Bunny Lake is Missing
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Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) is a single mom who has just moved to London from America. After dropping off her four-year-old daughter at her new school, Ann returns to her flat to attend to the movers but when she returns to pick up her daughter, she is nowhere to be found. In fact, no one at the school recalls ever seeing the child. Scotland Yard Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) is immediately brought in on the case but begins to wonder if the child even existed. In fact, Ann's psychological state soon becomes the focus of the investigation, as the search for the missing child proves futile. For solace, she turns to the one person she can trust, her brother Stephen (Keir Dullea).
Directed by Otto Preminger, Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) starts off as every parent's worst nightmare but soon detours into a psychological minefield in which illusion and reality become blurred. Like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, which was released the following year, the event or crime that propels the narrative may, in fact, be a matter of perception and exist only in the mind of the protagonist.
Bunny Lake is Missing is a welcome return to form for Preminger after working semi-successfully on a broader canvas with epics such as Exodus (1960) and In Harm's Way (1965). Like the taut, small-scale film noirs he made during his tenure with 20th-Century-Fox (Laura (1944), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1950), Bunny Lake is Missing has a streak of the perverse running through it, one which is mirrored in its sinister and eccentric cast of suspects. But Preminger was aiming for something else as well. In The Cinema of Otto Preminger by Gerald Pratley, the director said of his film, "It is a small story about a kidnapping. The mother of the little girl who has been kidnapped is unmarried and unable to prove the existence of the child. The child's father will not admit to it because he is already married to another woman and pretends he does not know the mother. There is a certain social theme here; if you do not conform to the rules of society, the law does not protect you. That is an important part of the film."
Based on a novel by Marryam Modell (under the pen name of Evelyn Piper), Bunny Lake is Missing was adapted for the screen by John and Penelope Mortimer and filmed on location in London. "I made no attempt...to create a London mood; with evocative shots of the city," Preminger commented. "The fact that the story plays there is not particularly essential. It only made it easier because these two Americans were isolated. There were no friends, there were no people they knew from the past, and that made the suspense angle better."
Preminger has always had a reputation for being difficult on sets and the mood on Bunny Lake is Missing was not exactly congenial. Laurence Olivier, who accepted the part of the police inspector merely for the money, called Preminger "a real bully who never let up...a heavy-handed egotist [whom] Noel Coward and I didn't much like." Author Anthony Holden wrote in his biography, Olivier, that "one of the younger members of the cast gratefully remembers Olivier, though plagued by gout throughout the filming, intervening on his behalf: "I say, old boy, I do wish you wouldn't scream at the children."
Certainly, Olivier's co-star Noel Coward didn't take his role too seriously. According to Philip Hoare in his biography Noel Coward, the actor "told Roddy McDowall, 'I play an elderly, drunk, queer masochist, and I am in no mood for any wisecracks about typecasting so there.' Dressed like a tramp, he also carried a Chihuahua 'crooked in my arm. It just lies there comatose but quivering. I can't stand things that quiver....It only has one piece of action...it had to wave, but it couldn't do it. I said to it, "you will never make another Lassie." When Coward wasn't pontificating, he was playing practical jokes on the cast members. One time he crept up behind the male lead and said, "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow" - an obvious dig at the actor's questionable film career.
In spite of an intriguing premise and an ad campaign that played up the film's surprise ending, Bunny Lake is Missing failed to generate much interest among moviegoers. And most critics agreed the movie was uneven, primarily due to the overwrought performances of the two leads - Ms. Lynley and Mr. Dullea - which were unfavorably compared to the richly drawn supporting roles, most of them played by the most prestigious talents of the British stage and cinema. Olivier, naturally, was the focus of most reviews with critic Alexander Walker stating rather backhandedly, "only a great actor can make himself this small. It is a rare sight." Anna Massey, Martita Hunt, Noel Coward and Finlay Currie also stand out among the British players but what is most impressive about Bunny Lake is Missing today is the striking opening credits sequence by Saul Bass and the artful black and white cinematography of Denys N. Coop.
One interesting piece of trivia: The British pop group The Zombies receive a screen credit in Bunny Lake is Missing but their only appearance in the film is on a TV screen in a pub; they're guests on the show "Ready Steady Go." Three of their songs - "Nothing's Changed," "Remember You," and "Just Out of Reach" - are heard in the background, usually emanating from a transistor radio. But, ironically enough, the one tune which would have been perfect for this film - "She's Not There" - is missing in action.
Producer: Otto Preminger, Martin C. Schute
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: John Mortimer, Penelope Mortimer
Based on the novel by Marryam Modell (as Evelyn Piper) Cinematography: Denys Coop
Film Editing: Peter Thornton
Art Direction: Don Ashton
Music: Paul Glass
Cast: Carol Lynley (Ann Lake), Keir Dullea (Stephen Lake), Laurence Olivier (Newhouse), Noel Coward (Wilson), Martita Hunt (Ada Ford), Anna Massey (Elvira).
by Jeff Stafford