Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) is a fascinating mix of mystery and psychological thriller. Released in 1965, it is one of a wave of movies that began to push the envelope of acceptability, in terms of both plot and characterization, beyond what was allowed on screen in the more restrictive 1950s.
The movie opens with a young man busily organizing a house move. Steven Lake is an American journalist based in London; he asks the movers to wait if necessary at the new apartment he’s taken because she may be a few minutes late. The next scene takes place at a private nursery school, where a young American mother has brought her four year old daughter for the first time. Leaving the little girl in the First Day Room, as earlier instructed on the telephone, Ann Lake searches for a teacher but the only staff member she can find is the cook, who promises to watch the little girl. Hurrying to the new apartment, Ann starts to unpack and Steven calls to check on her progress. It is natural to assume that Steven and Ann are a couple and that little Felicia Lake, known as Bunny, is their child.
The mystery begins when Ann arrives at the school to bring Bunny home. Bunny cannot be found. Not only that, but there is no record of Bunny ever being at the school. None of the staff has seen her, and the cook that Ann spoke to walked out after a disagreement with the Principal. Where is Bunny Lake? Who might have taken her? Does Bunny Lake even exist?
Bunny Lake Is Missing is based on the novel of the same title by Evelyn Piper, published in 1957. It was adapted for the screen by John Mortimer (of Rumpole of the Bailey fame) and Penelope Mortimer, and was directed by Otto Preminger. Changing the setting from New York City to London, Preminger brought some of his trademark film noir touches to the movie. The black and white cinematography and use of shadows makes the most of the still quite austere atmosphere of a country only twenty years post war. The look of the movie contrasts nicely with the use of pop music in the soundtrack (provided by The Zombies) and complements those plot elements that hint subtly at some dark psychology.
The message of the movie seems to be that although the world is moving forward and growing brighter, the human mind will always have its shadowy places.
When he hears that Bunny is missing, Steven Lake rushes to the school. He insists on searching the building, including the top floor apartment of Miss Ada Ford the retired founder of the school. In conversation with Miss Ford, Steven reveals that he and Ann are in fact brother and sister. This comes as a surprise to the viewer, and is the first of several revelations that the Mortimers and Preminger drop into the story to intrigue us and deepen the mystery. For instance, that as a child Ann had an imaginary friend, who was also named Bunny.
The acting in the movie is impressive. Carol Lynley plays Ann Lake in such a way that we are not entirely sure of her level of sanity, and her brother Steven is played by Keir Dullea as an equally unsettling character. Laurence Olivier gives an understated performance as the calm but determined police Superintendent Newhouse. There are many great British character actors in supporting roles, including Martita Hunt as Miss Ford.
I have a couple of issues with the movie. I found the character of the sleazy landlord, played by Noel Coward, to be gratuitous. His scenes are overlong and ‘talky’ and add nothing to the story. And although the premise of the movie’s ending is interesting and dramatic, the action that takes place is rather silly and drawn out.
Otto Preminger himself did not care much for this movie, nor did the critics on its release. Since then it has acquired moderate status as a cult classic.
Though not a really great movie, Bunny Lake Is Missing is a very good mystery and it does keep you watching, and involved, to the end.
Note: I watched a broadcast of Bunny Lake Is Missing on the Turner Classic Movies channel.