Bunny Lake is Missing is one of those flawed or fake—depending on your point of view—cinematic gems from the ‘60s, such as Marnie or Reflections in a Golden Eye. Or a rediscovered treasure, if you’re a revisionist. For me, while there’s much to recommend about Bunny Lake, the 1965 suspense film misses the mark.
Director Otto Preminger was a master of creating cinematic mood, his strong suit here. Bunny Lake begins with Saul Bass’ strikingly simple titles, over Paul Glass’ melancholy score. The set-up is powerfully simple: an American mother in London drops her four-year-old daughter at school; upon her return, nobody there has actually seen Bunny. The big question becomes: Has Bunny gone bye-bye or is this woman cray-cray?
|Carol Lynley as the distraught mother and Keir Dullea is her supportive brother.|
The leads are played by two perennial ingénues from the ‘60s. Carol Lynley, famed for lip-synching “The Morning After” in hot pants in The Poseidon Adventure, is Ann Lake. Keir Dullea, famous for dueling wits with Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey is her brother Steven. Two of England’s most revered theatrical greats support the brother-sister act: Laurence Olivier is the detective determined to get at the truth and Noel Coward plays Ann Lake’s nutty new landlord.
Once the cops are called and the investigation begins, Bunny Lake deflates instead of escalates. Preminger, who had a tendency toward the over-the-top showmanship, like stunt casting and titillating stories, uses diversionary tactics here. Since the villain is obvious and revealed early, there’s nowhere for the story to go. So, Preminger takes Lynley’s character and audiences on a joy ride via several set pieces that, while eerily effective, are a smokescreen for the lack of actual plot. Supporting characters, who range from quirky to bizarre, offer atmosphere but are really just red herrings.
|Noel Coward as the nutty landlord and alleged ladies' man!|
First, Ann Lake and her brother Steven find the founder of the school stashed away, living on the third floor. She is played by Martita Hunt, memorable as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Apparently, Otto thought it would be an homage hoot to cast her as the dotty ex-school teacher, rattling on about recording children’s dreams and nightmares.
Back at home, Ann’s scenes with the lecherous landlord, an elderly poet crassly putting the make on the distressed mother, feels like a badly told dirty joke.
|Lynley as Ann Lake, looking for her daughter, and here, her doll.|
Bunny’s belongings seem to have gone missing, too. To prove that Bunny is real, Ann impulsively goes into downtown London on a busy night to retrieve a doll that’s under repair. Her visit to the “doll hospital” is eerie—of course! The owner appears to be out of his mind, and also electricity, since Ann is forced to look for her doll with a kerosene lamp. How dramatic for the distraught mother, to look for her doll among hundreds of others, by lamp light.
China doll Lynley’s character ends up in a hospital herself and her escape is almost as creepy as the doll’s rest home. These scenes all feel like detours, a delay to an absurd showdown.
|Saul Bass created many memorable opening credits, several for Otto Preminger films.|
What makes Bunny Lake worth watching despite its shortcomings is the talent involved. Husband and wife screenwriting team John and Penelope Mortimer try hard to create suspense in a story where even the source material was stumped for a plausible resolution. Aside from Saul Bass’ brilliant titles and Paul Glass’ score, Denys N. Coop’s cinematography captures not only the mood, but 1960s London beautifully. One of Otto Preminger’s strengths as a director was his later preference for shooting entirely on location, with as few sets as possible. I wonder what Alfred Hitchcock’s more stylized storytelling, with his in-studio visual effects, would have made of this story. Interestingly, Preminger moved ‘65’s Bunny Lake’s story from New York City to London and Hitchcock transplanted ‘64’s Marnie from England to East Coast America.
|Amusingly, MAD magazine's parody of 'Bunny Lake is Missing' nails all of its nagging flaws.|
Bunny Lake is Missing is another of those films that was a failure upon its release, but now has revisionist fans and critics who claim it is an unappreciated masterpiece, much like Marnie. True, many films are underappreciated in their time and just as many hit films of their era now seem overrated. Movie-watching is a personal experience, but I read over-the-top accolades for famously uneven films or infamously lackluster actors with amused disbelief. I wonder if film historians/writers have been mining the same celluloid territory for so long that there’s nothing new to write about. Watching with rose-colored glasses, they try to convince everyone—and themselves—that a movie lemon is actually a cool cinematic drink of lemonade.
|Laurence Olivier as the detective who has doubts about the Lynley's story.|
Now, I can appreciate a film’s virtues, even if the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. Despite being in perverse awe of its stupefying flaws, I am intrigued by Hitchcock’s Marnie. John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye and Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony are two other ‘60s psychological dramas that while uneven, offer stunning visuals, strong performances, and a fine sense of dread. However, I don’t mistake them for unsung classics, but think that film “failures” can be just as fascinating as cinema classics.
|Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea: Lovely to look at, listless to watch.|
While researching this film, I noticed that today’s champions of Bunny Lake is Missing are noticeably silent about the stars’ performances. Though bolstered by an excellent cast of British character actors, the lead performances in Bunny Lake range from bland to bananas. Carol and Keir, as sister and brother, with their huge blue eyes and angelic features, are lovely to look at. But their acting is wan, shallow, and a bit precious, which may be why neither starlet sustained a noteworthy film career. Latter day Laurence Olivier is usually pure ham, but here, Larry walks through this like a sleepwalker instead of a sleuth. Noel Coward makes up for that, as the landlord, Wilson. Coward is so flamboyant that he should be hitting on Keir, not Carol. Still, Noel hit on Dullea in his own way, with his renowned wit. When asked about the actor in an interview, Coward famously replied: “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow!”
The biggest mystery of this movie is why British pop group The Zombies got co-starring billing when they only appear as themselves—on a pub television set.
Bunny Lake is Missing has atmosphere and A-team talent to spare—the only real thing missing is a story.
|Headscratcher: The Zombies get co-star credit for this appearance in 'Bunny Lake!'|