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Movie Review: Bunny Lake is Missing – Laurence Olivier Centenary

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You’ll no doubt think “that sounds familiar” when I outline the plot of this film. A young American mother living in London leaves her four-year-old daughter at a new school but when she returns later to collect her she is nowhere to be found. The police are called in but can find no trace of the girl and no evidence she even existed. Got that feeling I mentioned earlier? You’re probably thinking of the recent Jodie Foster film Flightplan that owes much to this film.

While its subject matter of a missing child is more topical than ever, the film itself has not dated particularly well. For one thing, its score is overpowering with Paul Glass one of those composers who feel an audience requires music to tell them what they should be feeling. It’s a fine line between enhancing the emotion of a scene and telegraphing it and Glass’ score falls on the wrong side of that line. To say this is a little irritating is something of an understatement; it continuously takes you out of the film at vital moments when you should be drawn in.

In the pivotal role of Ann Lake, the girl’s mother, is Carol Lynley, an actress probably most famous as the hippie singer in The Poseidon Adventure. As an actress she lacks the dramatic range for this kind of role, giving a flat, emotionless performance that fails to elicit the viewer's concern. Much of her dialogue seems to have been “looped” afterwards and, as this is only apparent for her lines, one can only assume that director Otto Preminger wasn’t happy with her original vocal performance. Given what we ended up with, it must have been bad indeed.

Ann Lake’s creepy brother is played by Keir Dullea, still three years away from his most famous role as Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It seems at first that Stephen Lake is Ann’s husband, with the dialogue between the two designed to give that effect. It’s suggested that there is an incestuous relationship between the two, although the film never really confirms it. This causes a twofold reaction in the viewer (at least in this viewer) – we don’t like him and we don’t trust him. Of course this makes him a prime suspect in the little girl’s disappearance even without any evidence. Dullea’s performance is slightly more animated than that of his “sister” Lynley, but he’s another actor who fails to connect with the audience.

This lack of empathy leaves an emotional void that the film's third central character is unable to fill, not this time due to lack of ability but simply that the role requires a certain level of detachment. Superintendent Newhouse is the man whose lap this baffling abduction case falls into and he’s ably brought to life by Laurence Olivier. There is nothing to stretch the maestro's acting muscles here, there’s no accent to play around with (as he would in so many of his later roles), and Newhouse doesn’t go through any life-changing experiences, but Olivier brings a world weary realism to the man, a sense that he has seen the worst and that there is little left to shock him. It’s a fine performance in an unspectacular part and really deserves a better film, or at least better support. The film also features a brief but amusing scene between Olivier and his close friend Noel Coward, as the American’s wonderfully sleazy landlord.

As I said at the beginning, the film hasn’t aged well and that is the case with many of Otto Preminger’s films. The best of them, such as Anatomy of a Murder, are almost like a snapshot of history. Bunny Lake, however, hampered with uninspired lead performances, fails to make the most of its powerful subject matter. There’s a bizarre sequence in a pub that seems to be more interested in what’s happening on the TV screen, an appearance by '60s pop group The Zombies, than what the characters are doing and the band appear prominently in the film's credits. The final revelation comes as little surprise and the denouement builds tension only to waste it, as the film devolves into silliness.

This was due to be remade by director Joe Carnahan and star Reese Witherspoon but the actress dropped out at the last minute. One can only hope that, if a remake does see the light of day, it explores the subject more fully and features actors who are more in tune with their parts.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • Eva Guggenheim

    I bought the DVD of BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING yesterday. The film was even more bizarre than I remembered. It is indeed creepy; I lived in England for five years and couldn’t help but note that every single person the heroine encountered was at best, eccentric and at worst, frightening. These characterizationserves aid in confusion about the true nature of the U.S. man most close to her.

    Most of the people I met were friendly in the U.K. Upon consideration, I realized that Preminger may have been playing on the cold, ‘close the shutters’, detatched attitude that largely prevails in the British populace.

    The music of The Zombies added to the atmosphere (and, of course, the name of the band). Other devices like the clock, the dark shop filled with dolls, including one shelf of only the heads of dolls were effective. I have tried to find mention somewhere of the use of doors (many doors opened, closed, locked, etc.) to no avail. Doors were so obviously and often used as part of the suspense in the movie that I am surprised to find no mention of them, although I have not read all the reviews.

  • Eva G. Wojcikiewicz

    I have watched this movie four times and am fascinated by the creepy tone. My son thought it Hitchcockian; made comparisons to PSYCHO (the weird connection between parent and child), for instance. Something about the little girl, Bunny, brought Hitchcock’s MARNIE to mind. It happens that The Zombies played locally at a HIPPIEFEST weekend before last.

  • Eva G. Wojcikiewicz

    Now I have seen it five times. I find something new each time I see Bunny Lake is Missing. I wonder when and where I saw the film when it first came out.

    When I was a child I made a list of actresses that had blonde hair and Carol Lynley was among them. Yvette Mimieux was on the list; she might have been a good choice as Bunny’s ‘mum’, unlike Sandra Dee, who was also on the list.

  • eva g. wojcikiewicz

    I have an ex-boyfriend who claimed a resemblance to Keir Dullea back in the seventies. My friend is in films now; what happened to Keir Dullea? Is Keir Dullea missing?

  • Elliot James

    I’ve read that it was Preminger’s intent that the siblings not be sympathetically played. It’s clear from the opening scene who the villain is. The lengthy ending is totally lacking in suspense.

  • Eva G. Wojcikiewicz

    I had forgotten that Preminger directed Anatomy of a Murder. That was a carefully crafted piece of work.