Apparently I’m all about movies I remember from my childhood at the moment.
Bunny Lake Is Missing was originally a 1957 pulp fiction novel written by author Merriam Modell under the pseudonym Evelyn Piper. In 1965 it became a black and white movie somewhat surprisingly starring non other than giant of stage and screen Laurence Olivier.
Bunny Lake is Missing begins with young American single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) relocating to England to be nearer to her brother Stephen (Kier Dullea) who works in London. From Anne’s interactions we learn that she has a four year old daughter named Felicia though she is commonly known as Bunny. Since arriving in the UK Bunny has been sick and confined to bed rest but it is now her first day at her new school the marvellously christened ‘The Little People’s Garden’
In a stunning feat of parenting, on arriving at ‘The Little People’s Garden’ and finding it currently bereft of teaching or administration professionals on the advice of the school cook Ann abandons her daughter in the school’s day room and leaves to go and attend to a delivery (it was a different time, you could do stupid stuff like leave your small child unattended in a strange place and leave your front doors open. Damn it, the sixties!). It is important to note at this point that we, the audience, do not see the titular Bunny, we see Ann interacting with other characters discussing the situation but we never see Bunny herself.
When she returns at lunchtime to collect her daughter, she finds that Bunny is nowhere to be found and, worse than that, the school claims no record of having had Bunny enrolled at all. Naturally Ann is distraught and things only disintegrate further as it becomes increasingly apparent that she can provide no tangible evidence that Bunny even existed in the first place; Ann has no photographs of her daughter and when the police routinely investigate Ann's new flat they can find none of the usual abundant paraphernalia that suggests a child’s residence .
Larry Olivier enters the fray as Superintendent Newhouse assigned to ascertain the truth behind alleged child’s disappearance and in his able hands we systematically see evidence for Bunny’s existence countered with evidence for her being entirely made up. So, all in all, while you are probably unsurprised to learn Bunny Lake is, indeed, missing, you are maybe a little surprised to find yourself having question whether, in fact, she existed in the first place, but such is the crux of the plot.
It is the minor roles in Bunny Lake is Missing that particularly stand out, the ubiquitously talented Noel Coward performs a smashing turn as Horatio Wilson, a predatory, lapdog brandishing, alcoholic broadcaster who also happens to be Ann’s landlord. His general creepiness sets him up as neat suspect and to aid his defense he proceeds to gleefully intimidate members of the metropolitan police force with allusions to sadomasochistic proclivities and the claim that he is in possession of the Marquis de Sade’s skull. Also, Martita Hunt as Ada Ford the retired founder of ‘The Little People’s Garden who, while apparently disturbingly sequestered in the school’s attic rooms, fills her time recording and documenting the nightmares of the little children in her care.
Poor Larry O. is left to negotiate his way through this convoluted mire of weirdness whilst still having to ascertain if Bunny is actually missing at all or if she is merely the mutual fantasy of the two co-dependant and pervily over attached Lake siblings. Unsurprisingly, Laurence Olivier is clearly the thespian lynchpin of the movie; he quietly holds the other leads together allowing the less accomplished actors to flit around his uncharacteristically understated performance lending weight to the assemble with his internalised portrayal of Newhouse.
The film is intriguing and captivating enough that the plot holes and lapses in logic are forgivable and fairly easily overlooked. It effectively exploits several basic fears; cultural displacement, our heroine finding herself in a strange place at the mercy of alien systems and legalities that are unfamiliar and incomprehensible, the very basic and primal terror of losing a child and, indeed, the conflict of internal rationality and outwardly perceived insanity.
However, though the film’s set up is eerie and effective, almost Hitchcockian in the accumulation of suspense and sense of creeping fear, the end, unfortunately, somehow does not quite manage to live up to the rest of the piece and seems somewhat contrived and insubstantial particularly when measured against the tautness of the initial stages and the expectations consequently garnered. That said there are some genuinely sinister moments in the closing scenes. The use of London as the backdrop also adds a lovely creepy nuance to proceedings; the city is imagined as a kind of nightmarish fairytale in keeping with the recurrent themes surrounding childhood and also appropriate as the city is predominantly viewed through the eyes of Ann Lake, the stranger in a strange land, picking her way through the disorientating landscape like Snow White through the forest.
Despite any small failings, Bunny Lake is Missing remains a tense and absorbing thriller. It is the kind of fare perfect for a rainy afternoon and if you live in Britain we’re probably in for any number of those as we falter into what we laughingly refer to as our ‘summertime’. If you don’t live in Britain, what the hell, watch it anyway and pretend for an hour and a half you do.
Carol Lynley posed nude for the March 1965 edition of Playboy.
Director Otto Preminger played Mr. Freeze in the 60s Batman TV series.
60s group The Zombies have three songs in the film and have a title credit despite only actually appearing briefly on screen on a television in a bar scene.
Daphne Du Maurier’s house was used as a location.