Thursday, March 24, 2005

“Bunny Lake Is Missing” was the last satisfying movie directed by Otto Preminger (1905-1986), whose oversized personality often upstaged his work. When released in 1965, it seemed an exceptionally modest and compact undertaking for Mr. Preminger: an adaptation of a British crime novel, set entirely in London, with the events compressed into less than 24 hours.

Its incisiveness was a welcome novelty after two conspicuous hits based on best-sellers, “Exodus” and “Advise and Consent,” and two duds that also had best-seller origins, “The Cardinal” and “In Harm’s Way.” For some reason, the second pair seemed to bring out Mr. Preminger’s torpid, inattentive shortcomings.

Saul Bass had begun providing both Alfred Hitchcock and Mr. Preminger with distinctive main-title designs in the late 1950s. “Bunny Lake” had one of his dandiest conceits: a hand tearing fragments off a dark surface that revealed the names of cast and crew on a light background. The final rip leaves a miniature but discernible shape: a teddy bear, destined to be one of the clues to the disappearance of the title character, a 4-year-old girl who evidently vanishes from a play school on the morning of her first day of attendance.

The titles are reinforced by a lovely, durably haunting theme composed by Paul Glass and initially played on what sounds like a recorder. It’s echoed in most of the scenes that use background music. There aren’t that many, and the very economy seems to enhance both the theme and its subsequent orchestral variations.

Laurence Olivier had top billing, something of a rarity when Hollywood was mounting the show but an appropriate deferential gesture in a cast that was largely English. The American cast members, Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea, cast as a sister and brother whose veracity is in doubt, were still relative newcomers.

The Olivier character, an unflappable sleuth named Superintendent Newhouse, projected an exceptional blend of confidence, kindness and experience. The actor was 56 at the time, and this role was enormously flattering. Mr. Olivier and Clive Revill, cast as his sidekick, Sgt. Andrews, shared one of those delightful telepathic partnerships in which years of common experience and understanding were implied in their every glance and minimal reaction.

Miss Lynley, the facial equivalent of Nicole Kidman in the middle 1960s, was cast as the mother of the missing Bunny. The role of Annie Lake placed heavier histrionic burdens on her than she could finesse, especially in the early episodes, when Annie is at her most distraught. Yet she was a very attractive camera subject, and to her credit, Miss Lynley helps carry a prolonged and treacherous finale in which the plot goes Freudian gothic with a vengeance.

The plot depends on simple, reliable devices once the elusive Bunny is among the missing: search and interrogation. The British supporting cast is priceless for at least three old reliables: Martita Hunt and Finlay Currie, who played crucial roles Miss Havisham and Magwitch — for David Lean in “Great Expectations,” and the inimitable Noel Coward, enjoying himself immensely as Annie’s intrusive, repulsive new landlord.

—Named Horatio Wilson, he introduces himself as “poet and playwright” but should add “pervert” to the list. He has one particularly hilarious effusion while trying to sweet-talk the heroine: “Is that buttermilk flesh all frozen? Some would be pleased at my touch. There are those, at the BBC, who bear, like medals, bruises left by the love of Horatio Wilson.”

“Bunny Lake” was one of the most beautifully designed and photographed black-and-white movies of the period, the last in which black-and-white features were still a familiar sight. It derived cunning expressive advantage from Panavision’s widescreen suppleness. The imagery quickly established London locales that were usually disarming, well off the beaten tourist path. When appropriate, Denys Coop and his crew could adjust the frame for intimacy or entrapment.

The most dated aspect of the movie is a fleeting sideshow meant to provide a kind of “with-it” tinge: the sight of a British rock group, the Zombies, performing on TV in a pub sequence. They’re later heard in a radio broadcast, encoring their big hit, “Just Out of Reach,” which at least has a thematic connection with the plot.

Underrated when it was new, “Bunny Lake Is Missing” at age 40 remains one of the most estimable mystery movies of its period.


TITLE: “Bunny Lake Is Missing”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1965, years before the rating system; systematic ominous elements dealing with the disappearance of a child)

CREDITS: Directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay by John and Penelope Mortimer, based on a novel by Evelyn Piper. Cinematography by Denys Coop. Production design by Don Ashton. Title design by Saul Bass. Music by Paul Glass.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

DVD EDITION: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment


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