This was a strange, weird film – vaguely like Hitchcock, or certainly more Vertigo-like Hitchcock, in that on the surface it seems a psychological thriller but there’s always a feeling (for me, at least) of some murkier subtext underneath, in this case the vaguely incestuous implications of the brother/sister relationship that proves the centre-point of the film. Maybe I’m ‘seeing’ too much into it, can’t tell if the 1960s were more daring or more innocent than now (I suspect the former, it certainly seems of late that you could oddly ‘get away’ with more years ago now than today).
Its the first film I have seen directed by Otto Preminger, whose name is familiar to me from reading about Blu-ray releases over the years. While I don’t expect his other films to be similar to this odd movie, its certainly made me rather curious about seeking some of them out. I was quite impressed by much of the location photography in Bunny Lake is Missing, some of the camera moves were surprisingly mobile and kinetic- not that they took me out of the movie, but quite a few times I noticed a clever camera set-up or framing (albeit I watched the film recorded from the Sony Movies channel on Freeview and it was unfortunately cropped/zoomed in, a practice that I thought had been abolished in these wiser times). Its a very well-made film, done a disservice by its treatment here (Indicator released the film on Blu-ray awhile ago, I expect it looks much better on that disc).
An American single-mother, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), recently settled in England is busy moving house when she hurriedly drops off her daughter, Bunny, for her first day at school. When she returns later that afternoon to pick her up, Bunny can’t be found, and nobody at the school has any recollection of her or record of Bunny being registered there. The police are called in (a frankly magnificent understated performance by Lawrence Olivier here as the leader of the investigation, Superintendent Newhouse) but their investigations reveal no trace of the girl- indeed, upon further inquiries they find no sign the girl even existed, with no trace of her (clothes etc) at her home, and no photographs of her. Suspicion arises that the girl is only a fantasy of Ann’s, something hinted at by her brother Steven (Keir Dullea, rather removed from the 2001 role of his that I’m most familiar with) seemingly by accident. Is Anne indeed mentally disturbed or is something else going on?
In what is clearly the genius positioning of the film, the opening sequences are framed and edited so that when Anne is at the school dropping off her daughter, we never actually see her daughter (and to be honest, dumping a girl at a new school without finally saying a goodbye prior to leaving did seem odd) so that when suggestions arise that she ever existed, as a viewer it does seem to become a growing possibility. A few Hitchcockian misdirection’s are scattered through the film- Noel Coward’s mesmerising performance as the frankly unhinged landlord Horacio Wilson offers a few tantalising possibilities, from the supernatural (the spooky African masks on the apartment walls) to the frankly obscene (his frequent touching of Anne, overtures to her and his own flat with objects referencing the Marquis de Sade and torture fetishes etc) and the knowledge that its his apartment that Anne is renting so he has access to it makes him an area of suspicion. Comments from forensic scientists going through Anne’s flat remind us of the grislier possibilities of what happened to Bunny, and there is a frankly batty old lady living above the school full of odd possibilities herself.
It is indeed a very odd and rather fascinating film. When the final twist comes and we realise what is really going on… well, I find the need to be obtuse here, oddly enough, considering that this film is well over fifty years old so unlikely spoiler-territory fodder. But I think its here, when the film falters into traditional genre thriller mode, that it also becomes possibly more interesting, certainly even darker into Vertigo-like territory. Some of it is quite disturbing (there is a scene midway thought he film when Steven is in the bath and Anne walks into the bathroom, casually chatting to him while he’s naked in the bath and she lights him a cigarette, that felt odd to me and foreshadowed the twist).
A nod to Clive Revell here, who would later turn up in one of my favourite films, Billy Wilder’s Avanti!. Actually, overall I’d say the film features a great cast. I haven’t seen much of Carol Lynley before other than her role in The Poseidon Adventure of all things, and appearances in tv show guest spots in the 1970s but she is very good here- and Keir Dullea really does feel far removed from the cold robot of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. All round a very interesting, even mildly disturbing, film.