THE PLOT: It’s the Swinging Londons, and ex-pat American Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) goes to collect her four-year-old-daughter Bunny from nursery school. But lo! She’s nowhere to be seen. Even more sinisterly, no-one aside from Ann seems to have any memory of her ever being there. Ann calls in her fresh-faced boy reporter brother Stephen (Kier Dullea) to help. Inspector Newhouse of Scotland Yard (Laurence Olivier) gets involved. Gradually Ann’s flaky mental history comes to the surface. Could Bunny be completely imaginary, or is something more sinister afoot? Are things as they seem to be? Why are we asking you?
From the jaggedy, paper-tearing Saul Bass titles, through the angular ‘modern jazz’ score (which cleverly replays the same theme throughout in various styles and cuts of goatee) to those early and rather tasty crane shots, this box office floperoo sets itself up right away as heir very presumptive to the all-conquering Hitchcock bandwagon, then still perceived as the peak of suspense filmmaking in Psycho‘s considerable wake, even though Sir Alf had by this stage pretty much shot his portly wad and was reduced to farting about with back projection, mirrors and the annoying Tippi Hedren. This superficially shameless coattail-riding, plus the commercial failure, has marked this film out as yet another cobblers ‘me too’ knock-off among the more quince-headed of opinion-formers. And do you know, there’s a good chance they’ve got it all wrong.
The talent lines up thus – in the American corner, there’s Otto Preminger. Oh, all right, he’s Viennese, but right now, in what people who want to sound serious and knowledgeable without saying much of any interest at all would call his ‘late period’ – more usefully described as halfway between Anatomy of a Murder and Skidoo, and not just in chronological terms as we’ll see – he’s as American a director, in the respected sense at least, as you can get. He’s backed up by Columbia, a much-maligned studio, but a big one from the Golden Hollywood Era nonetheless. This is, we’re clumsily trying to say, an American film as far as Variety would be concerned. ‘YANKS GO SWINGING FOR BRIT-SET SUSPENSER,’ they’d no doubt muse, in their pithy, Enigma Code style.
Now for the Brits. Otto’s helped out with photography by Denys Coop, whose CV is a roll-call of British Film Forever-approved classics – This Sporting Life, Billy Liar, 10 Rillington Place, Ryan’s Daughter – interspersed with a goodly amount of Creamguide favourites – A Home of Your Own, Asylum, Three Cases of Murder, Superman II. He knows how to point a camera at Sylvia Syms without getting his thumbs in front of the lens, let’s put it that way. And some of the stuff he gets up to here under Premo’s tutelage – crazy angles, under lighting, some terrific tracking shots (an escape scene through a hospital boiler room looks frankly amazing) is as outstanding as the best bits of Bolex business any of the above have to offer. Plus it’s all shot in the official best format ever – widescreen, black and white, sharp and crisp and wildly uneven. Your eyes won’t start to stray idly off the screen and over to that poster of the chimp on the lavvy, we guarantee.
Then comes the script. Now, this is taken from a novel by Evelyn Piper, a Pennsylvanian old maid who seems as Yankee Doodle as they come. But look at that synopsis again. Stick seventy-odd years on Bunny and she becomes Miss Froy, the equally mysterious vanishee off of The Lady Vanishes, which is as English as they come. (Voice from the Back: ‘Yes, but that was itself adapted from The Wheel Spins by one Ethel White, who was from Wales! Aaaaaah!’ Creamguide: ‘Pipe down, rub-a-dub!’) And anyway, that novel’s been stripped down and decked out according to the tastes of screenwriters John and Penelope Mortimer, he penning this in between sketches for post-TW3 satire show BBC3 (wonder if he did that musical number about groovy bus conductors in flares that Bill Oddie was in?), she having just had her book The Pumpkin Eater bunged on the big screen by a certain H Pinter. All things considered, them writes good.
So Americans call the shots, wield the cash and stump up for the half-time Bovril, but the script and camerawork – the guts of any decent film – are as British as nationalised Marmite. Confused? You will be, as we get to the cast and the meat of the whole film, in which Uncle Sam is similarly held to ransom by plucky little John Bull and his pork pie-eating chums. Columbia naturally insisted the young sexy leads are as apple pie as they are frighteningly blonde; all the other parts call for character (Hollywood slang for ‘proper’) actors. And character actor at this point in time meant British actor. (OK, you could still have had Edward Everett Horton, but he was busy that year impersonating a chicken in prestigious TV series like Batman and F Troop.) Basically, think of this film’s cast, and indeed plot, as a version of the Dad’s Army titles, but with US flags on the British arrows and British insignia where the swastikas were. Trust us, it’ll help in the long run.
Now, bearing all this wearisome theorising in mind, let’s run down the cast, but via the scenic route rather than Columbia’s preferred billing order. Ann Lake’s landlord is Horatio Wilson, played by Noel Coward in full-on bravura style. A self-styled ‘poet, playwright, dropper of alcoholic bricks’ just in from ‘wettest Worcester’, though now sadly reduced to voice-overs on the BBC (his voice ‘seems to unleash whole hurricanes of passion in the breasts of the females who watch me’) and singing ‘rude old welsh ballads […] and all in exchange for one whisky, served to me in the first aid room’. Meantime, he shambles around the apartments he owns, peering at the Lakes’ comings and goings, in a moth-eaten cardigan, and more often than not toting a lapdog under his arm. He’s that ‘Don’t you have dogs in Calcutta?’ guest off of Fawlty Towers in emaciated Robert Morley form, and as such could not be a jot more perniciously horrifying even if he was given a talking umbrella and the ability to fly up into your knickers.
Coward takes a supercilious dislike to the Lakes immediately, in the manner of most middle-class Brits looking down their brandy-sniffing noses at their rich but unforgivably uncultured, pastrami-scoffing, faucet-turning, Transatlantic brethren. Bunny’s name is a sticking point, for instance. it reminds Coward of bunny rabbits, ‘with those long mean heads and those wet noses going up and down all the time’. He’s brilliantly, sinisterly superior, sarcastic and snooty. Perhaps things go a bit too overtly sinister when he reveals his collection of sadistic toys, including a whip which he runs over his cheek in a mightily off-putting shot, and that old favourite of ’60s gentlemen perverts, the skull of the Marquis De Sade (‘at least, that’s what they told me in the Caledonian Market’).
And the list of character gems doesn’t stop there. Upstairs at the school, there’s lonely old Martita Hunt, the school’s founder, who sits with the blinds drawn amongst her sinister collection of children’s ephemera. Elsewhere in the building Anna Massey, the school’s headmistress, is domineering and dotty by turns, arguing over the proper consistency of the children’s junket with Lucie Mannheim’s bolshy Germanic cook.
As the louchely antagonistic Superintendent Newhouse, Olivier is – like, duh – great. he’s understated compared to both the British fruity turns and the hysterical corn of the Yanks, but he never fades into that richly-detailed background – he goes on quietly building up a genuinely complex and original take on the old ‘maverick detective’ chestnut. Often he seems not to care much about the case, breaking off into random snippets of folk wisdom (‘bus conductors are rarely observant, they tend to be dreamers, philosophers, that sort of thing’) or pure whimsy (Greek poetry is ‘like a Welsh person gargling with molasses’). He even digs ravenously into Mannheim’s school junket to sustain him on his beat. But soon he does get more involved, showing Lynley an old family snap of his taken at Cromer sands on a dull August afternoon. It’s a significant moment for another reason, as this sort of thing – a dreary fragment of old British nostalgia – is exactly what this picture sounds like, in terms of its dialogue, even if it looks pin sharp, well-composed and deep focussingly, slickly American.
The Americans themselves are bound to look flat against all this, and the pair chosen here are especially prostrate. Kier Dullea, as ever, lives up to the first syllable of his surname with an all-American jut-jawed performance that could only get good reviews from the Forestry Commission. But poor old Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), the uber-earnest American in trouble, gets it from both barrels. As well as Coward’s non-stop smarm-up, Olivier’s detective doesn’t much like her tone. And it’s easy to see why – she’s a sub-Hitchcock blonde, a Tippi Hedren-style vacuum from a by-the-numbers whodunit fallen into an Ealing comedy where everyone delights in their fruity one-liners and finicky character traits. What’s she got? A beehive and a startled expression? Hopeless! You’re not trying, dear. (As an aside, the studio wanted Jane Fonda to play Ann Lake, who might have put a bit more character into things, but maybe that’s just what Preminger, who vetoed that little decision, didn’t want.)
Speaking of character, we’re not yet finished with those fruity Brits. Finlay Currie is the kindly doll-maker who Lynley goes to in desperation. Bunny’s doll was sent to be mended, if they can find it that’s surely proof she’s not mad. Her search through the shop is made even weirder by inappropriately twee and upbeat music, as the place – all creepy flea-bitten toys shot by flashlight – looks hideous. This level of quality even goes down to the bit-parts – Richard Wattis’s stubbornly unhelpful shipping clerk, and John Sharp’s fingerprint duster, full of morbid seen-it-all gallows humour. Then there are blink-miss turns from the likes of Kika Markham, Adrienne Corri, Percy Herbert and even Tim Brinton (as himself, reading a news bulletin, which interrupts a too-long clip of The Zombies warbling away on the telly – Just Out of Reach, yeah, very subtle – in a wincingly gratuitous nod to Swinging London, which otherwise hardly figures in the film, concerned as it is with degradation of the Olde Worlde variety). Even in a late scene, when Lynley is finally driven mad by the barrage of hostile character actors and runs in desperation through crowded night time Soho, the seedy type she’s momentarily accosted by is no less a monocled personage than Fred Emney (‘Ello, my dear! What about a little drink and a dance?’) Sympathy with her has, needless to say, now risen from just above zero to bell-ringing heights.
All this welter of well-bred eccentricity and crumpet-munching terror builds up to that ending. Much has been written about the rightness or wrongness of the final reveal, and we won’t give it all away here, as this is a proper whodunit-style suspense film (‘No-one admitted while the clock is ticking!’ ran the tagline in true Psycho fashion). Suffice to say, it’s a very, very odd ending, almost queasily so, in a Last of the Timelords ‘Oh no, don’t bloody go there!’ stylee. But unlike that, it does make a nasty kind of sense out of the disjointedness that’s gone before, even if it’s some way off from the lofty total satisfaction of a classic Sherlock Holmes or Thriller denouement.
Then again, satisfaction is hardly what this sort of murder mystery is offering – unless, like Coward, you’re perversely up for a bit of sadistic discomfiting comfort. A cosy, Sunday afternoon, all-ends-tied-up pipe-and-slippers thriller this is not, unless the pipe’s lead and the slippers concrete. You’ll leave not on the safe note of a fireplace denouement, but the discordant note of that omnipresent jerky jazz score, with overtones of Lynley’s frightened sigh of a voice and that chorus of sinister children.
After you’ve folded up a napkin and scraped all that unpleasant taste off your tongue though, what remains is, in the end, oddly cockle-warming. More than a simple mystery, it’s a catalogue of derangement, with the top prizes going to those lovely old Brits. As we’ve said, this was a time when the US studios decided the UK – well, all right then, certain unbombed bits of North London – was where it was at it-wise, and what we’re seeing here is a transition from fruity Brits making cameos as butlers, dowagers and astonished grandees in all-American films, to Yank leading actors being shipped over the pond and thrown in amongst them. Finally, we get to meet the yanks on our terms, our lovely batty old character actors get a rare chance to play at home, and grasp it with both hands. And the result, as we see, is delirious panic, but always with a salty tang of black comedy running through it. But Brit viewers shouldn’t get too comfortable, because the most chilling ending of all is still to be played out, as we read: ‘Reese Witherspoon is developing a remake of Bunny Lake which she will produce and star in.’ A return match? Please, no!