Bunny Lake Is Missing

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Almost everyone is a sexual pervert in 1965’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, a heady and not entirely coherent psychological thriller with melodramatic tendencies and swivelling eyes to match.

Directed by Otto Preminger, a man with a love of the lurid, and with American stars in the lead, it was shot in the UK, away from the chokehold of American puritanism.

And what a collection of weirdos Preminger puts on screen as he tells the story of the Lakes, a couple whose daughter disappears on her first day at a sweet and twee school in London’s well heeled Hampstead. At any rate Preminger lets us believe they are a couple, man and wife, until a good way through, when it’s revealed that Ann (Carol Lynley) and Steven (Keir Dullea) are in fact brother and sister, rather unnaturally close siblings who have come to the UK together with her daughter, Bunny, a child born out of wedlock.

The police are called, and kindly but sceptical Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) turns up to lead the investigation. But the more questions he asks, the more he starts to wonder whether Bunny might not exist at all, might be a figment of Ann’s over-active imagination. Since Preminger has also withheld any glimpse of the child, we also start to suspect Ann might be bonkers – or, at least, we play along with the film’s urging to think that way.

And off we go on a tour of the oddballs. Anna Massey as the schoolteacher who doesn’t seem overly concerned about the missing child. Martita Hunt as the school’s retired founder, a strange recluse who lives a Dickensian existence up in the attic above the school, where she’s writing a book about children’s psychological fears (Hunt played Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations and brings a flavour of the mad old spinster to this role too). Noël Coward as Ann’s landlord, a fruity old drunk whose toy pug clutched under one arm shouts gay but whose wandering hands suggest straight, until the police visit his apartment, where he all but invites them to cane him.

Ann, Steven, the inspector and a policeman
Is the child missing or non-existent?

Along with Steven and Ann, all are presented as possible child abductors, if the child exists at all, with the answer to the riddle only coming in the last half hour, when Bunny Lake Is Missing shifts into a more enjoyably histrionic range and psychological plausibility packs its bags and leaves.

This is the film that got Keir Dullea the gig on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s also the source of the story about Noël Coward leaning into the ear of the American actor, who he didn’t rate, and whispering “Keir Dullea; gone tomorrow”. Coward was being spiteful. Dullea is perfectly fine and turns out to be extremely good casting when the film changes gear as it rushes towards the finish line. It’s Lynley who struggles in this movie, but she also improves drastically as the temperature goes up.

Olivier is urbanity itself and doesn’t hog the limelight. The film is not about him. It’s one for the character actors and for the technical johnnies. It is superbly made from front to back, with stylish opening credits by Saul Bass, and is shot in widescreen black and white by Denys Coop, whose roving, restless camera – gliding on tracks and cranes when it’s not handheld in tight corridors – gives it a nervy, claustrophobic atmosphere.

Preminger stages as much of it as he can in real spaces – in the pub, in a school full of kids, on the traffic-choked streets of the West End at night – which gives the whole thing the buzzy, ripped-from-the-headlines atmosphere he was after. It also explains the band the Zombies turning up on the TV in the background while cop Newhouse buys Ann a couple of large brandy and sodas in a pub in an attempt to wheedle information out of her. Which, at a squeeze, just about entitles Bunny Lake Is Missing to be tagged as a Swinging London movie.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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