Monday, March 17, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) 9/10
Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) drops off her four-year old daughter Bunny for her first day of school, just a few days after moving to London from America. When Bunny disappears and no one can recall seeing her, the police inspector (Laurence Olivier) begins to suspect that Bunny never existed at all. Directed by Otto Preminger.

Until two weeks ago, I had never heard of this movie, then, in rapid succession, it came up in two different conversations (one about films of 1965, and one about the title designs of Saul Bass) and was shown on TCM. So I had to see it.

Most of this movie is a mystery; a slow build of tension and confusion. It feels more like a Hitchcock movie than anything else; a blonde woman slowly falling apart, a victim disbelieved, kind, unhelpful police, vaguely threatening oddballs. Ultimately, it resolves into a thriller, when the mystery is revealed and the danger becomes plain.

Ann and Steven (Keir Dullea) are brother and sister. That they live together with Ann's "illegitimate" daughter strikes the police as odd. The landlord (Noel Coward), is also odd; he lets himself into the flat whenever he pleases, is somewhat well known, and may be "a pervert" (which Olivier dismisses as impossible with "He's on the BBC"). The nursery school is a chaotic nightmare (the sort of place that absolutely terrified me when I had a toddler; it seems downright likely that such a school would lose children). The school is in an enormous old Victorian building (a former private home or hotel or something) and at the top is a flat, where lives the retired founder, whom Steven refers to as the "resident witch." She studies the nightmares of children, playing recordings of their voices recounting their terrors for a book she is writing.

At first, Ann, alone and then with Steven, searches the school herself. This is a terrifying sequence, in the way that ordinary, blasé things can be terrifying. The rambling home has ten thousand places a child could hide or be lost. The staff is uncooperative, hostile, strange, or absent. The director is in the hospital. The teacher had a dental emergency and left her class mid-morning. The cook who was temporarily watching Bunny stormed out and cannot be found. Crowds of children, complaining parents, room after room...if you're a parent, you cannot watch this scene without recalling every time your own child was missing for five minutes, and as Bunny remains missing, your heart clutches tighter and tighter.

Then the police are called, and question everyone, bring dogs, all that. They want a photograph of Bunny. At first, Ann explains that not everything has arrived yet from America, but then she remembers that Bunny's passport is at the flat. And now the mystery deepens, because the flat has been emptied of everything that Bunny owned. There are two toothbrushes at the sink where earlier there had been three. There is no nightgown, no bathrobe, no doll. The police begin to suspect that Bunny is imaginary, that Ann is insane.

Of course, Ann acts increasingly insane. Is it because it's true? Or is it normal to be more and more panicky when your child is missing? Either could be the case.

The story is a slow build. I never figured out the answer to the mystery until the movie was good and ready to show me, and it was definitely a satisfying conclusion. There are plot holes, but they are very small; plot pinholes, really.

Olivier has little to do; nothing that requires a gifted actor. But the atmosphere, the characters, the filming, and the script all add up to an excellent, atmospheric film.

(Did this cross-post ever really exist?)