Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bunny Lake Is Missing...or is she?

Unable to find a teacher at The Little People’s Garden school, Annie Lake (Carol Lynley) asks the cook to watch over her four-year daughter Bunny. Annie explains that Bunny’s in the “First Day” room awaiting her teacher. Annie, an American recently moved to London, then rushes to her new home to meet the movers.

Olivier as Inspector Newhouse.
When Annie returns to the school, she can’t find Bunny—and no one remembers the little girl. After Annie and her brother Steven (Keir Dulla) search the grounds to no avail, they contact the police. Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) follows the routine protocol for finding missing children—but he soon realizes nothing is routine about the case. Most distressingly, he learns that, except for Annie and Steven, no one has seen Bunny. All of Bunny’s belongings are missing. There are no photographs of her. There is no proof that the little girl actually exists.

Lynley and Keir Dullea as Steven.
Director Otto Preminger’s last great film surprisingly recalls his first classic, Laura. Both films begin as conventional crime dramas dealing with kidnapping or murder. But an unexpected plot twist takes each film in a different direction. In Laura, the twist hits quickly and unexpectedly. In Bunny Lake Is Missing, it unravels slowly throughout the film. Watch the movie carefully (it warrants a second viewing after you know the plot) and you’ll see that really there’s no twist at all. Granted, Preminger is selective about what he shows the viewer, but he still plays fair.

Noel Coward and companion as a
too-friendly neighbor.
Much of the film’s effect can be attributed to the unusual suspects in Bunny’s alleged kidnapping or murder. There’s the creepy neighbor (Noel Coward), a middle-aged lecher who hits on Annie as she frets over her missing child. There’s the old lady in the apartment over the school who tapes children describing their nightmares. And finally, there are Annie and Steven, whose extremely close relationship seems more like a married couple than sister and brother.

Carol Lynley gaves a carefully nuanced performance, making us believe that she could be psychologically unbalanced or just distraught over the fate of her daughter. Keir Dullea brings a nice ambiguity to the brother, making it unclear whether he’s defending his sister or setting her up. That leaves it to Olivier to ground the film in normalcy and he does a fine job by making Inspector Newhouse a workman-like professional willing to consider all possibilities.

As with most Preminger films, the production values are flawless. Paul Glass’s evocative music score seamlessly transitions from playful to disturbing. And Saul Bass contributes another memorable title sequence with a hand tearing away black paper to reveal the film’s credits pieces by piece.

Was there a better title designer than Saul Bass?
I first saw Bunny Lake Is Missing on TV with my sister. Neither of us had heard of it and we were mesmerized from start to finish. I have subsequently watched it with my wife, nephews, and friends. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t find it intriguing, which makes me wonder why it’s never acquired a better reputation.


  1. Very nicely done review of a favorite of mine, too. Preminger created a suspenseful and chilling atmosphere in this film, which is already chilling just in the horror of a child who is in danger. Or is there a child? Good stuff.

    I can't say I have really paid much attention to the creators of title sequences...I'm going to look up Saul Bass to see what else he's done. The Bunny Lake sequence is excellent!

    Thanks for a reminder about a film I haven't seen in many years, and am now going to try to find it again. I hope Netflix has it!

  2. BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING is a fine film. Otto Preminger had a superb visual style, and I think this film is a prime example of his fluid camera that seems to float around the characters. In so many of his films (particularly the later ones, when it was easier to move the camera), it feels as if viewers are either being pulled along or trying to keep up with a camera in constant motion. It's a beautiful technique, but one that never gets away from him and distracts from the story. In BUNNY LAKE, his approach adds suspense and a bit of spookiness since we don't always know what's happening. Lynley and Dullea are both very good, and the opening credits are my favorite from Mr. Bass. An excellent write-up, Rick! Hopefully it will inspire some readers to check out this memorable, haunting gem.

  3. Just want to say -- I discovered your blog today, and am loving it! It's great to see so many film fanatics in one place.

    And as for your poll -- I never liked the 'Road To..' movies. Don't shoot me.

  4. Superb write-up of an underappreciated classic, Rick. I am thrilled to see you referenced the brilliant credit sequence by Saul Bass. The tearing of black construction paper is unsettling, kind of like nails being scraped against a chalkboard. It is the perfect way to unveil the mystery contained within.

  5. I really do need to see this. Sounds marvelous. Paul Glass did the score? Interesting. I wonder if he's any relation to Philip?

  6. Rick, I really like Bunny Lake is Missing and have seen it many times. It has a unique plot that keeps the viewer constantly changing his/her mind about whether or not Bunny Lake is real. When I watched it the first time, I just gave up trying to figure it out. So I sat in my seat and just enjoyed how the plot unfolded. The music by Paul Glass is haunting. I think this is Lnyley's best performance. This is one of Dullea's many great performances. He can play someone innocent to someone so creepy it can freak you out. I am a big Keir Dullea fan. I have always thought he was cute. One of my brothers would always tease me by saying, "you care for Keir." Whenever I see one of Mr. Dullea's movies, I can't help but giggle thinking of how much I do indeed Keir for him. Nicely written article, Rick. I truly enjoyed it.

  7. Rick, I enjoyed your write-up on BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING! Being a mom myself, I felt like a cold hand was squeezing my heart as heroine Carol Lynley tried to get to the bottom of her little one's disappearance. The creepy people she meets as she's forced to play detective were either uncaring or degenerates; the Mama Bear side of me wanted to punch them out, every one of them! :-) Saul Bass's brilliantly ominous opening credit sequence sets the tone perfectly. Nice to see The Zombies providing a little background music thanks to the telly! :-)

  8. Nice to see that BUNNY has its well-deserved fans; I really don't know a lot of people who have seen it. Toto and Becky, Saul Bass and Maurice Binder (the Bond films) are the only two designers of credits I can name. I think they're in a class by themselves. Sark, I believe I'll watch BUNNY again so I can focus more on the direction you highlighted. Kid, welcome to the Cafe! Kevin, you have great film tastes, so I think you'd enjoy BUNNY. Dorian, I forgot to mention The Zombies on the TV in the pub, so thanks!

  9. Aki, I forgot to mention that I loved your line about Keir! He could be quite good, as in DAVID AND LISA.

  10. Keir Dullea wasn't bad in a modest little film called 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, either! :-)

  11. Rick, this is a Preminger film I am unfamiliar with, so I don't really have much to add to your really nice review. Now that I've read this, I can see why it made it on your top 100 list. I will have to check this one out when I have time.

  12. Interesting comparison between this film and Laura in how a seemingly conventional mystery turns very strange. The black & white cinematography in this movie is beautiful - I must admit, though, that I find the film unsettling to watch, particularly because Preminger is such a detached observer of the story's creepy events - but that's typical of his style.