CLASSICS OF SUSPENSE

The recent release on Blu-ray of Otto Preminger’s last good film,Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), sent me to an even better, similarly themed movie released a year earlier. Like Bunny,Séance on a Wet Afternoon is about a very young girl gone missing in London. Both movies feature crisp black-and-white cinematography and were filmed on location, lending even greater realism to their respective stories. Looking back at each, we are provided with a time-capsule view of London on the cusp of the swinging ’60s.

Capitalizing on a publicity gimmick introduced by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho five years before, viewers were initially not allowed into screenings of Bunny Lake once the feature had started. The story is about a young American woman, Ann (Carol Lynley), whose daughter Bunny disappears on her first day at a private school in the heart of the city. Leading the investigation is Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier, in a terrific subdued performance).

The first two acts of the film are suspenseful and nuanced as both viewer and police grow increasingly unsure whether Bunny Lake is even a real child. The unmarried Ann and her brother Steven (Keir Dullea) evoke plenty of doubt about their claims, but Preminger lets the cat out of the bag (so to speak) with more than 30 minutes to go, leading to a prolonged conclusion that retains suspense if not conviction.

The positive features of the film, in addition to the cinematography, include a stellar supporting cast of British stalwarts: Anna Massey, Clive Revill, and Finlay Currie. Olivier is brilliant and Noël Coward is wonderfully creepy as a salacious old pervert with an eye on the lovely Ann. The great Saul Bass provides opening and closing credits that are among his most inventive.

On the downside, the two Americans in the cast (Lynley and especially Dullea) are not in the same league as their British counterparts. She is at least adequate, but Dullea is almost as much an automaton as he was in 2001. Another miscue (minor but curious) is the intrusion of the rock group The Zombies, in an early example of product placement.

For all its faults, however, Bunny Lake Is Missing is two-thirds a very good film by one of the most important and iconoclastic directors of his era, whose many earlier and controversial successes include Anatomy of a Murder, Saint Joan, Advise and Consent, and The Moon Is Blue.

English director Bryan Forbes, once an actor, began his career in the ’60s behind the camera with a string of critical and popular successes of great variety, including Whistle Down the Wind (which Andrew Lloyd Webber converted into a musical), The L-Shaped Room, King Rat, and The Wrong Box. His third film, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, remains one of the best.

Unlike Bunny Lake, the plot of Séance is straightforward, but even more suspenseful. Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough play middle-aged couple Myra and Billy, who contrive to kidnap a young girl and hold her for ransom. However, the real purpose of the scheme, as designed by Myra, is not to get money but to give the clearly unstable woman the opportunity to demonstrate her powers as a medium.

The film’s focus, rather like Who’s Afraid of
Virginia Woolf?,
is the complex relationship of two people whose lives have been ripped asunder by the earlier death of a child. Myra dominates Billy, but he sustains her. Like the cluttered old house in which they live, however, the past can become a breeding ground for dangerous delusions, with tragic consequences.

Besides the brilliant on-location photography, Séance is an actor’s showcase. Attenborough and Stanley are nothing less than brilliant, she undeservedly losing the Oscar to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins, while he won its equivalent from BAFTA (the British Academy Awards).

When you want to check out some classics in the New Year, don’t forget Bunny Lake Is Missing and Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

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