Director Otto Preminger created some legendary dramas and mysteries such as Laura, The Man With the Golden Arm, and Anatomy of a Murder. But by the 1960s he struggled to stay on top in a changing landscape nationally and cinematically. Preminger would retire from feature filmmaking in 1979 and Bunny Lake is Missing is a curious little pre-retirement mystery/thriller attempting to hearken back to the director’s glorious past while mingling in the hedonism of swingin’ London. Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea let Preminger mold them, giving two fantastic performances – the best performance I’ve seen from Lynley – in spite of a rather wacky storyline.
Ann Lake (Lynley) has moved to London with her brother Steven (Dullea) and young daughter, Bunny. When Bunny mysteriously disappears on her first day of school Ann immediately calls the police. However, the investigator involved (Laurence Olivier) doubts Bunny is real when no one, including Ann, can provide proof of her existence.
Preminger was already walking in someone else’s footsteps. While Evelyn Piper wrote the original novel, Alfred Hitchcock had played on a similar premise in 1938 with The Lady Vanishes. The idea of proving a daughter’s existence would be rehashed fourteen years later, with Jodie Foster, in Flightplan, and Reese Witherspoon was longed attached to a remake of this film. Preminger sets up a premise that can only pay off spectacularly or disappointingly and your enjoyment of the film highly depends on which side of that fence you fall upon. The ending seems just as ludicrous as it did in Flightplan – albeit the circumstances were even more implausible with Foster – but there is a hint of foundation for it. The script gives us just enough set-up to leave you questioning Bunny’s existence without even seeing her. Too often movies dealing with possible non-existent characters will definitively prove or disprove their authenticity, generally by including scenes of the person with the soon-to-be missing. Not so here; Preminger has Ann show up at the school and drop Bunny off in the class off-camera, and it’s through her brother vouching for the child’s existence that the seeds of honesty are planted.
Because Dullea and Lynley are so all-American – and weren’t A-list stars at the time – the audience has an easier time believing of Bunny’s existence far more than if you saw the two interacting with the girl. Lynley eschews the poise and frivolousness of The Pleasure Seekers, the Ann-Margret musical she’d done the year before, and delivers a heartrending performance that tends to be overshadowed by the unsettling Dullea or the smug Olivier. Part of this dominance only increases Ann’s determination to find her daughter, as there’s nothing more powerful than a mother’s love according to the movie. It’s a trite summation of things but Lynley’s perseverance pays off with a performance that’s never over-the-top, pandering for recognition, but is all about suffering anguish in silence.
The other two names in the cast – Preminger doesn’t go for the A-list after A-list name recognition he had going in Laura – are memorable, but for a movie filmed in black and white they’re way more colorful than Lynley. Laurence Olivier, going through the stoic side character phase in his career, plays a role that could be played by anyone. He commands the lines but it’s never believable that this is a guy working 9-5 in a small London town. He wears his sophistication so prominently he might as well be swathed in ermine. He’s a notch above Inspector Clouseau at times, and by the end you’re waiting for him to end the movie with “I did all this myself.”
The movie wouldn’t even need Olivier if not for the need to balance Keir Dullea’s Steven. Dullea is best known for starring in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he’s rather brilliant in a madman role that plays on his baby face and general amiability. His scenes with Lynley are compassionate, observant, and a touch disturbing. This might be a spoiler – and if it is skip to the next paragraph – but Steven Lake and Commodus from Gladiator could definitely have a creepy party of creeps. The problem is the script totally beefs it on any sense of mystery with his character. The opening scenes, with Steven vouching for Bunny’s existence, situate him and Ann as believable characters. When a suspect mentions Steven planting the seeds of doubt against his sister you’re expecting it to be a very blatant red herring. Unfortunately, the plot reveals itself exactly as expected the minute our red herring is introduced. So, we’re not dealing with the most obvious red herring…we’re dealing with the most half-baked, undeveloped mystery of all time.
Okay, so the mystery is so weak it crumbles in the audience’s hands, but there’s a mild enjoyment running throughout reaching a crescendo of insanity in the final frames when our villain and Ann come together. The film’s final twenty minutes feel like plot stoking, but the constantly moving camera and surrealism put Ann in a smorgasboard of feelings that you’re surprised she hasn’t experienced already; all the violent emotions of the day – remember, the movie takes place in about 24 hours – move through her as she sails through the air on a swing set.
Preminger’s total absence of mystery makes for a disappointing denouement to the master of the genre, but Bunny Lake is Missing keeps you entertained, if only because the material continues to inspire Hollywood films. Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea play their roles well, while Laurence Olivier seemingly enjoys wondering what he’s doing there. The recent Twilight Time Blu-ray includes an intriguing audio commentary, theatrical trailer, and isolated score.
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