From its haunting main titles, scored by Paul Glass and illustrated in title-master extraordinaire, Saul Bass’ visual assurance for telling mini-stories - both impressionistic and imaginative - to its bone-chillingly understated cameos from Noel Coward (as a lecherous drunkard), Martita Hunt (her Miss Havisham from David Lean’s Great Expectations ominously transposed; locked away as the dotty ole clairvoyant, living like a recluse in the upstairs attic of a children’s private school) and Anna Massey (kitten-faced school teacher, Elvira Smollett, repeatedly berated for incompetency), to Denys N. Coop’s moodily magnificent and offbeat pseudo-noir cinematographic bravura, permeated by Otto Preminger’s dynamism, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) hails as gossamer grand guignol; its velvety sheen turning swingin’ London asunder; herein, recast as simultaneously menacing and deliciously remote. It seems no one in our story (co-written by then marrieds, Penelope and John Mortimer and based on the best-selling novel by Evelyn Piper- alias Marryam Modell), save our protagonist, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) is particularly interested in what has become of this titled tiny tot; if, in fact, she ever existed. Bunny has gone. Or was she ever there? At once, Bunny Lake is Missing is deceptively feather-weight yet densely packed with titillating bits of misdirection.
Preminger’s last major work of both substance and style, Bunny Lake is Missing is not a ‘who done it’ per say, but a psychosomatic exploitation piece, spinning its’ web of deceit in ever-constricting circles around a disconcertingly incestuous relationship. Steven and Ann Lake (played with sporadic credibility by Keir Dullea and Carol Lynley) are brother and sister – not husband and wife. But Preminger does his best to delay the audience from this realization, Steve’s smarmy, headstrong and overly protective nature the first bit of ill-advised query Preminger indulges in. For the better half of the picture, we are deliberately led down the primrose by Preminger to believe Ann is suffering from an infantilized psychosis, unable to rid herself of a childhood imaginary playmate, also named ‘Bunny’ – the nickname she has since given her ‘real life’ daughter, Felicia (Suky Appleby). An even more macabre foreshadowing comes tumbling forth when Ann suggests to Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier, top-billed, though decidedly never over the top as the methodical cop) both she and Steven eventually came to the decision their fictional playmate needed to die, or rather, be killed off in a ritualized Buddhist ceremony in which all of Bunny’s worldly possessions were burned, her ‘memory’ buried along with these charred remains.
If the premise behind these past regressions seems alarmingly peculiar, it utterly pales to the menagerie of eccentrics who populate the present. Bunny Lake is Missing is inhabited by some inexplicably curious and spurious characters; not the least, Ann’s landlord, Horatio Wilson (played with aberrant relish by Noel Coward); a despicably charismatic, if craven old coot who, at one point, encourages Newhouse’s right-hand man, Andrews (Clive Revill) to accost him with his own cat-o-nine-tails (rumored to be a relic of the Marquis de Sade), one can assume by Horatio’s jovial insistence, to achieve some fetishistic arousal earlier denied him his oily advances on Ann. “I play a perverted old queer with sadomasochistic tendencies,” Coward reportedly told a friend upon finishing the picture, before glibly adding, “Please…no jokes about type-casting.” Coward could afford such tongue-firmly-in-cheek pellucidity. By 1966, he had become an instantly recognizable crustacean in the British pop culture, largely famous for being famous; an openly gay bon vivant and irrefutable connoisseur of the pleasures of life, to say nothing of his legendary status as playwright, director, producer and star of stage, screen and television; an all-around sophisticate and worldly genius.
The other outstanding ‘character’ part belongs irrefutably to Martita Hunt’s Miss Ada Ford; the elder reincarnation of that aforementioned Dickensian loon, not nearly as mad as she initially reports herself to be; warmly amused by Bunny’s disappearance, coyly calling out her name as she navigates through the labyrinth-like backstairs catacombs of the school; catching Steven in a lie and thereafter quite capably relaying it to Newhouse; himself an amiable enthusiast and admirer of such clever wit in setting traps with expertly laid out bait. Hunt is so obviously – supremely – an old ham – she knows exactly how to ply her craft for maximum effect without becoming clumsily ensnared as a loathsome attention whore. When she is on the screen she quite simply commands it, yet almost by accident, with a self-assured quaintness that is never boastful or intrusive to the other players in the scene. But perhaps the signature performance in the picture is Laurence Olivier’s laidback superintendent, most fascinating of all for its complete absence of ingrained ‘theater’ training for which a good deal of Olivier’s later film work is painfully aware; Newhouse, biding his time rather than actually sleuthing for the truth. At one point, when pushed by Lynley’s frantic mum to identify his modus operandi for solving the case, Newhouse casually reclines in his chair, simply saying, “I’m waiting.”
Bunny Lake is Missing is a fairly ghoulish affair; some of the horror taking place behind the camera: perhaps not surprising, given Otto Preminger’s predilection for testing the boundaries of screen censorship with subversive and taboo subject matter. Initially, Preminger expressed little interest in the treatments of the novel prepared by his first choice in screenwriter, Ira Levin; his intrigue later peaked only after Penelope Mortimer suggested altering the novel’s original villain from a deranged school teacher to ‘the brother’ – a far more intimate betrayal; Preminger picking up on the incestuous angle and running with it to nerve-jangling effect. The duality of Otto Preminger bears mentioning; a seemingly cultured and cordial European when met under casual circumstances, contrasted by a streak of unbridled sadism and cruelty on the set of his pictures, telescopically focused on his actors in particular – or rather, those he fiendishly hand-picked for their easily manipulated vulnerability. Stories of Preminger’s relentless browbeating of Carol Lynley, and to lesser extent, Keir Dullea, are legendary; Lynley frequently brought to the brink of nervous jitters and/or reduced to frightened tears. Arguably, Preminger’s venom helps inform and shape Lynley’s emotional responses; less the actress and more of a ‘sex kitten’ – her previous work in Blue Denim (1959) – a tale of martyred teen sexuality and its psychological fallout – proving irresistible to Preminger’s own perverse intuitions about human frailty.
In life, Otto Preminger was as much a contradiction as he proved something of a rank egotist; envious, yet respectful of director, Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation (this, arguably, he sought to emulate) while chronically bent on striving to reconcile his classical training as a film-maker with the more modish accoutrements of the British ‘new wave’. Yet, catching up with the times would ultimately tarnish Preminger’s reputation in his emeritus years. He was, after all, a classically trained film-maker. But in private, Preminger was decidedly a bastard, his numerous extramarital affairs resulting in an illegitimate child with stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee and some high profile suicides of other leading ladies and/or paramours (Dorothy Dandridge, Maggie McNamara, Jean Seberg – to name but three). What Otto Preminger ought to be remembered for is his technical prowess; a master of the long take, even more impressive herein when one considers virtually all of the key sequences in Bunny Lake is Missing are on location and usually shot within very confined quarters; Preminger’s omnipotent widescreen aperture maneuvering with glycerin effortlessness through some very claustrophobic hallways inside The Little People’s Garden School, or descending into the steamy bowels of St. Child’s Asylum. It is an almost invisible style, one Preminger has honed throughout the course of his long career, laying dolly track as though he were building a railroad and arguably trademarking the smooth tracking shot better than anyone else. Perhaps, Preminger, whose in-camera cutting bears a striking resemblance to another brilliant filmmaker’s work - Billy Wilder – took his cue from an apocryphal story in which Wilder is rumored to have deposited his film reels on the desk on his editor, exclaiming, “Here…join the ends together.”
Bunny Lake is Missing is a difficult picture to peg, perhaps because, like all good thrillers, it unexpectedly denies us our level of safety with perverse unease; its epicenter of moral gravity obscured by the Mortimer’s cleverly plotted twists and turns; also by Preminger’s ability to convince us for more than half of its run time Ann Lake is his ‘mad woman of Chalot’ – driven to wild distraction by an unfulfilled maternal instinct, since run amuck with devilish and wild-eyed stories of the daughter she never had. And, indeed, this seems quite plausible as Ann is unable to provide Newhouse with even a photograph of the missing child, explaining that most of Bunny’s things from America have yet to be unpacked. Given Ann is newly arrived in England, this seems plausible - and yet, in an instance, highly suspect too. It does not help that Ann is unable to locate a witness – anyone – who saw her with Bunny on the bus, at the school, shopping for toys along the street. Is there no one in the whole of London who will testify to the fact Bunny Lake is real? Yes, there is – Steven Lake – who builds upon his sister’s protestations – while adding a few of his own – and bolsters her confidences, presumably, as any good brother should. Not until late in Act III, when Steven willfully saturates Bunny’s favorite doll in kerosene before lighting it afire – destroying the last shred of evidence Ann might have taken to Newhouse as proof of her daughter’s existence, do we suddenly come to the most sinister and dreadful conclusion: Steven Lake is madder than a hatter and twice as certain up to no good.
Some of the aforementioned narrative and pictorial aspects of the piece might have easily typecast Bunny Lake is Missing as an assiduous police procedural melodrama, a noir-ish crime story or just another archetypal ‘woman in peril’ piece, with the underpinnings of a psychological thriller a la Gaslight (1944). But Preminger never remains focused on any of these variables for more than a moment’s glance, effectively mixing them up as he moves in and out of their exclusivities that could, but never do earmark his movie’s domain. Preminger’s Act I is compelling for its varied cameos; Olivier’s coy and cryptic policeman, playfully re-framing Steven’s allegations; that Newhouse is trying to ensnare either him or Ann in a lie. This contention is superbly staged as a slightly traditional game of cat and mouse; Preminger inveigling and insulating his brother/sister tag team with an insidiously benign, though completely captivating menagerie of some of Britain’s finest acting talents. Hence, Anna Massey’s obtuse and oddly defiant teacher is followed by Martita Hunt’s bemused and pixelated lady in the attic, the introduction of Olivier’s calming detective, and so on. Aside: I understand somewhere in this cavalcade is a fleeting glimpse of Oliver Reed, poking his head into the frame as a bobby. If you can spot him you have better eyes than yours truly. We can almost forgive Preminger this who’s who that mollycoddles the central cast because Preminger has fulfilled his Michael Todd-ish mandate with a roster culled from the most instantly recognizable British talent, thus adding drama as well as flavor that anchors his movie in a sort of sixties time capsule.
With such a peerless sendoff, the second act of Bunny Lake is Missing occasionally falters; Preminger racing through the particulars of a more clinical police procedural melodrama; Carol Lynley’s wild-eyed young Miss rapidly deflated and whimpering to distraction, her innocent protestations countermanded by Steven’s stiff britches and veiled threats to stir a tempest in a teacup if he does not immediately get his way with the law. The needless reappearance of Noel Coward’s lascivious rake, undoubtedly good for it as a delectable bit of theater, otherwise creates even more latent impatience to be redirected back into the central narrative. Without question, Preminger’s tour de force is his Act III abduction of Ann Lake; her probative investigation and gullibility in sharing her next move with Steven resulting in a fate temporarily worse than... From the moment Carol Lynley’s artless lass barges into the morosely half-lit and incredibly cluttered Doll Hospital overseen by an 89 year old wheelchair-bound, Findlay Currie (in his last screen appearance), Bunny Lake is Missing acquires both the impetus and frenzied momentum of a careening car inside the proverbial ‘dark ride’ at an amusement park; unsurpassed in its suspense and comparatively, a real Hitchcockian moment; Preminger transforming seemingly innocuous – even gay surroundings – reinvented as a truly monstrous nightmare.
There is a real ‘haunted house’ quality to this elaborate set piece, the Doll Hospital, an eerie purgatory of frozen faces, blankly staring back at Ann with ‘dead eyes’ caught in the dim afterglow of a kerosene lamp as she navigates below stairs through a tomb of toys, miraculously discovering Bunny’s doll amongst the sea of clones, only to be unexpectedly thwarted in her ambitions by Steven, now absolutely gone off the deep end. Preminger brings Act III to a crescendo with Ann’s forced admittance into St. Child’s Hospital; intercut with a few superbly played bits of necessary exposition from Olivier’s Newhouse, still tracing Ann and Bunny’s past and unearthing even more half-truths inside the shipping offices. Unable to confirm the date of the pair’s arrival via the steamship’s passenger list from America, Newhouse realizes Steven Lake has been lying to them all along; his suspicions confirmed when Andrews intercepts a bulletin about a young woman suffering ‘an accident’, now heavily sedated and interned at St. Childs – her name: Lake!
Interestingly, Newhouse does not proceed posthaste to the hospital to confirm Ann’s institutionalization but rather, rushes back to No. 3, Frogmore End; the rented home where Steven and Ann have been temporarily staying. He is the last to arrive; Ann having quietly sneaked out of hospital after changing back into her clothes inside the animal laboratory in the basement, before skulking towards relative safety via an unlocked door in the maintenance cellar. The confrontation between brother and sister that follows is somewhat anticlimactic. Ann nervously observes as Steven retrieves Bunny’s lifeless – though only drugged – body from the boot of his sports car. Has the girl been fast asleep inside the trunk ever since her abduction shortly before noon?!? To quell Steven’s brooding and possessive concerns, that he and Ann can never be close as they were as children so long as Bunny lives, Ann engages her demented sibling in bizarre recreations of some of their favorite childhood past times; the manic lunacy of a frantic ‘hide and seek’ seguing into a verse and chorus of ‘Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’ before culminating with a nail-biting diversion of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’, ended only after Ann, first attempting escape, then to hide Bunny from harm’s way, suddenly suffers the immense dread in realizing her secret hiding place – the dilapidated greenhouse – has already been anticipated by Steven beforehand, who now takes Bunny in his arms, determined to either strangle or set her afire before burying her in an unmarked grave already dug in the backyard.
At some point, one has to simply accept this highly implausible denouement at face value; Newhouse, Andrews and a small contingent of London’s finest descending on No. 3 in the nick of time, but only after Ann has lured Steven away one last time to a nearby swing, where she commands him to push her ‘higher and higher’ up to the sky. Thus, Bunny is spared her fate, having fallen asleep in the open grave, clutching the remains of her burnt doll. Rescued from this pit by a tearful Ann, mother and daughter share in a brighter future: Newhouse’s penultimate acknowledgement that Ann is not mad, her daughter is real, and, their lives may begin anew without Steven’s epic insanity to dog either of them, is perhaps too sudden and too perfect a finale. But again…as Hitchcock would say…it’s only a movie and in this case, a damn good one at that.
Ann’s nightmare begins innocuously, as an American single mum dropping off her daughter at The Little People’s Garden preschool. Unable to find the school’s administrator, Ann leaves her daughter in the ‘First Day’ room; the school’s rather benign cook (Lucie Mannheim) more engrossed in her junket than worrying about this new arrival. A little time passes – alas, enough for Bunny to disappear without ever having met the school’s administrator or any of her teachers or classmates; Ann horrified by both Elvira and Ada Ford’s complacency. In short order, Ann telephones Steven, who wastes no time raising hell, admonishing Elvira for her incompetence and grilling Ada about her purpose at the school, long since having retired as its headmistress and co-founder. Into this frantic mix enters Superintendent Newhouse; a somewhat infuriatingly calm, though steadily calming influence on Ann. Steven remains unconvinced the police are doing enough to locate Bunny. In point of fact, Newhouse later tells Ann he is merely ‘waiting’ for a lead to develop; one that will break the case wide open. In the meantime, Steven begins to play both ends against the middle; seemingly genuine in confiding to Ada Ann’s imaginary playmate; in hindsight, wanting her to relay this discovery to Newhouse and thus ‘accidentally’ stumble upon the planted information that may lead the detective to concur Ann is not a very stable woman. Could she have made everything up? No, especially since Steven too professes there really is a Bunny Lake. But Steven is much too clever, perhaps even for himself. When Newhouse learns Bunny’s tuition has never been paid, Steven suggests the school lost his deposit and is now covering up what has quickly degenerated into their full-blown scandal, showing Newhouse a check stub properly dated.
We meet Ann’s disturbingly libidinous landlord, Horatio Wilson; first, casually strolling into Ann’s newly rented flat, suggestively implying she might find some time for him, then later, to return with even more transparent and ominous intentions of possibly raping her in his ever-so-slightly inebriated state; both times, thwarted in his plans by the arrival of the police, come to search the flat and question Ann further about her whereabouts earlier that afternoon. When Ann returns from her first interrogation, she discovers someone has taken all of Bunny’s things – clothes, toys, etc. – an ill-omened foretaste that perhaps the child is already dead or her abductors (if they exist) have no intention of ever returning Bunny; even for a ransom. Steven haughtily threatens Newhouse with a public scandal. But Newhouse in un-phased by these threats and bides his time.
In one of the movie’s most comforting moments – a welcomed respite from all the frenzy and fear otherwise mounting – Newhouse decides to take Ann to a local pub. After all, she has not eaten since the abduction. Pale and weak, Ann begins to confide portions of her past to the detective, perhaps unaware all the while he is piecing together a back story from the clues she is providing him. If Bunny Lake is Missing does have a weak scene, it is this interpolated act of benevolence; Preminger, repeatedly cutting away to a 20 inch television hanging over the bar to showcase three songs from the then popular British band, The Zombies (incongruously billed in the credits above Noel Coward). Curiously absent from this American Bandstand-styled intrusion, the Zombie’s No. 1 hit, ‘She’s Not There’ – perhaps a bit too ‘on the nose’ for Preminger’s tastes in its foreshadowing. The Zombies preeminent screen credit is also an oddity as they neither appear in the movie – except on this TV broadcast – nor serve as integral to the plot, Preminger, perhaps, attempting to tap into the zeitgeist of their fleeting fame; the ruse only serving to deflect from the importance of the scene and deflate its dramatic impact. Mercifully, Preminger quickly regains his toehold on the moment; Steven barging in and accusing Newhouse of baiting his sister to incriminate herself.
Ann refuses to believe this. She really is a trusting soul. But only moments later, Newhouse has apparently had enough of both the Lakes, electing to go home. Ann and Steven return to their rented house. Herein, Preminger stages one of the most unsettling and kinky moments in the picture, almost as a toss away; Ann casually seated on the edge of the bathtub while her brother bathes, a little amateur deconstructing of the minutiae and possible motives behind whomever took Bunny in the first place. Piper’s novel contained no such hints of family incest. Yet, this is exactly the angle that appealed mostly to Preminger upon reading the Mortimer’s outline and finished screenplay. The bathtub scene is undeniably shot in ‘good taste’ and from a very low angle to reveal absolutely nothing of Keir Dullea in all his presumed nakedness, not even his nipples. Nevertheless, the scene is extremely off-putting in its implication these two siblings are more than comfortable observing one another in the raw; Ann suddenly realizing she gave Steven one of Bunny’s favorite dolls to have repaired at a local doll hospital and toy shop.
Earlier, Ann had been quite unable to locate any snapshots or even Bunny’s passport to prove to Newhouse she actually exists. The chit from the doll hospital would at least prove the girl’s missing things existed. So, Ann blindly rushes off in the dead of night, discovering the front door to the establishment ajar and finding its benevolent owner still working on his labor of love – restoring old toys to their original glory. The shop keeper tells Ann her doll is finished and awaiting pickup in the basement. She finds the doll and hurries to pay for its repairs, confronted by Steven who sets fire to the evidence; then, knocks Ann unconscious before admitting her to a nearby mental hospital for observation, lying about her injury being self-inflicted. After Ann is wheeled upstairs into a darkened – and very spooky ward – presided over by a benevolent nurse (Kika Markham), Ann manages a rather daring escape, descending the backstairs into the janitor’s quarters, animal laboratory, and finally, maintenance room, before slipping out the back way undiscovered.
Meanwhile, Newhouse has not retired for the night as he promised, but rather, with Andrews help, has gone to the shipping offices to learn when Ann and Bunny arrived from New York. Misdirected by Steven about the time and day, Newhouse nevertheless manages to unearth the particulars of their transatlantic crossing. There was a child and mother aboard ship. So Ann is not suffering from some miscarried hallucinations as Steven suggested earlier as an alternative theory of his sister’s mental state. Armed with the realization Ann has been telling everyone the truth, Newhouse and Andrews arrive at Frogmore End, just in time to prevent Steven from murdering his niece – and quite possibly, Ann too. As mother and daughter tearfully clutch one another, walking toward the camera, Preminger implies their sordid nightmare is at an end; the mysterious ‘hand’ - a part of Saul Bass’ opening credits, tearing strips of paper to reveal the main titles - instead restoring a cutout of a little girl, thus blackening the entire image onto which the end titles are projected.
Sandwiched somewhere in between Hitchcock’s own affecting thriller, Psycho (1960), the exquisite grand guignol on display in Robert Altman’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and, its less delicate follow-up in Altman’s Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Bunny Lake is Missing remains a definitive masterpiece in Preminger’s illustrious career, if for no other reason, because it both caps off and typifies that mid-sixties predilection for perverted familial relationships; in Psycho’s case, between a boy and his dead mother; in the latter two examples, between sisters, and/or female cousins; and in this movie, springing from a superficially inoffensive bond between brother and sister. While no one could confuse Preminger’s efforts as ones made by the ‘master of suspense’, Preminger does get an incredible amount of mileage from his ‘horror story’ despite its plausibility ranking somewhere close to that proverbial nursery rhyme about the ‘cow jumping over the moon’. And yet, Preminger can – and does – make all of it quite credible. Bunny Lake is Missing feels genuine in the moment; the audience lulled into believing its incredible story until perhaps they have had a few moments afterwards to reconsider its utter ridiculousness.
Arguably, Preminger’s two weakest links are Carol Lynley and, particularly, Keir Dullea, whose strikingly angular features occasionally obfuscate or at least provide for marginal compensation of his rather perfunctory delivery of some of his lines. The way Preminger shoots Dullea’s big reveal as the nut job, engrossed in the flicker of a burning doll’s head drenched in kerosene, is truly memorable in exposing Steven’s utterly distorted mind. In the final analysis, the virtues of the production far outweigh its shortcomings; the heavy-hitters in the cast, particularly Laurence Olivier’s tantalizingly analytical inspector, run rings around the material, selling this increasingly fanciful – if psychologically grim – yarn as a very stylish, and ultimately successful mystery-thriller. Very great stuff and fluff that dreams are often made of; though, on this occasion, it’s the evocation of the nightmare that counts.
Bunny Lake is Missing gets the ‘bells and whistles’ treatment from Indicator/Powerhouse, a U.K. distributor, via a stunning 1080p hi-def Blu-ray transfer from Sony Home Entertainment. Indicator’'s region free disc is a marginally different transfer than the one provided to Twilight Time in the U.S. – slightly darker but sporting better overall contrast. Once again, Grover Crisp’s overseeing of the old Columbia catalog has yielded an exemplar in Blu-ray mastering. Were that every other competing studio had such a champion of the classics in their midst. I have repeatedly doffed my cap to Mr. Crisp for his monumental efforts on even, arguably, lesser B-grade catalog. Bunny Lake is Missing is an A-list production from top to bottom and herein, Denys N. Coop’s lush and moody cinematography gets its due. You are going to love, LOVE, this disc. It is reference quality to say the least. Watching movies like this one reminds me of exactly how much has been lost in present-era Hollywood’s frenetic pace and chop-shop styled editing practices. Preminger and Coop have taken great pains to give us the lay of the land, and this hi-def rendering never once allows any of their meticulous planning to go unnoticed. The gray scale is absolutely marvelous. Age-related artifacts have been completely eradicated. The image is smooth, razor-sharp and sporting a light smattering of film grain indigenous to its source. I could not be more pleased with the effort put forth herein. This is a perfect home video presentation of a decidedly good thriller.
The 1.0 mono is more than adequate, restored and remastered, again to levels of perfection Sony seems to effortlessly ascribe to virtually every release created under their auspices. Indicator far surpasses Twilight Time’s Blu-ray in the extras department; a very comprehensive assortment that veers into Criterion territory; starting with a pair of interview featurettes, one with actress Carol Linley, the other with actor, Clive Revell. Cumulatively, its forty plus minutes of bonuses and capped off by a limited edition exclusive booklet featuring a thorough essay by Chris Fujiwara. Also present are all of TT’s extras; three very unique – and occasionally – laughable trailers; also, an isolated score showcasing Paul Glass’ sparse score. But the absolute best extra is the audio commentary, offering copious amounts of back story; hosted by Nick Redman with Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs weighing in for good measure. Bottom line: Indicator’s release is the one you want.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)