Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny_lake_is_missing_(1965) Details:
Director: Otto Preminger         Producer: Otto Preminger
Writers: John Mortimer & Penelope Mortimer
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Martita Hunt, Anna Massey, Noël Coward, the Zombies
Studio: Columbia Pictures      Year: 1965

Why I DVRed It: There were two things that drew me to this movie. First was the Zombies, one of my favorite (that means top 100 or so, not like top five) bands of all time. The group appears on camera and contributed three songs to the film’s soundtrack. The second thing that drew me to the movie was a love of Laurence Olivier. I am especially fond of Olivier in movies that are pretty dumb (like The Boys from Brazil or Marathon Man), and this movie’s premise promised that it would be a fairly dumb movie.

Presentation on TCM: Well, once again, TCM plopped the film down with no introduction. I could not figure out why it was on either, although I know it was on during the late afternoon on a Monday. So far, since starting this website, I am 0 for 5 on movies that have any sort of introduction from a TCM person, and I have to say I’m disappointed and dispirited about it.

Synopsis: A recent emigre to England, Ann Lake (Lynley) goes to retrieve her kid, the titular Bunny Lake, from her fist day of school only to find out that (as might be gleaned from the title) she is missing. But no one at the school seems to remember her at all, and the Scotland Yard investigator called in to investigate, Superintendent Newhouse (Olivier), begins to suspect Bunny may not exist. Ann’s brother, Steven (Dullea), a reporter, tries to prove otherwise.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Bunny Lake is Missing is better titled than most movies (especially if you add an exclamation point when you say it aloud), but the film does not live up to the promise or excitement of the title. In fact, this is the first movie I’ve written about for this site that I just downright didn’t like. The movie is dull and lifeless, the acting mismatched (the heavy actors are great, the actual young stars awful), the plot twist at once obvious and too convoluted to be believed, and the film as a whole just meh, very very meh. But, bad aside, there’s still a little bit interesting in the film… just barely.

For one, the film opens with one of the better credit sequences I remember. A hand rips off pieces of paper to reveal the credits one by one, replacing the pieces again, like a person disassembling and reassembling a puzzle. Finally, the camera cuts away the final paper to reveal an English garden. The sequence (designed by Saul Bass, who also did credit sequences for Vertigo, Psycho, and West Side Story) is fun, and the score that plays over it (which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film) is catchy.

The look of the film as a whole is good too, with Preminger and the cinematographer, Denys Coop, making effective use of the deep focus lens. Everything is wide, bright, and strangely flat.

Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann's conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann’s conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

I say “strangely flat” because so many of the shots show corners, and the camera seems to never come on a subject head-on—it’s nearly always askew. Yet the depth of field makes each shot simply look like a 2-d shot cut in half, creating a splintered effect (perhaps to show the splintered personalities of Steven). Preminger also makes use of long tracking shots which provide an almost voyeuristic effect on the audience, as though we are creeping around the edges of the truth. This effect was especially strong on the sequence in which the creepy old man landlord (played wonderfully by Coward) watches Superintendent Newhouse drive away from Ann’s house.

So, the look of the film is good, and the music is also good. The Zombies songs on the soundtrack are all good, though they are not as good as anything from Odyssey & Oracle or some of the awesome singles (like my personal favorite, “She’s Coming Home”), but they contribute nicely to an important aspect of the film: its setting in “Swinging London.” The Zombies are not active characters in the movie by any means—they merely appear on the television twice as the band guest on a variety show—but they remind the audience that the movie is a 60s movie, even if so much of it is more like a traditional thriller of the 40s and 50s.

There are a number of movies set in that London, of course, but, while watching Bunny Lake, I found myself thinking fondly of Blow Up, a movie I have never liked as much as I think I’m supposed to like (because it’s critically acclaimed and super Mod, and people like me always are supposed to be super into Mod culture, and I like British Invasion groups and so on, I feel like I should love Blow Up, but I always just kind of thought it was ok). Blow Up was made just a year after Bunny Lake and has the same setting and similar stylistic elements (and they’re both kinda thrillers), so I don’t think my thought process was that strained; however, the movies are radically different, and, as I said, I found myself liking one in absentia a lot better than the one I was watching, probably because of those radical differences.

Part of the difference seems to stem from the dilettantism Preminger put into Bunny Lake is Missing. It is a movie about a specific time and place (London in the present of 1965), but it barely uses anything unique about London in 1965 as a setting, even though Preminger chose to change the setting of the book from the USA to London. The film references 60s era topics such as protests—Stephen mentions covering a student demonstration at the airport as part of his job as a journalist—and it has some rock and roll in the diegetic soundtrack, but largely the film is out of time. It shows a group of middle class Americans who are new to England but uninterested in exploring the world or really introducing the world to the American film audience. Despite their newness to the nation, Ann and Stephen seem surprisingly adept at navigating London until the unthinkable happens. But even then, they manage. They impress the antiquated detective enough to keep him interested in the case, and he shows Carol (and by extension the audience) a “traditional English pub,” but no one ventures past the superficial elements of England.

The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience.  © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Preminger chose to set the film in England largely so he could make use of some of his favorite London settings—including the creepy as Hell “doll hospital” at which Stephen is revealed as a villain—and these settings definitely contribute to the atmospherics of the film, but they are not places that only exist in 60s London. Rather, they could exist anywhere theoretically. Thrillers like this tend to be set in “no place” because the audience is scared that the plot could happen anywhere—including next door!— but it seems that a movie that uses a weirdly specific setting ought to more fully utilize that setting. The film should more clearly feel like it’s part of London in the 60s. But, of course, that’s not the point of this movie. Instead, it halfheartedly puts elements of the youth culture in it but does not embrace them (hence the Zombies merely being TV noise). The world of Bunny Lake may be transitioning into the 1960s, but the world shown is still pretty much the same it always was and will remain the same for the characters of the movie, aside from Stephen who will presumably be committed, of course. The setting is secondary to the story here, but if the film had embraced the setting a bit more, it all might have left a better finished product.

Blow Up, on the other hand, shows a bizarro world, following a fashion photographer as he shiftlessly investigates a crime through the swingingest parts of London (the plot is weird; I described it to my girlfriend once as an episode of Hart to Hart without Robert Wagner). The scene featuring the Yardbirds (themselves a more aggressive form of the Zombies) is prominent in the film, and the film shows rather than merely talks about protesters. It is an element of the 60s, a film that preserves the time period and serves as an artifact from it. Bunny Lake is simply a movie from the same era and a largely forgettable one at that.

And that’s fine. I’m not trying to suggest that Bunny Lake has the same aim as Blow Up. The former is a mass-market big studio thriller, the latter an art-house picture.

It’s just that both films do largely the same things (thrillers with oddly specific settings featuring rock bands), but Bunny Lake does it so halfheartedly and disinterestedly. I suppose one could say that shows something about how much the world changed between 1965 and 1966, but that seems a bit strained. Really, Blow Up is just a more competent film, and Bunny Lake is kinda shitty.

One lesson to draw from Bunny Lake is how important subtlety is to a good horror movie or thriller. Olivier’s presence reminded me of Rebecca, a film that feels creepy throughout and makes better use of its atmospherics (to see the atmospherics, here’s the opening to that film in Spanish). Bunny Lake makes use of extreme atmospherics and creepiness, but it never gets creepy.

This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The doll hospital is creepy in a carnival-haunted-house-ride way, and the room the founder of Bunny’s school, Ada Ford (Hunt) (who sits in an attic-type room and writes down and listens to audio tapes of children’s nightmares), sits in is frightening too. The atmospherics though don’t contribute anything to the final product besides a general creepiness, because they are so overdone. And, of course, because the plot is just so stupid.

And the stupidest part of the plot is the twist that Ann’s brother is a schizophrenic. This is meant to be as terrifying as the setting (who knows what kind of evil lurks in your loved ones!), but it never gets interesting, nor is it a terrifying twist. The twist in Rebecca, however, is surprising and unsettling, in part because the film as whole is just plain better than Bunny Lake but in part because the atmospherics are more subtle and better done (even in spite of the hammy cousin and some of the more bizarre elements of Manderley). The psychological thriller component of Bunny Lake just ends up being dull and stupid.

Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The result is a tired and uneven movie that has elements that should make it good (60s London, scene-stealing acting from Olivier/Coward/Hunt, a nice look, a fun sequence in a doll shop) but that largely just dress up a tedious swine in some Mod pearls.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: No, probably not. I didn’t like this movie, and it felt like a waste of time. I guess I liked seeing the Zombies in small doses, but I never got that interested in this film. Maybe if I saw it in the theater, it would’ve been better, but it definitely did not play well in my living room, off of DVR.

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