A Voyage Round Bunny Lake
Born 94 years ago today, celebrated writer/barrister John Mortimer (1923-2009), beloved for his creations of the incorrigibly unflappable Rumpole of the Bailey and the autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father, aided and abetted many great artistic collaborations through the decades in addition to being a solo author. Aspects of his legal and personal lives would filter into his works, just as the acclaimed 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater by his first wife, writer/film critic Penelope (Fletcher) Mortimer, allegedly drew inspiration from events in their rough-edged marriage as well. And based on their individual outputs to date, producer/director Otto Preminger decided that the couple would be the ideal choices to adapt for the screen a 1957 missing-child mystery thriller by Evelyn Piper (a pseudonym for Merriam Modell) called Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). They became the ideal choices late in the game, only after Preminger had solicited and found fault with treatments from others: per Foster Hirsch’s biography Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, previous screenwriting candidates whose attempts didn’t make the grade included Walter Newman (Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm), Charles Beaumont (The Masque of the Red Death), Ira Levin (later to write Rosemary’s Baby), Dalton Trumbo (Preminger’s Exodus, a Twilight Time title) and Arthur Kopit. Hirsch reports: “Finally conferring with the Mortimers in Honolulu in July and August 1964 [during production of In Harm’s Way], he felt he was on the right track.” What had thwarted other writers to date? Hirsch recounts the source novel’s plot: “A neurotic mother, Blanche, visiting New York, where she does not know anyone, claims that her daughter has gone missing. Because Blanche appears so unstable there is doubt about whether the child exists. If Bunny does exist, as her increasingly hysterical mother insists, then where is she? If she has been kidnapped, who is responsible?” The novel offers up several eccentric characters as possible suspects, none of which seemed plausible or satisfactory to Preminger. With the addition of the very British Mortimers to his team, Preminger hit on the idea of transposing the action to London – and grabbed hold of an idea from Penelope. According to Hirsch, she “suggested a new villain, Blanche’s mad brother Stephen (the character does not appear in the novel), determined to eliminate Bunny because he views her as a rival for his sister’s love. Otto’s initial gratitude toward Penelope darkened into crankiness. Penelope, ‘ a strange, mixed-up lady altogether,’ according to [associate producer] Martin Schute, ‘had written a good treatment, but her final draft wasn’t working. When Otto started berating her, there were a lot of sour looks. And then when Otto ordered John to substantially rewrite Penelope’s draft, she was not best pleased, to say the least,’ Schute said.” Nonetheless, when populated by a cast that included Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea as Ann (renamed from Blanche) and Stephen, Martita Hunt (alumna of Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, another TT disc), Noël Coward, Anna Massey and Finlay Currie as off-the-beaten-track area residents, and none other than Laurence Olivier and Clive Revill as investigating detectives, the Preminger/Mortimers teamwork proved effective and haunting. Reviewing the Blu-ray two years ago in The New York Times, J Hoberman observed: “Bunny Lake is suffused with actual or imagined guilty secrets (and may have been the first studio release to employ the forbidden word ‘abortion’). As noted by hostile contemporary reviews, the movie has its share of logical inconsistencies, although to dwell on them is to ignore its deliberate ambiguities and considerable panache. Bunny Lake is full of Expressionistic, if not surreal, touches: a nursery packed with demonic children, a wall of glaring African masks, a spooky doll hospital. Nor does the movie lack tension; with a child at risk and a lunatic running loose, the lengthy final scene approaches the climax of The Night of the Hunter.” In keeping with a certain tendency of John and Penelope Mortimer to infuse something of the personal in their work (after a bruising 1971 divorce the two were reportedly on friendly terms at the time of her death in 1999), John wrote a play in 1973 called Collaborators, which comically chronicles the tensions caused when an overbearing Hollywood filmmaker hires a struggling barrister-turned-writer for a screenplay assignment and triggers a blistering scenario of marital discord between the scribe and his wife. Glenda Jackson and John Wood played the couple and Joss Ackland the show-biz honcho in its original production. Perhaps memories of shaping Bunny Lake Is Missing, available on TT hi-def Blu-ray, found their way into that script as well.