This is my contribution to the Diamonds and Gold blogathon, which is looking at actors and actresses later on in their careers. Please do visit and read the other contributions! This piece is also the (somewhat belated) launch of my projected series of reviews about films starring Laurence Olivier – I aim to write about a few more between now and early May.
When it comes to his film career, Laurence Olivier is of course best known for his classic roles, including his great Shakespearean performances. He’s certainly not the first person you’d think of to play an ageing police superintendent in a 1960s thriller set in swinging London, and featuring a pop group like The Zombies! However, that’s just what he does in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, a compelling Hitchcock-style thriller in black and white which had me on the edge of my seat. I won’t be giving away any of the later plot twists in this review, as it is the sort of film where the shocks are all part of the experience. (Preminger copied Hitchcock with Psycho by decreeing that nobody could be admitted to the cinema after the film had started.) As well as featuring Olivier, it also has highly enjoyable late-career performances from Noel Coward and character actress Martita Hunt, best-known for her portrayal of Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Yet another plus is an early role for Anna Massey. The film is available on DVD in both region 1 and region 2
The story revolves round a little girl who disappears on her first day at school – or so her distraught mother claims. But the big question is whether the missing child, Bunny Lake, exists at all, as nobody actually seems to remember seeing her. The fantastic opening credits by Saul Bass recall his work in Preminger’s classic The Man with the Golden Arm, and some of the atmospheric sequences set in the dark streets also reminded me of the earlier and greater film.
So a lot of the time it does feel like a Preminger film, despite the ersatz Hitchcock quality. I’d have to admit that the film does fall off badly in the last half hour or so, but nevertheless it is compelling to watch, with a good screenplay by John and Penelope Mortimer, adapted from a novel by Merriam Modell (writing as Evelyn Piper).
Olivier was 58 when he made this film, during a six-week break from his work at the National Theatre. He gets top billing, and Preminger begins the trailer by proclaiming him as “the greatest living actor”. (The trailer, which I’ve linked to below, is a must for Preminger fans, as he narrates it throughout and also appears in it.) All the same, Olivier’s role is really a support one, with the film’s two young American stars, Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea, getting a lot more screen time and giving flashier, more emotional performances.
Olivier is often accused of being hammy on film – I love his stagier performances, so this isn’t something that worries me – but here he is understated, and even his famously powerful voice is more subdued than usual. We never learn much about his character, Superintendent Newhouse, apart from the fact that he is dedicated to his career and determined to learn the truth. Occasionally there are glimpses of the man behind the job – he helps himself to a bowl of junket from the school kitchen, and he also tells Bunny’s mother about how he followed his father into the police force, despite his father wanting him to be a poet. “He said, you’ll never have any friends,” says Newhouse wearily – but we don’t find out whether he actually has any or not. The implication is, not.
Although I enjoyed the film, I really can’t claim it as one of Olivier’s better roles in the second half of his career. He gives a naturalistic and restrained performance, but it just all seems a bit too small-scale. All the same, he dominates every scene he’s in. I will admit I was somewhat frustrated that he doesn’t get more scope to show any emotion, and especially with the long scene where he is reduced to watching TV in a pub, as The Zombies perform three songs on a large screen. (Well, 23 inches, we’re told, which was large then.)
The Zombies don’t actually play any role in the film apart from that, but it was presumably enough to get their fans into the cinema. And no, they don’t perform She’s Not There, even though, as one review I’ve read pointed out, the lyric would have been ideally suited to the film.
While Olivier’s role may be too quiet, the same can’t be said for Noel Coward’s. He seems to have a great time as drunken reprobate author Horatio Wilson, who carries a chihuahua around and makes a pass at everyone in sight. Martita Hunt also has a good part as an elderly teacher shut up in an old, decaying flat at the top of the school where she used to work, with poignant hints of Miss Havisham at times. All in all, this is a film I’m glad to have seen- though I do now aim to go on to write about some films where Olivier has rather meatier roles!