recover with Frenzy).
The commentators also mention several similar-themed works that involve a missing figure no one’s seen – So Long at the Fair (1950), Breakdown (1997), Flightplan (2005), and TV’s Dying Room Only (1973) – but Bunny Lake is among the best because its makers steer clear away from the ridiculous; the finales of this sub-genre may never fully satisfy, but the richness of the characters in Preminger’s film make this a highpoint in missing character yarns.
Marryam Modell’s other best-known work is The Nanny (1965), starring Bette Davis. An attempt to remake Bunny Lake with Reece Witherspoon was wisely shelved in 2007.
Otto Preminger would make just 5 films over the next 15 years: the sweaty racially charged Hurry Sundown (1967), the bizarre Skidoo (1968), Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), Such Good Friends (1971), the dreadful Rosebud (1975), and The Human Factor (1979).
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review