It’s every parent’s nightmare: You go to pick up your child from school and they’re gone. But Bunny Lake isn’t just any little missing four year old because her mother Ann (Carol Lynley) might have some psychological issues and Bunny might only exist in her imagination. Is the preschool liable if no-one ever saw the girl on her first day at school? Did Bunny vanish because she went to visit the creepy and eccentric old woman Aida (Martita Hunt) who lives in the school building’s attic? Or is it the outright bizarre and alarming drunkard landlord Horatio (Noel Coward) who’s somehow to blame for her disappearance?
Seems that Ann and Bunny have just moved to London to live with her brother Steven (Keir Dullea) and in the chaos of arrival and unpacking, Ann left Bunny waiting in one of the unused classrooms at her new school, informing the cook that she had to dash off to meet the movers. But then there’s no Bunny at pickup time? When they can’t find Bunny, brother Steven, a UK-based reporter for an American newspaper, comes in guns a’blazing to solve the problem, an archetypal American getting in everyone’s faces and trying to figure out what the heck happened to his little niece.
It’s not long before the police are called in to help. Calm and experienced police superintendent Newhouse (Lawrence Olivier) is soon running a dual investigation with his detectives: Trying to find little Bunny but also trying to ascertain if she really exists or not. All of her clothes and toys at the house have vanished, there are no photos because all those boxes are still in transit and no-one admits to actually seeing the little girl at the school. Not even during a surprisingly tense scene when Ann interrogates a table full of four year olds who should have logically seen Bunny during their day. Her frustration is palpable. To add complexity to this taut and intricate thriller, brother Steven might just be sharing childhood stories about Ann and her imaginary childhood friends with the weird and nutty Aida, perched in her attic apartment and working on a book about children and their astonishing imaginations.
Directed by the great Otto Preminger, there’s a tautness to Bunny Lake is Missing that will keep you on the edge of your seat from the very first scenes. The slow reveal of what’s really going on is brilliantly executed and you’ll spend at least half the film guessing whether Bunny Lake is a real girl or a phantom of Ann’s troubled imagination. Notable is a creepy scene in a doll hospital where Bunny’s favorite dolly might – or might not! – have been taken in for repair, and the final scenes too, but ‘nuf said about that. No spoilers.
This is also a cast of superb actors, starting with Keir Dullea (later to go on and star in the brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey) who is definitely channeling an entirely different character in the film than you may expect. Carol Lynley is very good as the flustered and overwhelmed mother who seems to have one foot firmly in reality but the other is in some sort of whirling chaotic world all her own. And Lawrence Olivier? Of course he’s superb, he brings a calm inquisitiveness and detachment that is 70% Sherlock Holmes and 30% caring grandfather figure.
The core “missing child, possibly imaginary” story hook has been picked up by various other movies in subsequent years, notably The Forgotten (2004) and Changeling (2008), but their stories aren’t quite the same. There is also a remake of Bunny Lake is Missing in development at Screen Gems, according to industry rumor, but no word on when that’ll be released or what they’ll change to make it more contemporary.
And back to the original movie, I have to be candid that the ending feels a bit rushed and confusing, with some key storyline elements left unresolved. That might be a direct reflection of the original literary source material, but one does wish that Preminger would have taken this fast-paced 90 minute thriller and added 10-15 more minutes to clarify a few points. Still, Bunny Lake is Missing holds up superbly as a Hitchcockian thriller from the 1960’s and is well worth tracking down and enjoying.
Dad Note: The missing child element might cause anxiety for younger viewers, but my 15yo was pulled into the film and watched it through the last scene with me, enthralled. Neither of us guessed the ending either.