Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)

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.

Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley

Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley

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

bunny-lake-is-missing 3The 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 as Superintendent Newhouse

Olivier as Superintendent Newhouse

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.

Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea

Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea

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.

Noel Coward and chihuahua

Noel Coward and chihuahua

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!

 

Martita Hunt

Martita Hunt

 

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)

  1. I’ve heard of this movie but I didn’t know Preminger directed it.

    I used to think Olivier’s acting style was a bit off-putting at first, but after seeing him in other stuff, I’ve more or less accepted it. Pre-Method, acting was simply very different.

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    • Rich, if you like Preminger, you’d probably enjoy it, though it’s not up there with his greatest. I have always loved Olivier as an actor but was interested to see just how much he turns it down in this one. Thanks for commenting, and for organising the blogathon.

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  2. Maybe not one of Preminger’s greatest, but it’s arguably his last good movie. I like it a lot actually; it has bags of atmosphere and I enjoyed Olivier in his role. I kind of wish Preminger had bowed out on this one – what came afterwards really did his reputation no favors.

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    • I have a feeling that I liked his last film, ‘The Human Factor’, but it was such a long time ago that I can’t be certain. Must agree this one has plenty of atmosphere. Thanks, Colin.

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    • An odd but intriguing mix of talents is the perfect description for this, Patricia. I’m with you on Carrie, which I aim to write about very soon – a wonderful role for Olivier, though I’m not sure if it is my all-time favourite since I also love his Shakespearean roles…and The Entertainer, and Rebecca…! Thanks for organising the blogathon and for your comment.

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  3. Judy, like you I also enjoyed the film, but didn’t find Olivier at the top of his game in it, even if he is always dominant. Preminger did make one other memorable film after this and that of course in 1959’s PORGY AND BESS, which is still unavailable on legitimate DVD because of rights issues. Coward on the other hand is quite marvelous. Wonderful review of a rather obscure film for many viewers.

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    • Sam, I think it isn’t really enough of a part for Olivier – he does well with what is there but doesn’t get a chance to shine as much as usual, though he does dominate just because of his presence. I agree that Coward is excellent in this! I must admit that ‘Porgy and Bess’ is one I haven’t seen as yet, though I do aim to do so soon. Thanks so much for the comment!

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  4. My thing with Olivier is that, with the exception of “Rebecca,” he has always seemed too feminine for my taste. (I think of Leslie Howard the same way.) Maybe I just haven’t given him enough of a chance.

    “Bunny Lake Is Missing” is a film I’ve been wanting to see for several months. I belong to a social network called The Golden Age of Hollywood, and awhile back, we were discussing films in which someone was either insane or was made to be appear insane. Someone mentioned this film, and it immediately went on my “to-watch” list.

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    • Patti, I’d be interested to hear what you think of this one if you get a chance to see it. Although I’ve always been a big fan of Olivier, I don’t think this would be the best role to get you changing your mind, but maybe you would like ‘Carrie’,or one of his other roles. I’d definitely say he is an actor to give another chance to! I’d never been a big fan of Leslie Howard but have started to appreciate him a bit more in the last year or two.

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  5. Judy, having experienced some of Olivier’s film performances, I was impressed by his restraint in revealing Superintendent Newhouse as a laid-back, almost indolent character; a character who, because of his extensive experience, was well aware that standard inquiries would soon solve the mystery surrounding Bunny Lake’s existence.

    Although Olivier did not have the luxury of the “larger than life” role of “Wilson”, as played by the multi-talented Noel Coward, nor the “out of kilter” world of his fellow protagonists and the distinguished British supporting cast, Laurence Olivier still dominated his scenes in the film.

    Preminger was not shy of pushing the rules of censorship and his more than casual nod to “Psycho” went further than Hitchcock, in relation to an examination of “obsessive and pathological relationships”. In this regard, perhaps Preminger went too far for audiences in the 1960’s and the film did not attract the audiences expected.

    The experienced, prestigious cast that was assembled and the careful craftsmanship Preminger invested in the project denies the Director’s subsequent claim that he originally intended his film ” Bunny Lake is Missing” to be less than a serious challenge to “out-Hitchcock” Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

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    • Thanks very much for your thoughts and information on this film, Rod. I like your description of Newhouse as laid-back – maybe that is my slight problem with the character, that I tend to expect a level of intensity from Olivier which isn’t there in this film, except for hints at times of something below the surface.

      The comparisons you make with ‘Psycho’ are persuasive… I also think the fact that Preminger presented the trailer himself underlines your point that he did take the film seriously at the time. I’d definitely like to catch up with more of Preminger’s films in the future.

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  6. This is one of the first Olivier films I saw, and I really wasn’t keen. Following a re-watch, I’ve revised my opinion; although I agree that it’s not one of his best roles. Something about the film seems to stifle him, based on this alone he seems unworthy of ‘the greatest living actor’ moniker. I wonder how difficult it was for him to switch between his role at the NT and a film. I know he had the experience, but I wonder how much the differing styles affected his performance in Bunny Lake Is Missing.

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    • You make a good point about Olivier switching between the stage and screen here – I don’t find him at all stagey in this, but if anything a bit too restrained, but it is interesting to wonder about the transition between the two modes. Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you liked the film more on a second viewing.

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    • Oops, never mind, Sam, I must confess I hadn’t noticed! But yeah, I take your point that Porgy and Bess was earlier! Thank you!

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    • I don’t think I’d seen Preminger until seeing the trailer, either, Le, so I was intrigued to see him and hear his speaking voice. I haven’t seen ‘The Boys from Brazil’, but hope to do so – and will be over to read your piece! Thank you!

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