Thursday 10 July 2008

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

Ann Lake, an American, arrives in England on the Queen Mary and promptly loses her daughter Bunny. She leaves her in the First Day Room at the Little Peoples Garden School, because the teachers are busy teaching and she has to get back to let the moving men into her new flat. She leaves Bunny effectively in the care of the German cook, who is the only adult she can find, but when she comes to pick her up, she's not there. What's more, she isn't just missing, nobody seems to be able to vouch for her ever being there at all.

The cook has quit and isn't easily found. None of the teachers ever saw her. When they go to get her passport from the apartment to show her picture to the police they find that all of Bunny's things have been stolen: all of Bunny's things and nothing else. We're even treated to the suggestion that Bunny never existed, given that Ann had an imaginary friend as a child who she called Bunny, Stephen Lake is rather overly protective of and overly close to his sister and, whenever he get caught in an impasse begins threatening the police with his powers as an international journalist.

This is an intriguing psychological thriller, firmly rooted in the sixties, not just in the setting (northwest London) and the culture (such as the way that the police are careful when commenting on Ann's lack of a husband), but in the way the film is constructed. It's very cleverly done indeed and makes us walk the same balancing act that the Superintendent in charge of the case has to walk: is Bunny Lake really missing or is she a figment of the Lakes' imagination? Just like the various characters in the story, we don't see Bunny either so can't be sure if she's real either.

While the story is the key to this film, it's well shot and directed too, and the cast is impeccable. The Lakes are Keir Dullea and Carol Lynley and I'm very glad director Otto Preminger stuck to his guns on that casting choice because the studio wanted Jane Fonda instead. Superintendent Newhouse is no less an acting talent than Laurence Olivier and he's subtle and powerful here. The supporting cast includes such names as Clive Revill and Anna Massey, along with two inveterate scene stealers: Martita Hunt and Noel Coward.

Hunt is Ada Ford, the retired founder of the school from which Bunny disappears, and she's a great example of the sort of elderly lady who has lost her health but not her wits and would be fascinating company. This sort of character is an English institution and Hunt does the job very well indeed. Coward is Mr Wilson, the Lake's landlord, and he's an eloquent pervert, another English institution. He apparently works for the BBC who love his melodious voice, though I loved Olivier's description of it as 'like a Welsh parson gargling in molasses'.

It's due to be remade in 2009 with an unknown cast, now that Reese Witherspoon has dropped out. I'm not sure how well it would fit a culture of over forty years on, especially one that has so many ways to see everyone. Or maybe that's what would make it work: how could Bunny Lake exist, given that she doesn't appear on any security camera footage in a week. Anyone who can do that in London is either a professional terrorist or someone who's a figment of the imagination, right? I'll stick to Preminger's version and pay a little bit more attention to him. I've only seen one of his films previously: Anatomy of a Murder, another excellent thriller, though another, Laura, is high on my must see list. And I love the subtext here that in a city of Englishmen, it's the Americans who are hysterical, violent and insane.

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