Otto Preminger, 1965
Starring: Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward
Starring: Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward
The young Ann (Carol Lynley) has recently arrived in London to live with her brother Steven (Keir Dullea). On her daughter Bunny’s first day of school, she’s harried after a day of preparing their new home, but when she arrives in the afternoon to retrieve the girl, Bunny is nowhere to be found. Apparently she never made her way to her classroom and no one has seen her. An assured detective, Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier), attempts to unravel the mystery of the child’s disappearance, but quickly realizes no one outside of Ann or her brother has seen Bunny and there is no evidence of her existence at all. Otto Preminger, an Austrian émigré who escaped a war-torn Europe for the US like so many other prominent directors, actors, artists, and writers during the ‘30s and ‘40s, is one of those names that deserves more attention and while I have yet to see all of his films, he’s become one of my favorites of the years. Certainly titles like his seminal film noir Laura (1944) and courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959) are considered classics, but he frequently pushed the boundaries of Hollywood censorship when he tackled themes like infidelity (nearly all his films feature a love triangle), homosexuality, drug use, and rape. Many of his films are concerned with a man’s perverse obsession with a woman; in addition to Laura, this figures into Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and of course Bunny Lake is Missing. My favorite of all his films, the majestically bleak Angel Face (1952), turns this on its head and features a pathological woman who is obsessed with a man, resulting in one of the most nihilist — yet still oddly romantic — entries in all of film noir.
My favorite of Preminger’s films fall under the loose thriller umbrella, which is certainly where Bunny Lake is Missing belongs. And it is one of those thrillers that subverts the standard murder mystery trope; instead of operating on the premise that someone has been murdered and a killer must be located (before killing again), the film focuses on a character who is missing and follows a protagonist who is soon confronted with the possibility that no one except for them knows for certain that this character is real. Films like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950) fall under this umbrella and are all, in one way or another, based on an old urban legend that has turned up in fiction, film, and television over the years (I first encountered it as a child in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).
On one hand, I find this premise really annoying; it’s just seems so improbable that not a single person would have witnessed the existence of the missing character — Hitchcock deals with this particularly well in The Lady Vanishes — but there is something about it that’s frightening in a primal way. What makes this (admittedly tiny) subgenre so effective is that the real crux of the film is not really whether the missing person will be located or who is responsible for their disappearance, but whether or not the protagonist is sane or insane. Preminger handles this particularly well in Bunny Lake is Missing and in that sense it ties into films about characters descending into madness and would fit in well with some of the similar thrillers made by directors like Hitchcock, Polanski, and De Palma.
But where Bunny Lake is Missing is so brilliant is in its use of a series of truly demented characters who surround Ann and the case of her daughter’s disappearance. Even the English band The Zombies make an appearance and while I love them, it’s a bit out of place to hear their songs pop up on the radio or to see them performing on television within the film. I don’t want to give all these character tidbits away, but one particularly delightful example features Martita Hunt (of one of my favorite British films of all time, David Lean’s Great Expectations) as a retired headmistress who lives in an attic room playing back recordings of children’s nightmares that she’s collected over the years. I could not make this up if I tried. But the oozing, decadent cherry on the cake is undoubtedly Noel Coward as Ann’s invasive landlord who works as an announcer for the BBC. At one point he brandishes a whip and claims to own the Marquis de Sade’s skull — all while clutching an enfeebled chihuahua named Samantha on his arm — and he tries to seduce Ann with his “melodious voice,” telling her that she should “sample the wine” before so hastily attempting to return it to the cellar. It’s maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever seen and I demand to know why there wasn’t a spin off film starring his character. It’s one of the great injustices of this world and by god, if I have to write that script myself, one day I will.
Last but not least is Keir Dullea — who will always and forever creep me out whenever I see him on screen, probably thanks to Black Christmas, or maybe just the fact that he looks like he’s plotting everyone’s death in some horrific way regardless of the role he’s in — as Ann’s brother, though I don’t want to spoil the surprise where he’s concerned. Needless to say, one of the film’s themes is among my favorites — incest — and in this way it ties in neatly with a handful of British horror films from the period that dealt with perverse family relationships and demented male protagonists stuck halfway between pathological violence and arrested development.
Of course no one can compete with a weary-looking (and apparently quite ill at the time) Laurence Olivier, despite the fact that he delivers a subtle, understated performance and is clearly not trying to steal the film from the other actors. He’s not really an eccentric figure, but is the calm, steady center of the film around which all of them — including Ann — swirl as the narrative moves increasingly into madness. Apparently it’s notably different from the source novel, by Merriam Modell, but wouldn’t be a Preminger film without his distinctive use of suspense, madness, gender conflicts, and good old fashioned human perversion.
And while Bunny Lake is Missing is one of Preminger’s more ignored films and received mixed critical reviews, I really love it. As with many of his best works, it looks absolutely beautiful, has a wonderful score (jazzy, but also vaguely threatening, from Paul Glass), and a title sequence from Saul Bass that is glorious (as is basically all of Bass’s work). Pick it up on Blu-ray, though I demand to know when someone will release a special edition box set of Preminger’s thrillers.