Doll-maker: “This doll had almost been loved to death. You know, love inflicts the most terrible injuries on my small patients.”
Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) (British) is director/producer Otto Preminger’s psychological thriller, considered to be part of the noir cannon or Post-Noir yet embraces the suspense thriller sub-genre. A thriller about a little girl who may or may not exist! The film deals with the dread of losing yourself, not being believed, and childhood nightmares that are rooted in the sense of lack of safety in the environment where they should be protected.
Starring Carol Lynley (The Cardinal 1963, Shock Treatment 1964, The Shuttered Room 1967) as Ann Lake and Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey 1968, Black Christmas 1974) as brother Stephen Lake, the Americans who relocate to London and exude a mysteriously emotionless manner even when they act frenzied, enraged or frantically distressed.
The film also stars Laurence Olivier as Superintendent Newhouse, Martita Hunt as retired head schoolmistress Ada Ford, Anna Massey as the uptight Elvira Smollett, Clive Revill as Sergeant Andrews, playwright Noel Coward as Horatio Wilson, the lewd, drunken, seedy and lecherous Landlord who is creepy and inappropriate as he carries his little dog Samantha around with him everywhere. He’s also got a wicked whip collection… one which was once owned by the ‘master himself’ the Marquis de Sade.
Preminger filmed Bunny Lake Is Missing in stunning black & white using a widescreen format on location in London, hiring Director of Photography and cameraman Denys Coop (The Third Man 1949, Saint Joan 1957, Lolita 1962 and Billy Lair 1963) and Production Designer Don Ashton.
The story is based on the mystery novel by Marryam Modell using the pseudonym Evelyn Piper (who also wrote the novel, The Nanny 1965 brilliantly adapted to the screen starring Bette Davis as a very sympathetic yet disturbed nanny) With a screenplay by John and Penelope Mortimer, Preminger adapted Piper’s original novel and reoriented the story taking it out of New York and placing it in heart of London.
The incredibly striking, simplistic, and evocative score was composed by Paul Glass (Lady in a Cage 1964) and used not only in the opening titles designed effectively by the great Saul Bass but the theme is used frequently as a childlike refrain, poignant and moving. The British group The Zombies also appear in a television broadcast, featuring three of their songs, “Remember You”, “Just Out of Reach” and “Nothing’s Changed.”
Hope Bryce (Anatomy of a Murder 1959, Exodus 1960, Advise and Consent 1962) was responsible for the Costume design.
A standout performance is Martita Hunt, the wonderful British character actress who was in Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode as the batty aunt Celia Sommerville in The Last of The Summervilles. Here, she plays the school’s eccentric retired old headmistress Ada Ford who listens incessantly to recordings of little children who tell their nightmares and dreams recorded on her reel-to-reel tape machine.
Columbia Pictures actually wanted Otto Preminger to cast Jane Fonda as Ann Lake, and Fonda was very anxious to play the role, but Preminger insisted on using Carol Lynley.
Much like the hype of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, audiences were not allowed to tell the film’s ending. The film’s poster promoted the tagline “No One Admitted While the Clock is Ticking” I will also choose not to reveal the film’s coda in this post, so as not to give away the culmination of the film’s secrets or its finale.
This was one of Preminger’s last films with a Noir milieu, since The Man With The Golden Arm 1955 starring Frank Sinatra.
Within the film’s openness, and its various environments, it appears that several of the frames are cluttered with visual odds and ends and bits and pieces, the sequence with the unbroken view of dolls, Wilson’s African masks, and whips all evidence of the film’s sense of Fetishism.
Bunny Lake is Missing has a visual openness and fluidity which gives the film a striking dimension. The sweeping camerawork is familiar from the noir days of Preminger’s epic Laura (1944), although here it breaks away more completely from the enclosed environs of the 40s noir film.
Denys Coop’s diligent camera seems to peek into corners, moving through doors and up and down those iconographic STAIRS becoming part of the film’s fretful and apprehensive rhythm. Coop uses peculiar camera angles and lights his subjects from below in order to distort the mood, and throw odd uncomfortable shadows on their faces.
BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING: THE SYNOPSIS
A single American mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley relocates to London England to live with her journalist brother Stephen (Keir Dullea), Ann drops off her four-year-old daughter Felicia nicknamed ‘Bunny’ on the first day at her new nursery school “The Little People’s Garden.” When Ann returns to see how Bunny is getting on in school, she can not find a teacher or administrator present, except for a cranky German cook who is complaining about serving Junket (which is essentially gruel) played by Lucie Mannheim. Ann is forced to leave Bunny unsupervised in the building’s ‘first-day’ room under the promise by the cranky cook that she will look after the child. Ann must rush to meet the movers who are awaiting her at the new apartment. When Ann returns in the afternoon to pick up her little girl, the cook has quit, and she becomes distressed when Bunny is nowhere to be found and the school’s employees Elvira Smollett (Anna Massey) and Dorothy (Adrienne Corri) who are left in charge fervently obstruct Ann’s attempts at locating Bunny even denying that the little girl was ever at the school in the first place. No one remembers having seen her. This creates a mood of distrust and paranoia.
Ann desperately calls her brother Stephen for help. Ann and Stephen were raised without a father, and Ann never married the man who got her pregnant. She and Bunny have depended on Stephen to take care of them. Brother Stephen becomes enraged by the carelessness of the school’s staff, but Scotland Yard begins to investigate the matter. In walks, police superintendent Newhouse acted thoughtfully by Laurence Olivier assisted by Sergeant Andrews played by Clive Revill. Newhouse begins searching through the Lake’s belongings and the details of their lives trying to uncover what seems to be a mystery as to whether the child ever existed at all. He discovers that Ann once had an imaginary childhood daughter named Bunny, but even odder is that there seems to be no presence of Bunny’s belongings at the Lake’s residence.
There are several red herrings that are inserted into the plot to divert us away from the truth. One such red herring involves retired headmistress, the eccentric Ada Ford played by the marvelous Martita Hunt who seems to have an odd sensibility about children and an acute understanding of childhood motivations which is quickly picked up on by the plasticine yet cold-blooded Stephen Lake. Yet another odd character in the mix is the lecherous landlord Horatio Wilson an aging writer and radio actor played by Noel Coward who revels in his African Fertility Masks and lets himself into the Lakes apartment at will, in a perpetual state of inebriation lurking about making lewd gestures and propositions to Ann. He also has a collection of whips, exhibiting signs of his sadomasochistic proclivities.
All these strange characters give Inspector Newhouse a lot to digest, as he tries to eliminate all the possible suspects while trying to find a trace of Bunny that proves she actually does exist, not discounting the idea that Ann Lake is a delusional hysterical woman.
Ann and Stephen tell Inspector Newhouse that Bunny’s passport and all her belongings have also gone missing, assumed stolen during the mysterious burglary in the apartment. Another odd detail that doesn’t support Ann’s truly having raised this missing child, is that the school’s authorities claim that they never received a tuition check for a Bunny Lake.
Ann finally remembers that she has a ticket for the Doll Hospital where she took Bunny’s doll. She remembers this during a scene where Stephen is taking a bath, and brother and sister are both just smoking and talking like a married couple. The film constantly hints at traces of a very incestuous relationship, creepily manifested in several scenes, Stephen’s physical contact with Ann when he tries to comfort her, and one other such overt scene while Stephen is taking his bath…
And so she goes to the doll hospital run by Finlay Currie. The Doll Hospital was shot in Barry Elder’s antique Doll Museum in Hammersmith like much of the film that was shot on location in London where Preminger preferred to work and which gives the film so much of its stark realism. The scene in the doll hospital is one of the creepiest moments in the film, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic disorientation, with the dolls evoking the presence of the unreality of childhood and the dark fears children harbor. Although Ann is a grown sensual woman, she almost reverts to being a little girl surrounded by all these little fake doll people. Preminger’s vision of London casts it in a darkly sinister realm. The ‘Frogmore End’ house actually belonged to one of my favorite novelists Daphne du Maurier’s father.
I’ll end the synopsis here so as not to give away the film’s climactic conclusion, but I will continue the post with a bit of dialogue and visuals to paint the film’s stark moodiness and the growing sense of maternal paranoia.
From the opening of the film, we are led in by the poignant childlike music and Saul Bass’s incredibly gestalt title sequence as Keir Dullea’s character Stephen Lake walks stiffly through a playground. At first, we see him in his perfectly pressed suit and neatly coiffed hair walking by a set of children’s swings, he then bends down to pick up a child’s stuffed toy. The black-and-white photography is crisp and bright and well-defined. Practically gliding into the lovely manor house, he closes the door behind him and locks it. The house has the appearance of being emptied out as it is in the process of a move. It is sparsely encumbered with the sense of vitality and spirit that fills a home, all the furniture is covered in sheets. One of the movers comes out of the back room, while Stephen puts the little stuffed animal in his briefcase. Paul Glass’s beautiful music is the only presence of sound in this quiet scene relating to movement, where there is a lot going on without a word being spoken. Visually we are being told that change is taking place. Yet the only signifier is Dullea’s character and his precise gesticulations within the brisk scene with his tying up the loose ends of the move. Brother Stephen seems to be the provocateur of closure. Even the symbol of his locking the doors, or picking up and putting away the child’s little toy. He is a serious-faced young man on a mission although we are closed out of his machinations as we are merely the spectator to his very deliberate actions.
The first words that are spoken are from Stephen directing the movers, “She may be a few minutes late will you please wait for her” as the two moving men carry a heavy wooden crate marked Hobbs & Webb Removal Dept. Hampstead and load it into the back of their lorry.
Stephen gets into his little convertible sports car, we specifically see the street sign on the wall, Frogmore End, he pulls away and leaves the small quaint street as the camera films him in the long view. This is the end of the opening sequence.
There’s a very quick flash to the next scene as the camera focuses on a door that says ‘First Day’ on it. It looks like a child’s school and we hear little children singing through the halls, perhaps behind the closed door. At once, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) comes out of the room and looks into the Dining Room which is empty. We still hear the children singing some type of hymn.
She looks puzzled. Again the film is utilizing more of the sound of the natural atmosphere and landscape of the story rather than throwing you into a set of defining dialogues. She walks around as if looking for someone. We continue to hear the children’s hymnal accompanying her on her search. Starting up the stairs she decides to follow the voices and walks through the hallway now. Ann is a very simple pretty blonde, hair pulled back, modest but classy raincoat buttoned and belted.
Ann bursts into the kitchen and says good morning and while the German cook (Lucie Mannheim) is ladling mush she doesn’t turn around to greet her but asks “Well now what complaint do you have… to add to the world’s misery?” “Well no complaints at all” Cook interrupts, “well then you can’t be a teacher, and if you’re not a teacher then you have no right in my kitchen.”
“Do you know what this is?” pointing to several neatly lined up bowls on the large table. “It looks like junket.” “Heh, it not only looks like junket it is junket… Do you know what Miss Elvira said about it? “ “No but I really..” Cook interrupts her once again, “She said really dear can’t we just admit that junket is just the weeist bit poor… you know what I said?” “No…” This disgruntled woman keeps interrupting Ann…
“You know I said, Miss Elvira, It’s just as stupid junket, as it is to talk about good junket… junket is junket no matter what you do with it, it still tastes like swill, and swallows like slime.” She now faces Ann who looks unmoved by this outburst about the quality of the school’s gruel.
” I haven’t seen you around here before have I?” says Cook.
“No, my little girl is just entering today and I can’t find anyone to turn her over to.”
“No, of course, you can’t (She laughs) what little discipline there was among these junket eaters, went to hell the day Miss Benton was taken to hospital.”
“We’ve only just arrived in England a few days ago and I have an appointment to let some moving men into our new apartment and I’ve already left… ” The cook again interrupts her, flailing her arms, “Oh everybody has his troubles… where is your little girl?”
“In the first-day room. When I telephoned to say I’d be late they said I should take her to the first-day room… isn’t that a cute name for it?”
“The teachers will be down at the ten o’clock bell. That’s only ten minutes. I’ll look after her til then”
” Maybe I better wait until…”
As Ann leaves an odd expression comes over the cook’s face. Ann runs out and looks up at the clock and the coat rack filled with the empty hooks where little children’s coats and hats should be hanging, children are still singing from a distant room in the nursery school.
END OF SCENE:
Horatio Wilson –“This is Samantha if we hadn’t been away we we’d have organized a small but vociferous reception committee.”
Ann- “Who are You?”
Horatio Wilson– “Among other things, your new landlord… and friend ( he kisses Samantha)
I hope my African faces didn’t disturb you.”
Ann– “Of course not. I”m sorry but I do have a lot of unpacking to do.”
Horatio Wilson– “Carry on carry on… carry on.”
Ann– “Thank you.”
The odd Horatio follows Ann into the bedroom while she starts unpacking a few things and laying out Bunny’s clothes on the bed, next to one of those frightening African masks.
Horatio– “This one was a gift from my fan club in Ghana, you can wear it if you like. I believe it’s marvelous for fertility haha.”
Ann- “That’s not exactly my problem Mr…erh?”
Horatio– “Wilson, Wilson, Horatio Wilson, poet, playwright. Dropper of alcoholic bricks. Am I totally unknown to you?”
Ann– “We’ve just arrived in England.”
Horatio– “From Siberia, I presume…that might possibly explain your bizarre ignorance.”
Once again, Horatio follows Ann outside, as she tries to leave.
Horatio– “I have other African heads, small pickled ones in my apartment. Do drop in any time you care to meet some unsuccessful politicians.”
Ann– “Thank you, that would be lovely, now I really must go…”
A herd of disenchanted mothers picking up the youngest little ones in hats and coats who are going home early is sitting and waiting at first, gossiping, putting on their makeup, and complaining about missing socks and disorganized teachers.
Mother 1-“Well they’re late I mean It’s absolute chaos with Miss Benton away.”
Mother 2– “I don’t know Elvira seems to be coping manfully.”
Mother 1– “Well I’m not altogether sure… Jamie lost his socks again yesterday. (patting her face with a compact of face powder)… Well, socks don’t just disappear into thin air. Well, it’s perfectly obvious she put them on some other child who came in without socks. Not tremendously encouraging.”
The school bell rings. Children start pouring down the staircase. Once the flood of children is released from their rooms, Ann decides to go and look for Bunny again. Climbing up the stairs through the sea of emerging children, Ann herself seems like a lost child in search of something… as she slowly ascends the staircase looking for her little girl.
Ann wades through the sea of small faces and works her way upstairs to investigate the rooms, hoping to find her daughter. Going through several rooms, eventually stopping and bending down looking inside a cupboard.
Ada– “Such imagination…we might think of teeth gnashing but Mashing, which is exactly what they do of course. Are you parents? (looking back and forth between Stephen and Ann) We don’t usually see parents up here.”
Stephen– “We’re looking for a four-year-old girl named Bunny.”
Ada– “Have they lost one… how careless”
Ann– “Are you Miss Benton?”
Ada– “Oh no not all all. I am Miss Ford, Miss Benton and I started this school together. But now I’m retired. Except for my book. I’m writing a book you know on children’s fantasies. would you like a cigarette? I have all their little nightmares on my tape machine. “
Stephen– “You don’t have bars on these windows. All the other windows have bars.”
Ada– “The children aren’t meant to come up here. Now, Elvira seems to think I may frighten them by asking them about their dreams. But I tell you something in confidence. Every now and again some brave child slips through the defenses. So let’s hunt, shall we? Now what’s her name?”
Ann– “Her real name is Felicia, but we’ve always called her Bunny.”
Ada– “Bunny? Bunny? (changing the inflection and pitch to her voice with each calling out of the word) We have to call you now. Although very often when they hear the calling… they hide and laugh at us. Bunny? Bunny? Bunny? Bunny?”
Ada– “Don’t you think we all are to one degree or another… crazy I mean..especially children. Bunny? Bunny? That’s why with a child you have to think of everything. Your little girl has probably gone to sleep somewhere.”
Ann- “Yes, you’re probably right. She does take a nap every afternoon.”
Ada– “Perhaps she’s been frightened, they do go to sleep sometimes after a bad fright. And quite sensible of them too.”
Ann– “Well what could have happened to frighten her?”
Ada– “Who can say.”
Stephen– “Then you wouldn’t mind calling the police?”
Ada- “That’s exactly what I would do myself were I the child’s father.”
Stephen– “I’m not her father, I’m her Uncle. Ann is my sister.”
Ada – “Curiouser and curiouser.”
Stephen– “Looking for me?”
Newhouse- “You’re Mrs. Lake’s brother”
Stephen. “That’s right Stephen Lake”
Newhouse “Superintendent Newhouse” (shakes his hand but looks wary)
Stephen– “I was upstairs having another a…. session with Ada Ford”
Newhouse– “Who’s she?”
Stephen -(laughs) “Sort of the witch in residence. You know what she told me. This has happened before in this school. Only with two kids instead of one. A teacher just took them off to the zoo without telling anybody.”
Ann “Did they find them?”
Stephen– “Yes, safe and sound. But not before the whole place went crazy looking for them.”
Newhouse– “Where’s your husband?”
Stephen “You see Superintendent, my sister’s husband…” Ann interrupts
Ann “I’m not married… I never was.”
Newhouse– “I see”
Ann “I hope the fact that Bunny’s illegitimate won’t…”
Newhouse “Oh of course it won’t, Miss… Miss Lake. Though I assume you do sometimes call yourself Mrs.”
Ann– “Only when it avoids confusion… Miss is fine…”
Newhouse– “Have you a photograph of your niece?”
Ann- “Oh no that’s me… (pauses) Oh of course I have a picture of Bunny I’m so stupid, it’s with her passport at the apartment.”
Ann “But that Superintendent Newhouse, he asked me for a list, of all the people who’ve seen Bunny since we’ve got to England. What does he need that for?”
Stephen– “Suspects I suppose”
Ann “No… Stephen, he sounded, like he wanted to make sure there really was a bunny. Stephen-“Oh come on now…” Ann-“Stephen just hold it, if he doesn’t believe that Bunny was real. Maybe they’ll just stop looking for her.”
Stephen –“They wouldn’t they couldn’t take that risk.”
Ann remembers that she had bought Bunny a box of chocolates at the grocery. She goes to the cupboard and takes out the decorative box, showing it to Stephen. She asks him to take it to Superintendent Newhouse.
Ada Ford– “Of course, I’ve seen children disappear from this school (pouring a glass of brandy for Superintendent Newhouse) I’ve known children who’ve come for one day and never return again. It’s perfectly feasible Superintendent. Children are at the mercy of their parents. And for the most part, Parents are a very bad lot.”
Newhouse “And in some instances, even undeserving of their children wouldn’t you say?”
Ada –“Oh but I wouldn’t say, that would make me a suspect don’t’ you see. Queer old party saves children from an undeserving parent. “
Newhouse laughs, Ada laughs
Newhouse– “Now coming back to Bunny Lake…”
Ada– “That’s not her real name you know… not Bunny at all but Felicia… isn’t it delicious. A little effected from an American child. But I think it shows a strong imagination at work. The brother told me quite a lot. There’s something unusual about that young man. Something very unusual.”
Newhouse- “What exactly did Mr. Lake say to you?”
Ada–“Apparently she had this completely imaginary companion.”
Newhouse– “Who Bunny?”
Ada– “No no no, the mother when she was a child. And she called her Bunny. It’s terribly common among children. Lonely children that is…”
Newhouse– “Why do you think Stephen Lake told you all this?”
Ada– “Let’s say we took a fancy to each other. The whole place was full of those great men of yours in boots. I think we both knew that was no way to find Bunny.”
Newhouse– “Why do you say that?”
Ada– “Perhaps I’m wrong… I’m alone a great deal Superintendent, but that young man is worried about his sister. Desperately worried.”
Newhouse– “Isn’t that natural?”
Ada “Is it… natural I mean? I should have thought the natural thing was to worry about the child.”
Bunny Lake Is Missing deals with the archetypal hysterical woman, in this case, an American woman, no one believes her, she is an ‘Outsider.” Theoretically, this film taps into the psychology of paranoia, in particular maternal paranoia, a dose of incestuous desires, an obsessive psychosis, fetishism, alienation, and persecution.
There is even an air of Alice in Wonderland about the lost child. Ada’s reference to ‘curiouser and curious still is when she learns that Stephen is Bunny’s uncle and not her father. Newhouse’s referring to Bunny going on a sort of excursion and not calling it ‘missing’. The entire fairy tale quality to the play, as we don’t know whether Bunny is a character out of Ann’s imagination.
The quote by the doll maker almost says it all about the sickly symbiotic relationship between Ann and Stephen, while we are not given any background as to Ann’s relationship with her parents, Stephen has taken on the role of protector and a much deep pathology that borders on incestuous desires for his beautiful sister. “This doll had almost been loved to death. You know, love inflicts the most terrible injuries on my small patients.”
It is also a curious study of MOTHERHOOD, using the cinematic weaving of a good mystery and enigma with the suggestion of madness. The film feels aggravated, vexed, reserved, and imposing in style.
At its core, there is the essence of paranoia and conspiracy. As the narrative dismisses Ann’s motherhood. No one believes that Bunny exists. Ann moves about with a controlled manic sense of urgency yet exudes a sort of lack of affect, while Stephen exudes an undercurrent of something dark and more unsettling (Ada Ford picks up on this at once saying he’s ‘very unusual’ ) as he perpetuates the idea that Ann might have made Bunny up all together, just as she did when she was a young girl.
In the beginning when the movers bring Ann to the new apartment, one of them looks at the wall collection of tribal African masks with an expression of disturbance. Is this a preliminary hint at the fact that things are bizarre, not what they appear, to let us know some people wear a mask to hide their true selves? Is it a plot mechanism to warn us that something isn’t quite right… with these Americans living in London.
Also in the beginning when Stephen calls from a phone booth, he tells his sister ‘Darling… Love you darling…’ not quite the average conversation between brother and sister. Hinting at the theme of an incestuous fixation.
In the scene where Stephen is confronting Miss Smollett about the child being taken, the camera juxtaposes him to the left of the screen and a cuckoo clock that chimes to the right of the screen…
Is this a parallel visual to signify to us that there are many characters in this story that are actually cuckoo nuts….?
Stephen and Ann climb up the stairs, hearing a child’s voice. Thinking headmistress Miss Benton is upstairs and not in the hospital, they find Miss Ada Ford who founded the school with Miss Benton ( perhaps lovers?) She is now retired. Ada’s been listening to a taped recording of a child narrating a story. When she says’s “Have they lost a child how careless of them” It implies how there is a lack of safety in the world for small children. She’s writing a book of children’s fantasies. “I have all my little nightmares on my tape machine.” Ada is an unusual character who underscores that children have reasons to be inhabited by nightmares.