Bunny Lake is Missing (1960) dir. Otto Preminger
Starring: Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Lawrence Olivier, Noel Coward
Otto Preminger’s “Bunny Lake is Missing” is a lost cult film from the great era of British thrillers of the 60’s. It tells the frightening story of a woman whose child disappears out of thin air from a British daycare centre. It’s both an exciting investigative mystery with a Hitchcockian psychological edge in the tradition of "Psycho" or “Peeping Tom”. The veteran director Preminger, who was at the tale end of his career ponies up some creative strength producing this enjoyable little gem. A potential four-star film is marred with a sloppy ending that tries to catch the wave of psychoanalysis, which was too late for 1965.
Carol Lynley plays an American girl (Ann Lake) who has recently arrived in Britain to live with her brother Stephen (Keir Dullea). Carol has brought her young 4 year old daughter Bunny to her daycare school as instructed. But when she goes to pick her up at the end of the day she is missing. Fingers are pointed at everyone else as none of the staff claim to have seen her. Panic sets in for Ann who receives little care or cooperation from the snobby set-in-their-ways staff. Ann’s brother eventually arrives, takes control, and calls in the police.
The police investigation is led by the calm and collected Newhouse (Lawrence Olivier). Newhouse traces all leads and witnesses who may have seen Bunny over the course of the day. But when he starts running into false leads, his eyes slowly turn to Ann and Stephen for more information about their lives. Ann and Stephen appear to be hiding information from the police and quickly become uncooperative and eventually suspects themselves.
Otto Preminger, who you may know as ‘Mr. Freeze’ in the Adam West Batman series in the 60’s was a director who made a diverse variety of great films from the 30’s – 70’s. He was also known as an oppressive monster in the directorial chair. But his films speak for themselves - “Laura”, “Stalag 17”, “Anatomy of a Murder”, and “Advise and Consent”. Like Michael Powell's “Peeping Tom” “Bunny Lake is Missing” is one of those Hitchcock films that Hitchcock didn’t make. Otto Preminger treads on the internal fears of the audience of losing a child, of being in a foreign land, and in the last act, mixing in then topical psychoanalytical themes. The result is a film that is two thirds fantastic, and one third sloppy and dated.
He exploits our fears of being in a strange environment and being at the whim of a foreign culture with foreign procedures. A film like this could be remade today in the light of the post 9/11 fears. The film works best when it keeps information from us. Preminger plants the seeds of different suspects in the opening act. There’s the nosy perverted landlord (hammed up by, of all people, playright Noel Coward), the crusty old German cook who skips town the day of Bunny's disappearance, and the Mrs. Bates-like older lady who lives in the attic of the daycare and records children’s recounted nightmares on audio tape. Wow, that’s creepy. This is when the film is most fun.
But the cleverer the set up the harder it is to pay off in the end. And Preminger doesn’t get it right. He relies on a deux ex machina element of false memories and psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo, that by 1965 was already old hat. I couldn’t help but think if this film was made by say, Roman Polanski in 1965. The film feels like Polanksi in how Preminger skillfully moves his camera within the tight closed spaces of the daycare centre. But Polanki wouldn’t have relied on psycho-terror to solve his mystery – he would have horrified us with a tragic ending.
Lawrence Olivier is a pleasant surprise in the film. His ego is kept in check and he acts the film with realism and understated confident attitude. As Newhouse formulates his theories, Olivier internalizes his thoughts keeping the plot revelations a mystery to the audience.
The headscratcher of the film is the appearance of British mod group “The Zombies”. They are given a head credit but appear only on a TV screen in a bar. It seems like a blatant piece of product placement that is clearly 'out of place' in a film about disappearing children. Don’t mind this loose end though, just kick back and drink in the psycho-terror-babble to enjoy this film.
Buy it here: Bunny Lake Is Missing
Here's another super-cool Saul Bass credit sequence: