Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)

by Douglas Buck December 22, 2021 4 minutes (884 words) DCP Film Forum

Ann Lake, a single American mama (Carol Lynley), new to England, has only her odd brother Steven (Keir Dullea) and the local investigating officer, Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) to turn to when her daughter Bunny goes suddenly missing on the first day of pre-school, with the decidedly inept school staff insisting they’ve never seen the girl. As increasingly bizarre events follow (such as all of Bunny’s possessions mysteriously vanishing from Ann’s home) and a colorful assortment of entirely bonkers suspects are uncovered – such as Ann’s creepy old perv of an aging actor landlord (Noël Coward) and the strangely joyful woman (Martita Hunt) living at the school who claims to collect children’s nightmares (with the fact that the staff allows this woman to live hidden away upstairs, an indication of just how wonky they all are) — not only does the Superintendent begin to wonder on the exact nature of the Lake siblings secretive relationship (with much of it circling about childhood fantasy), but on whether the missing Bunny Lake exists at all.

Incest. Pedicide. Looney tunes mental illness. The cavalcade of perverse characters (played to the charmingly crazy hilt by cream-of-the-crop Brit character thesps, including the aforementioned Coward and Hunt, and the great and regal Raymond Massey’s odd duck of a daughter Anna). The repeating motif in the film’s memorable (if occasionally a bit incessant) score, warped with a sense of childish innocence.

You certainly gotta hand it to director Otto Preminger. By all accounts, he might have been an absolutely intolerant monster, but was he ever up for transgressing the boundaries of acceptable taste (with the notion of ‘breaking through’ reinforced right with the cheeky opening credit sequence, designed by much-celebrated genius designer Saul Bass, in which the initially black screen is ripped away by a disembodied hand to reveal, jagged tear by tear, the strange mysterious world we’re about to enter that lies on the other side – it’s like the reverse representation of a Lynchian conceptualization, with the camera breaking through the black void to find the symbolic artifice, rather than to break through it). I guess if you had to categorize “Bunny Lake” you could call it a psychological mystery… but that doesn’t come close to nailing the absurdist, blackly tongue-in-cheek perspective of the film (the tongue-in-cheek part might go over many viewers’ heads, but I’d argue… how else are you supposed to take all this bordering on over-the-top odd behaviour?).

Laurence Olivier, an actor oft-considered the greatest of all time (certainly of that time, and that’s saying something with folks like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift displaying their wears) and yet has never really stood out for me like the others have over my movie-infatuated lifetime (to be fair, most say it was in Olivier’s theater work where the actor’s true brilliance shone through, more than in his films, with roles that rarely were ever worthy of his level… or so it’s said, anyway) finally makes a grand impression, giving me at least a glimpse of what all the fuss has been about.

His is the relatively grounded presence of the film, which is saying something considering just how unsympathetic his investigative character is, doing things like plying Ann with alcohol at a local pub to see if he can dig some secrets out of her (then again, against this playing field of characters ranging between possibly slightly unhinged to full on bonkers, an attitude of self-involvement seems to be the proper recourse in preserving one’s sanity). Displaying just the right level of cheekiness, and without any overt scenery-chewing (in fact, it’s the opposite… he plays the part with a deft sense of casualness), Olivier kinda steals the movie.

What a nutter of an actor Dullea is. Often projecting nothing but a kind of bland exterior (perfectly utilized, along with that pure vanilla extract of an actor Gary Lockwood, by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey for the director’s portrayal of the two barely ‘human’-seeming astronaut characters as a contrast against the growing ‘humanity’ generated for the paranoid computer HAL 9000 begging not be turned off) and when he does give something, it’s invariably the presence of a barely-contained diseased perversity (as in Bob Clark’s absolutely essential Black Christmas), and the latter is certainly how Preminger uses him here in “Bunny”, which, while not granting Dullea’s Steven a lot of depth or complexity, works fine within the general broad nuttiness of the characters in the film (perhaps it gives away the ‘culprit’ of the mystery a bit early… but who cares, as you just know that every one of these characters, whether they’re behind this particular missing child incident or not, are unquestionably guilty of something!).

In another sign of the film’s gleefully perverse cheekiness, the narrative takes its time in making it clear the two are brother and sister, rather than husband and wife, which is set up clearly as the first assumption we’d have.

I also love the black and white widescreen look of the film, with the deep striking shadows drawing it into the look of the most thoroughly neurotic of films noir.

Naughty, Mr Preminger… yet all so gleefully played.

Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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