*. I read the novel Bunny Lake Is Missing (by Merriam Modell, under the pen name Evelyn Piper) before I saw this movie. That might not have been a good move. I liked the book and the movie only borrows the initial premise from it before going its own way entirely. And when I say it goes its own way I mean it goes crazy.
*. Apparently director Otto Preminger liked the book but wanted a different ending because he thought Pyper’s lacked credibility. Really. This is one of those weird things I hear reported but can’t get my head around. Preminger thought the novel’s ending lacked credibility so he ordered up one that would have made Jimmy Sangster blush to take credit for? I mean the ending of the book is convoluted, but it’s nothing like the madness that screenwriters John and Penelope Mortimer came up with. And that’s John Mortimer of Rumpole fame, by the way. Apparently Dalton Trumbo and Ira Levin both wrote earlier drafts but Preminger didn’t like them either. I’d be curious to see what they looked like.
*. I guess before I go any further I should insert a spoiler alert. Basically this is a gaslighting story, where Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) drops her little girl (nicknamed Bunny) off at daycare and when Bunny goes missing there’s no evidence she (Bunny) ever existed in the first place. People begin to question the mother’s sanity. As a footnote, the same plot was tricked out again for the 2005 Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan, about which more on another day.
*. New to the movie is the character of Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea). Instead of a fairly simple kidnapping plot Steven has abducted Bunny because . . . well, because he’s a lunatic and he’s jealous of Bunny getting all of Ann’s affections so he wants to kill her (Bunny, that is). Somehow Ann has remained oblivious to the fact that her brother is such a nut job, despite the fact that the two are very close. Meanwhile, a police inspector (Laurence Olivier) is looking into things and a creepy landlord (Noël Coward!) is putting the moves on Ann, all of this going on as The Zombies play Top of the Pops in the background.
*. Full credit to Olivier and Coward for recognizing the kind of nonsense this was and riding with it. Olivier is low key, which perfectly suits all the silliness going on around him. It’s the kind of part he could play in his sleep, and he looks as though he decided that would be for the best. Coward takes the opposite approach, hamming his part up to the hilt. Both fit in and are wonderful in their roles.
*. Lynley is just adequate as Ann, though given the circumstances that was itself an accomplishment. Dullea is pretty awful. Kubrick would cast him in 2001 based on this movie and I’m wondering what he saw in him here. Someone who could be robotic? The story has it that Coward walked up to him one day and whispered in his ear “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.” Bitchy, and probably a safe bet at the time, but Kubrick saved him from oblivion (if not Black Christmas). In any event, Steven’s meltdown isn’t very convincing. But then, who could have pulled that off?
*. Oh, England. Were you still using oil lamps in the 1960s? My mother collected oil lamps and they were already antiques when she was a kid. Didn’t they have flashlights, or “torches” as they like to say? And what’s this junket stuff? I find from online sources that “junket is a milk-based dessert, made with sweetened milk and rennet, the digestive enzyme that curdles milk. Some older cookery books call the dish curds and whey.” Is this supposed to be a treat? Do people still eat it? Olivier’s Inspector Newhouse thinks it’s yummy. Is it like custard? I want to give it a try but I don’t know where you get it or if it sells here under some other name.
*. According to Dullea, Preminger was no fun to work with. But at least the movie looks nice. The scene of Ann investigating the doll museum is beautiful, as is her escape from the asylum. But these are scenes without any dialogue. They’re meant to be looked at.
*. But it’s not a good movie. Watching Bunny Lake Is Missing is like staring into a room filled with interesting works of art but the lights are all turned off. You keep trying to see something you know must be in there but you can’t make it out. Today it’s a movie with a bit of a cult following, largely due to its credits (I mean the talent, but the credits themselves are arrestingly presented, as always, by Saul Bass) and the general sense of weirdness it has about it. But it really is a tricked-out production running on a Hammer chassis, without any dramatic coherence and an ending so stupid it fails on every level. Maybe the kind of thing everyone should sit through once, just to be aware that it exists. I can’t see any reason for going back to it though.