I saw this on Crackle.com as part of a list of films called “Noir and Then” (which also included Fritz Lang’s 1953 classic The Big Heat and 1973’s The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman’s deconstruction of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels/ worldview.)
Bunny Lake has been described as both a cult movie and a film noir classic. Frankly, I can’t see it. But, then, as Otto Penzler writes (in his foreword to The Best American Noir of the Century). “Noir is like pornography, in that it is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it.”
Perhaps the movie was simply ahead of its time. (A remake is allegedly in the works). Maybe the critics were waiting to pounce on any Preminger project that did not meet their lofty standards. After all, the prickly director was not exactly a film biz favorite. Sir Laurence Olivier called him a “bully”. Bios on various websites are studded with phrases like “dictatorial”, “notoriously volatile”, “egotistical” and “tyrannical “. Far from refuting these allegations the Austro-German film-maker actually played up these qualities and embraced his contrarian image with relish.
In Bunny Lake, Carol Lynley plays a young American woman, newly arrived in England, who claims her four year old daughter has gone missing from an elite private school in London.
The premise (based on a 1957 novel by American pulp fiction specialist Evelyn Piper) is ingenious. And keep in mind this was long before Frantic (Harrison Ford’s wife vanishes without a trace in 1980s Paris) and Unknown (Liam Neeson has a car accident in postmillennial Berlin, only to discover his identity has been stolen and even his wife doesn’t believe he is who he claims to be.)
However, in Preminger’s 196os film, the kindly police inspector (played with unflappable grace by Olivier) suspects Ms. Lynley’s character may be delusional. Does the little girl even exist or is she just a figment of the young woman’s imagination? It doesn’t help that Ms. Lynley’s character once had an imaginary playmate with the same name as her missing daughter.
Any novelist subjecting a book to the Hollywood machine can expect the material to be mashed up but Preminger’s film even changes the identity of the villain and creates new principal characters (as detailed in Maria Battista’s Femme Fatales: Women Write Pulp), forcing the screenwriting tag team of John and Penelope Mortimer to do some fancy dancing to accommodate the imperious director. (Yes, that is the same John Mortimer who created the immensely enjoyable Rumpole of The Bailey.) The resulting ending of the film is a matter of taste (as more than a few posters to Internet Movie Database’s Message Boards for the film have pointed out.)
For me, the film’s chief pleasure is watching the legendary Sir Laurence and the equally legendary Mr. Coward in action as well as great UK character actors like Clive Revill, Anna Massey, Finlay Currie and Adrienne Corri.
It is also fun to see British pop group The Zombies (who play a cameo role) again (although where is lead singer Colin Blunstone?)
Ms; Lynley is suitably distressed as the panicky mom. That is either skillful acting or the result of Mr. Preminger’s infamously abrasive direction. (Dubbed “Otto the Ogre”, the film-maker was rumored to have driven performers of both genders to tears on set.) Mr. Dullea’s line readings, on the other hand, seem occasionally wooden to these ears.
Still, I gotta give the film credit for keeping me guessing. All in all, a crackling good mystery, no pun intended (at least I don’t think a pun was intended), up until that potentially silly ending.