Where in the World Is Bunny Lake?
Otto Preminger’s masterful abduction thriller still shocks and intrigues
The wrongdoing on display in Bunny Lake Is Missing, Otto Preminger's 1965 suspense film, is not exactly a crime of passion since the act also involves a certain amount of premeditation. Yet this is not a crime spurred by avarice or material want. The desire that prompts the disappearance of a preschooler named Bunny Lake has deeply psychological roots, but the film keeps most of those roots underground until finally revealing them in full during a wildly rococo denouement.
Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), an American newly arrived in London, drops off her 4-year-old daughter Bunny for the child's first day at her new preschool. We first glimpse Ann as she is dashing down the school stairs, searching in vain for a teacher or school administrator with whom to leave Bunny since she needs to get back to their new apartment to meet the movers. Finally she leaves, but when she returns to pick up Bunny, the child is nowhere to be found. Even more distressing is that no one at the school can vouch for having seen Bunny Lake that day (and neither can the audience). Ann's protective brother Steven (Keir Dullea), an American journalist working in London and with whom Ann and Bunny are to share the apartment, is called in for assistance, as are the police. Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier, at the height of his talent) takes over the case, and as hysteria and confusion mount, the seasoned detective begins to suspect that Bunny is a figment of high-strung Ann's imagination. Once he learns that Ann is an unmarried mother who had considered having an abortion instead of giving birth, the existence and whereabouts of the child are called into further question.
This is perhaps the first time the word abortion was uttered in this context in an American film. Preminger was well known for rattling cultural cages. He had done much the same thing for the word virgin in 1953's The Moon Is Blue. Carmen Jones is Preminger's updating of the Bizet opera with an all-black cast; he directed Frank Sinatra as a detoxing junkie in The Man With the Golden Arm; and topics such as divorce, politics, the Holocaust, and mental illness were just some of the Hollywood bugaboos Preminger directly confronted.
The black-and-white Bunny Lake Is Missing also showcases Preminger's widescreen, multiplaned camera movement, which serves to reinforce the story's sense of paranoia and multiple perspectives. A number of odd characters, such as Noël Coward as a licentious neighbor who has a penchant for whips and African masks, opens wide the suspect list. An extra dollop of delight comes from the three songs performed by the Zombies, who instead of singing their American hit, "She's Not There," sing another allusively perfect tune for this movie: "Just Out of Reach."