By Vivaan Shah
“To watch Preminger’s camera prowl about is to realize the majesty of mise en scène.” So wrote Andrew Sarris in his review of Bunny Lake is Missing in 1965.
After a hand-drawn, cardboard torn, cryptic title sequence, our camera follows Keir Dullea through the lawn of a backyard somewhere in Suburban London. A faint flute plays over this languid image as he takes his time crossing the greens, stopping to pick up a fallen teddy bear, and eventually making his way out to the driveway to settle some business with the movers and packers. The house is bare and in not more than two to three long dollies Preminger has him out of the house in his convertible and out onto the kerb of the road as the camera heedlessly pulls out with him past even the main gate, panning left as he drives away.
This film contains an exceptionally high Average Shot length, even by mid 60s widescreen standards. But since this is Preminger you know the film is going to be effortlessly littered with long takes that seamlessly blend into one another. The architecture of the Preminger frame is singular in its scope dimensions. His Panavision prowling often tested the boundaries of rectangularity. He tended to favour not the Wellesian curvature, nor the stasis of Ford, or Walsh’s kineticism, but instead an Ophulsian fluidity. His noirs especially his really strange ones like Laura, Fallen Angel, Angel Face, Whirlpool, Daisy Kenyon, Advise & Consent and Anatomy of a Murder are all evocations of the uncanny as curious as Kubrick, and perhaps equally as mystical and mysterious. They could be as biting and baroque as Bunuel. The keen eye will find in Bunny Lake is Missing a prototype of the inexplicable psychological horror, which was to pervade such eternally enigmatic excursions into the unknown such as The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Eraserhead, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, Barton Fink, The Vanishing, etc. To fully grasp its strangeness, one has to first ride on the edge of one’s seat and surrender to machinations of suspense. In fact, what distinguishes Preminger’s noirs is that despite their moody abstractions and pathological peculiarities they are scarily effective in terms of making you wonder what is going to happen next. In those terms for me he often even supersedes Hitchcock and surpasses him in terms of sheer suspense and surprise and above all strangeness. Bunny Lake is Missing can be seen as a companion piece to Psycho but it also calls to mind and is as eerily engaging as anything by the old masters of horror like Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. Other masters of suspense like Henri-Georges Clouzot also come to mind. It’s the first imaginary person movie, a ploy later exemplified by stuff like Fight Club and Shutter Island.
A mother (Carol Lynley) has recently moved to London with her brother played by Keir Dullea and her daughter Bunny whom no one else seems to have witnessed. After her first day at a primary school, she unexplainably goes missing, no one including the school authorities has any record of a Bunny Lake being registered and as the police are dragged into the investigation our heroine has a hard time providing any evidence whatsoever that Bunny Lake does indeed exist. The brother tries to help her out in whatever way he can, but soon finds himself at loggerheads with the police superintendent expertly played by the great Sir Laurence Olivier. In fact, this is probably one of his most subtle and naturalistic of performances. Noel Coward plays a bizarre landlord who rolls his R’s like the regurgitations of a tractor and records his mellifluous voice for the BBC. Some of the funniest and most outré moments in the movie come courtesy of Coward and he really goes to town on the part, creating a cretinous creature. A scrawny Chihuahua dog rests in his arms at all times, which he strokes with a maternal bemusement, and Sir Laurence even at one point mentions just in passing that to listen to him reciting poetry is like hearing ‘a Welsh parson gargling in the molasses.’
There are none of the customary establishing shots of London like the Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Instead, Olivier takes Carol Lynley to a British pub, where the Brit rock band ‘The Zombies’ shows up on the T.V. screen as someone flicks the channel away from a news broadcaster’s mention of the missing girl, Bunny. It’s a highly inappropriate moment tonally from the rest of the film – kind of like akin to finding a roach in a cereal box, to rob an analogy from the writer, Walter Chaw. By this point in the narrative the sense of disorientation is complete, absolute, almost beyond the point of comprehension. There are some truly marvelous characters in this film. The great thespian Martita Hunt plays a kooky old school teacher who lives on the top floor of the school building. She records children’s dreams and writes children’s stories of the more fantastical sort. It is to her that Keir Dullea confides that when her sister was a child she had an imaginary friend whom she used to call Bunny, adding further weight to the notion that the daughter is simply a figment of the protagonist’s imagination. Then there is the school cook – a wily old European matron who cooks a blandly mundane sort of porridge for the children, and is the first suspect. Most haunting of all is a visit to a Doll’s hospital where a senile Finlay Currie seated in the shadows is the equivalent of a male nurse for the incapacitated toys.
The ending is one of the most explosive and nail biting Freudian resolutions ever concocted by a mainstream suspense film. Preminger’s direction starts to distort into hysteria, as witnessed in one harrowing close up that goes so close to its subject’s face and in such a lateral way that one almost feels Preminger wants to burst the frame. Its meticulousness served in favor of the anarchic. A truly unsettling combination! I would have loved to disclose the film’s denouement in favour of some analytic head scratching but I don’t want to spoil it for potential viewers. This movie is just too damn suspenseful and it would ruin some of the fun if I did so. It also happens to be the scariest film-going experience I have ever had. If I could sum up its horror, it lies in the single image of a slow visually digressive push-in to a grotesque African mask that lies on a bed. It’s a complete non sequitur like The Zombies cameo, but its incongruity consolidates the film’s ambiguity – the sense of the absurdity of the objective, which was Preminger’s hallmark. His films, whether the courtroom dramas or murder mysteries or psychological thrillers, often put the audience in the position of the jury or the discerning spectator, to make up our own minds and come to a satisfactory conclusion. Some of his conclusive shots have a hallucinatory gleam to them.
Perhaps, it was his experience as a lawyer before joining Max Reinhardt in the theatre that made him realize that the eye/camera/audience was the only judge and all that played before it was merely an argument, a debate, a game, a match, a calculation. He was constantly interested in networks of interactions and his mise en scene reflects just that. The staging, framing and physical manipulation of his shots is truly breathtaking and extremely complex in terms of composition and elaboration. The Preminger symmetry is as distinctive as Kubrick’s or Fritz Lang’s. There was something geometric about his cinema. Off screen, he was the apotheosis of the tyrannical European director, a ranting raving madman like Erich Von Stroheim. He was also an aggressive iconoclast, instrumental in the breaking of the production code, and constantly dealing with subjects that were at the time considered taboo. He challenged the censors and the blacklist. His politics were extremely progressive but like many of the old guard Hollywood directors he was extremely aloof and non-committal about his style and any thematic consistencies. He was not willing to discuss his themes or get into any sort of intellectual discussion about his films, although his films reflected a profound intellect and also respected the intelligence of the audience. He was as mysterious a figure as his films, but as Andrew Sarris pointed out there are moments in his films which completely contradict one’s deepest feelings about the man. You don’t expect such sensitivity from a person with his seemingly monstrous personality. His films were always thoughtful, yet never really contemplative. Life’s mystery was not a matter of meditation for him; his metaphysics lay in the realm of the rational, of the admissible. His long takes and distant camera can be attributable to his tendency to view drama as a spatial whole from the point of view of a proscenium arch. To him all the world was half stage and half podium and whole part auditorium with the curtains drawn across our eyes, blindfolding us from the ultimate truth.
Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently, he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.
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