I’m still trying to understand your money.
— Ann (Carol Lynley), Bunny Lake is Missing
Just arrived in England, sweet, single American mom Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) is all a-bustle, making arrangements for her daughter Bunny’s first day at school. The camera follows her through the school hallways, as she seeks advice on where to deposit the child — in the First Day Rom, she’s been told, “Isn’t that a cute name for it?” — and how to manage her new household, money, and nosy landlord/part time BBC commentator Horatio Wilson (Noel Coward), who comes bearing his Chihuahua named Samantha.
As Ann goes about her regular-seeming middle-class mum’s day, the camera hovers just behind her, or watches from outside a shop window as she speaks with a clerk. She overhears other mothers discussing a substitute teacher’s ineptitude (powdering her nose, an offended mother complains that her son’s socks “didn’t just disappear into thin air,” and that the teacher must have put his on another child). Though she tries endearingly to fit in, her peers are brusque and busy, and so Ann is on her own when she discovers that her four-year-old girl, as the title foretells, is missing.
While it takes some doing even to make the staff at the school take the disappearance seriously — Ann is looking in a cupboard when one of the administrators catches her, upon which she treats her with some sniffy disregard — at last, when Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea) arrives, they phone the police and the mystery begins in earnest.
Helping the intrigue along is Laurence Olivier as Superintendent Newhouse, a perfectly proper, slightly distracted, abut obviously sharp detective who immediately notices that no one on the campus has any memory of ever seeing the child that morning (or since it was her first morning, ever). On learning that Ann has never been married, he pauses, but never removes his arm, parked on a carousel horse that has been installed in one of the classroom, such that Newhouse appears at this juncture simultaneously suspicious and vaguely silly. While he agrees to call her “Miss,” he also smiles, noting, after a brief beat, that she must use “Mrs.” on occasion.
The cross-cultural tensions in Bunny Lake remain subtle throughout. On learning that the detectives back at her new home have discovered that all of Bunny’s things are “missing” as well, Ann breaks down. Again the camera follows her, this time diving in for harrowing close-ups: “What would anyone want with Bunny’s things?” she wails, “It’s like a nightmare.” The smart framing and sharp shadows (brilliant cinematography by Denys Coop) both illustrate and exacerbate her fright, increasing distrust, and self-doubts, as does Paul Glass’s strikingly abstract, jazzily spare score. And here director Otto Preminger is surely on familiar turf, making psychological interiors rather distressingly visible. Following the discovery at her flat, Ann is pressured to prove that her daughter “exists,” as the police and Steven (during off-screen conversations with interested parties who then report them to the police) insinuate that she’s made up the child, a sign of her fragile mental state. Steven lets slip that when she was young, she had an imaginary friend named Bunny, and yes, she and Steven have shared a somewhat too-close relationship.
As she’s unable to find neighbors or even fellow bus passengers who recall seeing the child, Ann begins to come undone — her own existence is understandably wrapped up in her daughter’s. And because the film doesn’t grant you a glimpse of Bunny before she goes missing, and the men — Newhouse anyway — appear rational, you might be inclined to share their skepticism (unless, of course, you have previous experience with the twitchy deceptions performed so masterfully by the charming Dullea (at this point, he was best known for his turn as the young and frankly charismatic psychotic in 1962’s David and Lisa; his disquieting encounters with Hal were yet to come, in 1968).
Newhouse maintains a practical semblance of stuffiness and reserve, slightly bemused at first by these emotional Americans, then more suspicious. “I’m looking for the truth,” he says simply but cagily, “Proof that Bunny Lake exists.” Even as he asserts this professional, vaguely moralistic function, however, he is Olivier, slightly crotchety and ironic by this point in his career, and for that reason great fun amid the spooky seriousness put on by the young Americans.
Even more fun is Coward’s brief turn as Wilson (one of several “eccentrics” the film trots out to otherize London even as it pathologizes at least one of the yanks). A collector of exotic artifacts (including his dog and what he calls “the Marquis de Sade’s very own whip, so lovely, so very, very lovely”), he dismisses Ann’s anguish by wondering at her immaturity and poor judgment: “Bunny,” he sniffs, “What sort of a name is that? Bunny rabbits, with those long mean heads and those funny noses going up and down all the time.”
Wilson goes on to make what can only be read as a self-entertaining attempt to seduce Ann. His phrasing and attitude both insidious and outrageously comic way, he informs her that, as he is much admired for his “melodious voice,” with which he sings “rude old Welsh ballads” and recites “a few things of my own” on the television, his seductive tone self-reportedly unleashing “whole hurricanes of passion in the breasts of the females who watch me on the BBC.” As he leans in toward Ann, her back to him so that both their faces are crisply in focus and in shadow, he’s at once clever, dark parody and the very embodiment of the general disregard Ann faces everywhere in her peculiarly alien environment. “Perhaps you should sample the wine,” he ends up, “before sending the bottle back to the cellar.” As disturbing as he’s supposed to be, Wilson is also the film’s uncanniest highlight.