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Bunny Lake Is Missing
An undeniable innovator and catalyst in the breakdown of both Hollywood's Production Code and the blacklist, Otto Preminger was a true eccentric also capable of extraordinarily bad judgment, alarming tastelessness, and shameless self-promotion akin to lesser talent like William Castle or Albert Zugsmith. He directed a handful of bona fide classics, including Laura (co-directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), but he's almost equally well known for such famously bad films as Hurry Sundown (1967) and, especially, Skidoo (1968). He made a few mainstream epic-type pictures: the bland In Harm's Way (1965) was a bloated war epic with a sickly looking John Wayne, weeks away from having a lung removed, while Exodus (1960) was so excruciatingly dull it prompted Mort Sahl's (or was it Groucho Marx's?) famous cry halfway through its premiere: "Otto! Let my people go!"
In the midst of all this were a few fascinating pictures never given their due. Advise and Consent (1962), to name one, is Preminger's best film and plays to his strengths and style. Its unusual structure, daring undercurrent of taboo sexuality, political setting and all-star cast made it a film like no other. Indeed, the film was so ahead of its time (and so timely today) it's quite puzzling that it's not been more widely recognized and revived.
Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), for all its faults, also falls into this latter category. The film opens just as Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), an American newly-arrived in England, has dropped off her four-year-old daughter at a small private school. When she returns a short time later, her daughter, Bunny, is not only missing, but no one at the school recalls ever having seen her. Eventually, both Ann's brother, Stephen (Keir Dullea), and the police, led by Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) arrive but there's simply no trace of Bunny Lake at all.
What might have been a standard if entertaining kidnapping thriller is enlivened by Preminger's approach to the material, an ambitious Evelyn Piper (The Nanny) novel, adapted for the screen by John (Rumpole of the Bailey) and Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater). The stark photography and eccentric characters give the entire film a creepy edginess, and an unexpected theory about the crime halfway through the film sends it off in a wild and fascinating direction. The final payoff proves disappointing, though not for lack of effort, and it's to the filmmakers' and actors' credit that they almost pull it off.**
Shot mostly on location, the film is subtly creepy throughout, from the cramped, unappealing schoolhouse to the Lake's depressingly run-down flat to Finlay Currie's oil lamp-lit doll hospital to a basement filled with wide-eyed laboratory animals. Let's hope Tim Burton doesn't want to remake it.
The film benefits from a superb cast. Lynley is excellent as the mother, whose panic swells as time passes and all logical explanations for her daughter's disappearance begin to evaporate. Her reactions are quite believable and carefully measured throughout. Keir Dullea's calm arrogance as her brother is equally convincing.
Best of all is Olivier's superintendent, a major departure from the charismatic, larger-than-life historical figures (and occasional grotesques) that dominated his film career. Almost a revelation, Olivier takes a fairly standard character and quietly breathes fully-dimensional life into him. Without stealing scenes away from Lynley and Dullea, he expertly expresses Newhouse's mind at work, digesting various testimony while, with subtle gestures, orders his men about the investigation.
The supporting cast is excellent. Noel Coward has a showy role as the Lake's flamboyantly gay and alcoholic landlord (heavy wool sweaters, dressed-up Chihuahua in tow), but it is Martita Hunt who makes the strongest impression, as the school's frail but keenly observant and slightly sinister co-owner, a virtual shut-in and not-too-distant relative of Hunt's glorious Miss Havishim in Great Expectations (1946). Anna Massey is also very good as the school's overly defensive administrator, while Clive Revill, Currie, Lucie Mannheim, and Richard Wattis round out the cast.
Incongruously, The Zombies appear on a pub's television set, but their appearance has no impact on the story and actually adds to the picture's off-kilter atmosphere.
Video & Audio
This DVD reportedly marks Bunny Lake is Missing's home video debut. The 16:9 anamorphic transfer of cinematographer Denys N. Coop's excellent Panavision lensing will not disappoint. Preminger's films always looked like no one else's, and one of his great talents was his blocking of actors and mise-en-scene of the 'scope frame, regardless of who the credited cinematographer was. In that sense the letterboxed image is absolutely essential (there's always something going on right to the edge of the frame), and though the film shows its age here and there, the black and white images generally look superb.
One very odd and unfortunate flaw in the transfer is the opening titles, designed by Saul Bass, who did almost all of Preminger's films from the mid-1950s on. For some strange reason these are presented with a kind of extreme windowboxing: the entire frame is shrunken in size on all sides, so much so that some of the credits are very hard to read, even on big widescreen sets. It's like watching the titles on a Moviola. Indeed, when the film began I felt like I had been cheated, that the promised 16:9 transfer was actually 4:3 letterboxed (it's not). At a guess perhaps the title film elements (often stored separately) were in bad shape, and a different source was used.
The English mono is fine for what it is, especially given that most of its sound was recorded on location, with the exception of some extremely obvious post-production looping. Optional English and French subtitles are included. There are no Extra Features.
Completely engrossing, Bunny Lake is Missing is like a Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller filtered through the eyes of Otto Preminger. Though its last act is a disappointment, overall the film is very good, and its long-delayed home video debut is welcome indeed.
**The story doesn't play fair, however, as several cavernous plot holes go unexplained and/or are illogical.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.