Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) ****

Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown, 1967) returns to his film noir roots (Laura, 1944; Whirlpool, 1950) for this crisply-told tale, mixing police procedural with psycho-drama,  of a missing child who may the figment of her mother’s imagination. It’s beautifully filmed and for anyone brought up on modern cinema of short takes and the camera bouncing from one close-up to the next, it will be a revelation, as Preminger favors classic Hollywood style,  long takes, in a single shot the camera often following a person in and out of several rooms, and equally classical composition, scenes containing three or four characters where everyone acts within the frame.

Single-mother Ann (Carol Lynley) turns up to collect her four-year-old daughter Bunny from her first day at a London nursery only to discover not just the child gone but nobody has any recollection of the child being there in the first place. That is, apart from the school cook (Lucie Mannheim), who promised to look out for the child but who has subsequently disappeared. Ann is anxious anyway because she is moving house and in her new apartment has an encounter with her creepy landlord Horacio (Noel Coward), a master of the innuendo and the casual stroke of the arm.  

It’s a very English school with stiff-upper-lip not to mention snippy teachers. “We mustn’t get emotional,” school administrator Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) warns the distraught mother. Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea), a journalist, kicks up more of a stink, arguing with staff, and with a very threatening manner. Things get creepier still. Upstairs, they hear voices but it’s just the school’s founder Ada (Martita Hunt) who records children talking about nightmares. Steven seems over-protective towards his sister, which is understandable, and somewhat over-affectionate, which is not.

Detective Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and sidekick Sgt Andrews (Clive Revill) investigate. He is an unusual cop. A university graduate but not of the excitable Inspector Morse persuasion for one thing, and reasonable to an irritating degree in that he keeps all his options open. But the cops are thorough, descriptions of the missing child issued, search of the premises and surrounding area undertaken. But it turns out there is no record of Bunny in the school ledger, no sign of her existence in the flat, and it transpires that as a child herself Ann had an imaginary companion called Bunny.  

As Steven becomes more obstreperous and the intense Ann verges on the hysterical, not helped by the unwanted attentions of the landlord, a BBC performer with a melodious voice he believes irresistible to women and more than a passing interest in sadism, the case appears to be heading in the direction of a quick visit to a psychiatry ward. The usual anchor in these situations, the policeman, is not as definite as normal, Newhouse not pushing the investigation in a direction the audience will find acceptable, but largely standing back, as if yet to make up his mind, which adds to the sense of mystery.

Carol Lynley with the potential landlord from hell Noel Coward.

Preminger isn’t in the business of piling twist upon twist, but as these arrive in due course, the options they offer are even more psychologically damaging. And from setting off at a steady pace with everything apparently settled down by the steady superintendent, the minute he departs the scene, the story takes on a different dimension and there are three superb chilling scenes, one in hospital, another in a doll’s hospital and the last in a garden as the question of just who is unhinged becomes more apparent. There is certainly madness in the movie but it comes when you least expect it and from a direction you may not have considered. On another level, the world of children is entirely alien to the adult and the reconciliation between the two worlds impossible to bridge.

Preminger extracts a performance from Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) that cuts the character to the bone, eliminating many of the actor’s tropes and tics, but at the same time making him perfectly human, unable to resist, for example, a traditional school pudding, and finding ways to curb Steven’s excesses while comforting Ann.  By controlling the actor who always exerts screen presence, Preminger makes him come across with even greater authority. It’s an achievement in itself to ensure that Olivier never raises his voice.

Carol Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) is excellent as the distraught mother, one step away from losing her mind and Keir Dullea (The Fox, 1967) constantly raises the stakes. Noel Coward (The Italian Job, 1969) possibly does the best job of the lot, his normal high levels of sophistication eschewed in favour of the downright creepy.  In supporting roles look out for Clive Revill (Kaleidoscope, 1966), Finlay Currie (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969), Anna Massey (De Sade, 1969) and Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967). Pop group The Zombies featuring Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone put in an appearance.  

Husband-and-wife team John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969) and Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote the screenplay from the besteller by Evelyn Piper. But it is most assuredly an Otto Preminger production. He has a surprisingly good grasp of British custom and character, shot all the movie on location, but in black-and-white so it is not dominated by the tourist London of red buses or red pillar boxes, and his probing camera and long takes are a marvel for any cinematic scholar.

Kaleidoscope (1966) ***

Amazing the tension that can emanate from one turn of a card. Or, more correctly, waiting for one. Only problem is we’re two-thirds through the movie before high-stakes poker begins – the pot nudging £250,00 (close on a cool £5 million now). Mostly, the earlier tension derives from not knowing what the hell is going on in this enjoyable thriller made at the height of the Swinging Sixties as playboy gambler Barney (Warren Beatty), a walking Carnaby St model driving an Aston Martin DB5, tilts the odds dramatically in his favor.

Barney is a gambler but the problem with gambling is the odds. They can be against you too much. So Barney decides to turn himself into a burglar, the kind that can clamber over rooftops, abseil between buildings, and break into – a printing business called Kaleidoscope. This just happens to print the playing cards supplied to all the major European casinos. So Barney does a little doctoring of the master printing plates. Bingo, the odds are a bit more even now that he knows what cards are coming out of the shoe – he plays chemin de fer (as it is known in posh casinos; pontoon or 21 to you and me).

While cleaning up he bumps again into fashion designer Angel – their original meet-cute taking place in a traffic jam – who he dated once in London. Unbeknownst to him, she is on a scouting mission, looking to snare the kind of high-rolling gambler who can take on and completely fleece drugs kingpin Harry (Eric Porter) being pursued by her father Manny (Clive Revill), a cop who, rather than waste so much time collecting the required evidence to put the villain behind bars, decides it would easier done by making him broke. Unable to pay his debts, some other villain would put him out of business in the traditional cemented-boot fashion.

It takes a while for the movie to line up all its ducks in a row, mainly by holding back the vital information the audience requires. But the audience is privy to details of the way Manny works that Barney is not. Even for ruthless villains, Manny has a peculiar calling card, one that would make any gambler think twice about entering his lair. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Manny to rumble Barney’s game so the stakes are much higher than the charmer imagines.

Throw in as much fashion as London was capable of generating at this time, the burgeoning romance, some exotic European locations, a castle with a moat, and the usual tourist guide stuff of red buses, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, pubs and Tower Bridge and you have all the ingredients of an easy on the eye thriller.

A bit over-reliant on star power. That is, if you don’t need Beatty to do much more than be Beatty, all teeth and charm. At this point Beatty’s career looked as if it was fast approaching its end. The box office success of Splendor in the Grass (1961) had been followed by a string of flops, romantic dramas and comedies that should have had audiences queuing up plus an occasional wild card like Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965), the biggest flop of all. He does make an engaging crook, and he never loses his screen charisma here, but there ain’t quite the right number of twists that moviegoers weaned on the likes of Topkapi (1964) had come to expect.

Hollywood had been doing its best to position Susannah York as a top box office attraction and she had snagged leading female roles in The 7th Dawn (1964) opposite William Holden and Stanley Baker in Sands of the Kalahari (1965)  but she was recovering from the colossal flop of Scruggs (1965) by ‘poet of the cinema’ David Hart.  Kaleidoscope offered  the kind of role York could do with her eyes closed. So while the screen pair were not exactly sleep-walking it was not the kind of story that was going to create sparks.

Character actor Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967) and Eric Portman (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) take more leeway with their roles, the latter almost chewing he scenery, the former content with just chewing his lips. Look out for Jane Birkin (Blow-Up, 1966) and British television stalwarts Yootha Joyce, George Sewell and John Junkin.  

The title would have been more enigmatic, original meaning of images twisted out of shape, had it not also applied, straightforwardly, to the card-making company. Giving Harry the surname of Dominion seems overkill.

Director Jack Smight (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1969) came to this after twisty private eye picture Harper/The Moving Target (1966), a big hit starring Paul Newman, but this is too lightweight a feature to command such interest, but he does keep the story rolling along and it’s an effortless watch and it has a certain offbeat quality. The screenplay was fashioned by Robert Harrington and Jane-Howard Hammerstein, making their movie debut, who also co-wrote Wait until Dark (1967). It was also the debut for Winkast Productions, the Jerry Gershwin-Elliott Kastner production team who went on to make Where Eagles Dare (1968).

The Double Man (1967) ***

A bit more action and this could have been a John Wick-style winner because C.I.A. agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) is a big-time bad ass, all steely stare and resolve, and no time for anyone who gets in his way as he investigates the unexpected death of his son in the Austrian Alps.

It’s probably not this picture’s fault that any time a cable car hovers into view I expect to see Clint Eastwood or Richard Burton clambering atop all set to cause chaos, or any time a skier takes off down the slopes anticipate some James Bond malarkey. Luckily, director Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) avoids inviting comparison in those areas but rather too much reliance on the tourist elements of the ski world puffs out what would otherwise be a tighter storyline. And he also sets too much store by loud music to warn the audience of impending danger.

Slater is out of the ruthless espionage mold and, convinced on paltry evidence that his son has been murdered, determines to track down the perpetrators. There is a reversal of the usual plot in that those he asks for help are unwilling to give it, retired agent Frank Wheatly (Clive Revill) and chalet girl deluxe Gina (Britt Ekland) who initially views him as an older man to be fended off but turns out to have the vital information he seeks.

There’s a lot of tension but not much action and today’s modern vigilante would have beaten the information out of anybody who crossed his path rather than taking Slater’s path. Despite this, the relentless tone set by Slater ensures violent explosion is imminent. To be sure, you will probably guess early on, from the appearance at the outset of some Russians, that Slater is heading into a trap, but the reasons are kept hidden long enough.

There are some excellent touches. Slater’s boss (Lloyd Nolan) has a nice line in keeping his office underlings in check, chalet hostess (Moira Lister) is all style and snip, the Russian Col. Berthold (Anton Diffring) clipped and menacing. And the skiing sequences that relate to the picture are well done while the others are decently scenic.   

It’s a shame that Brynner is in brusque form for it gives Britt Ekland in a switch from her comedy breakthroughs not enough to do. Revill is excellent as the former agent who has had his fill of espionage and dreads being pulled back into this murky world. Producer Hal E. Chester clearly spent more on this than on The Comedy Man (1964) but with varying results, top-notch aerial photography but dodgy rear projection. And there are some screenwriting irregularities, such as why conduct the son’s funeral before the father is present.

Catch-Up: Yul Brynner performances previously reviewed in the Blog are The Magnificent Seven (1960), Escape from Zahrain (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Return of the Seven (1966) and Villa Rides (1968). Britt Ekland movies already covered are: The Happy Thieves (1961), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Machine Gun McCain (1969) and Stiletto (1969).

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