From the moment a disembodied hand literally tears the black off the screen to conclude Saul Bass's titles to the moment that same hand carefully restores the screen to black at film's end, Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing thrills sensationally. Its gonzo psychology and parade of vivid eccentrics — among them a doll surgeon, a hermit investigator of children's nightmares and a collector of grotesque souvenirs played by Noël Coward — manage to make the most predictable of plots feel wholly unpredictable.
Americans Ann (Carol Lynley) and Steven (Keir Dullea) are starting a new life together in London with young Bunny, who vanishes without a trace on her first day at the Little People's Garden nursery. After a police superintendent (Laurence Olivier) is called to the scene, we learn that Ann and Steven are not husband and wife but brother and sister, and that Bunny is Ann's out-of-wedlock daughter. The more information revealed, the more uncertainties mount. Soon Bunny's very existence is in doubt. Suffice it to say that much is made of childhood games, and that the film's resolution involves a character named "Stevie."
Bunny Lake Is Missing is screening at MoMA as part of a series featuring a small but notable group of films made by American directors in Britain in the 60s. As the blurb on MoMA's website has it, these filmmakers didn't just want to observe the Angry Young Man in his natural habitat; they went abroad to flee "the collapse of the American studio system" and to take advantage of "the rise of international coproductions." Chris Fujiwara's recent book on Preminger, The World and Its Double, tells of a different (and more questionable) reason Albion appealed to the director: He wagered shipping Bunny Lake's premise overseas would minimize the distress of an over-identifying American female audience. (One wonders what Preminger would have made of 2004's The Forgotten, a later iteration of the same plot in which extraterrestrials attempt not only to study but also to measure the strength of the human maternal instinct.) London was settled upon to avoid the awkward intervention of translators.
Nonetheless, there is nothing at all perfunctory about Bunny Lake's setting, rendered in Preminger's typically fluid style. The culture shock adds a nice, thick layer of unease to the disappeared-child scenario. Preminger also takes the opportunity to offer an amusingly sardonic view of the British Invasion and the technologies mainlining it to the public. During what might well be the film's most inspired scene, a television performance by the Zombies distracts even the camera's attention from the crisis at hand. In the previous scene, Coward's character holds forth on his distaste for the telephone. The easier it is for people talk to each other, the less they actually communicate, he says. Despite its frenzied lapses in logic, Bunny Lake has aged well. After all, these technologies of distraction have only multiplied since 1965.
Bunny Lake Is Missing screens tomorrow night and Friday afternoon at MoMA, as part of their The Sixties: Yanks in Britain series.