Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing demonstrates a kind of spatial hyper-awareness as it follows its American characters navigate the world of 1960s London. For much of the film Preminger only edits when he transitions from location to location or when characters enter a different building or room. His camera swoops and glides up staircases, through hallways, and around corners like an omniscient phantom, almost always keeping a respectful distance from its subjects which it regards almost exclusively in 2 or 3+ shots. The effect is a delicious objectivity—we, the audience, discover the cramped rooms and busy roads, the strange nooks and crannies above nursery centers and doll shops just as the characters do. In the last third the film sadly succumbs to a rather predictable climax which sees the triumph of more traditional Hollywood visual grammar with aggressive and frequent editing mixed with a greater variety of shot lengths and types. But even then Preminger’s talents manage to keep a pedestrian ending taut and suspenseful.
Bunny Lake is Missing is a victory of form over content, of a great filmmaker surpassing the limits of their source material. The film is a mystery thriller about a young girl, the titular Bunny Lake, who disappears shortly after being dropped off for her first day at the nursery by her single American mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley). But Bunny doesn’t just disappear; her entire identity obliterates itself from existence. Her teachers say Bunny never showed up and was never registered. Ann returns home where she lives with her brother Stephen (Keir Dullea) to find all of Bunny’s belongings—toys, outfits, passport—vanished. And when police Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) tries to find material witnesses for the case, he comes up short. Even stranger: none of the Lake’s are mentioned on the passenger list for the ship they arrived from America on the week before…
Comparisons immediately spring to mind between Bunny Lake is Missing and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), another film where a woman drops off the face of the earth much to the confusion and consternation of a selected few bystanders. But here’s Preminger’s coup: we never actually see Bunny Lake before her disappearance. So as the film progresses, the central question slowly changes from “where is Bunny Lake” to “did Bunny Lake ever really exist?”
Much like another Hitchcock film, the 1960 masterpiece Psycho (1960), Preminger centered the film’s ad campaign on the premise that nobody could be admitted to screenings after they began. Preminger even enlisted British Invasion band The Zombies to cut a kitschy trailer where they reworked the words to their hit “Just Out of Reach” to the insistent “Come on time!”—the inclusion of which as a special feature makes the recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release of the film almost worth the shelf price on its own. But the plot proves the least interesting thing about Bunny Lake is Missing, what with its unfortunate ending and wasted performances by Olivier and Dullea (the latter of which was so wooden that it practically preordained his casting in Stanley Kubrick’s detached, cerebral 2001: A Space Odyssey ). An obvious red herring appearance by Noël Coward as Ann’s perverted landlord does little to make the narrative proceedings more enticing.
But as an exercise of filmmaking, of cinematic craftsmanship, Bunny Lake is Missing is one of Preminger’s last true marvels. Paul Glass’ jagged, avant-garde soundtrack of atonal percussion perfectly compliments Preminger’s mise-en-scène, as does an understated yet wildly brilliant opening title sequence courtesy of Saul Bass consisting of a greedy hand ripping pieces of black construction paper covering the screen to reveal names and credits.
Bunny Lake is Missing is available on limited edition blu-ray exclusively from Twilight Time and their partner Screen Archives Entertainment.