Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965): Preminger’s Last Masterpiece Starring Olivier, Keir Dullea and Carol Lynley

One of Otto Preminger’s most accomplished films, “Bunny Lake Is Missing” is an extremely well-directed noir mystery with strong psychological overtones.

Upon initial release, the film was misunderstood and thus dismissed by most critics, resulting in a big commercial flop.

Dark and sinister–it was shot in black and white on widescreen format– Preminger’s film approximates a Hitchcockian noir thriller.

Based upon the 1959 novel of the same title by Merriam Modell, the tale centers of the excessively intimate, thus troubled relationship between siblings, offering strong roles to two rising stars, Carol Lynely and Keir Dullea.

Lynley plays Ann Lake, a young American woman (a single mom), living in London, who believes that her four-year-old daughter had been kidnapped.

Keir Dullea plays Stephen, Ann’s attractive, ultra-supportive brother, who works as a journalist. She reports the case to the police force, but, strangely, there seems to be no record of the girl at school and no witnesses who have seen her that day.

Moreover, the headmistress of the school (Anna Massey) can’t find any record that the girl had ever been to the school. And so, Ann appears to be a neurotic-paranoid-hysterical femme. Could the daughter be the product of an unstable mind, the figment of Ann’s imagination?

Though suspicious of Stephen’s mental stability, Olivier is about to dismiss the case, when Lynley finds a claim ticket for her daughter’s doll that was sent for repair.   What follows is a creepy sequence at a toys store that would make proud masters of film noir, such Hitchcock, Welles, and Carol Reed.

This well-constructed, exquisitely shot, suspenseful film is very much in the Hitchcockian tradition, directed by Preminger with logic, rationality and painstaking attention to detail. The movie is also worth watching for the uniformly good performances. Laurence Olivier brings authority and grace to his role as the skeptical Scotland Yard police inspector assigned to the case.

Under pressure, Stephen confesses that he is the girl’s kidnaper, and that he had acted out of jealousy of her love for and devotion to her daughter. As children, they promised eternal loyalty to each other. Newhouse arrives on the scene, just before Stephen can harm his sister and the girl.

Detailed Synopsis

American single mother Ann Lake, who recently moved to London from New York, arrives at the Little People’s Garden preschool to pick up her daughter, Bunny. The child has mysteriously disappeared. An administrator recalls meeting Ann but claims never to have seen the missing child. Ann and her brother Steven search the school and find a sinister woman living upstairs, who claims she collects children’s nightmares.

In desperation, the Lakes call the police and Superintendent Newhouse (Olivier) arrives on the scene. Everyone becomes a suspect and Superintendent Newhouse is steadfast, diligently following the leads. The police and Newhouse then visit the Lakes’ new residence.

Ann cannot understand why anyone would Bunny’s possessions from the Lakes home. Superintendent Newhouse begins to suspect that Bunny Lake does not exist after he learns that “Bunny” was the name of Ann’s imaginary childhood friend.

Meanwhile, Ann’s landlord (Noel Coward), an aging actor, attempts to seduce her. Newhouse decides to become better acquainted with Ann and takes her to a pub.

Ann discovers she still has the claim ticket for Bunny’s doll, which was taken for repairs. She frantically rushes to the doll hospital at night to retrieve the doll. When Ann shows Steven the doll, he gets angry, knocks out Ann and burns the doll. He takes Ann to a hospital, claiming she has been hallucinating about a missing girl who does not exist, and Ann is sedated and put under observation.

Escaping from the hospital, Ann discovers Steven burying Bunny’s possessions; he has bound and sedated the child and hidden her in the trunk of his car. Steven, showing incestuous interest in his sister, complains that Bunny has always come between them, and that she threatens his dream of their future together. Realizing that her brother has sunk into a state of madness and instability, Ann manipulates him through childhood games they used to play.

Newhouse, having discovered that Steven had lied to the police about the ship that brought the Lakes to England, arrives in time to rescue Ann and Bunny, and apprehend Steven.

The movie was initially a big artistic and commercial failure, dismissed as a well mounted but minor work.  However, the film’s artistic status was later elevated by auteurist critics, such as Andrew Sarris, who reevaluated Preminger’s career.

Cast

Laurence Olivier  as Superintendent Newhouse

Carol Lynley as Ann Lake

Keir Dullea as Stephen Lake

Martita Hunt as Ada Ford

Anna Massey as Elvira Smollett

Music:

The score is by Paul Glass, and the opening theme is often heard as a refrain. Preminger was one of the first directors (a year before Antonioni and Blow Up) to show a rock band, the Zombies, though in a TV broadcast.