Film

Disappearing Acts: Preminger’s ‘Bunny Lake’ Still Entices, as Does Teenage Jodie Foster

by

Among the many high and low points in his five-decade career, director-producer Otto Preminger (1905–86) gave us a noir classic, Laura (1944), and the squarest head movie ever made, Skidoo (1968). Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), one of
Preminger’s late-period works, shot in black-and-white widescreen, teems with oddities, starting with the title: Should it be read as a simple declaration or a terrifying admission? Why does the name of the absent person — a four-year-old girl — also sound like that of an ancient Playmate? The movie screens twice this month,
occasioned by two separate retrospectives: It plays Saturday at Film Forum as part of a tribute to Noël Coward, who adds to Bunny Lake‘s panoply of perversities with an outré cameo; MoMA presents it on May 31 in the series “Modern Matinees: Fifteen by Otto Preminger.” Two viewings in as many weeks still might not be enough to fully grasp the project’s strangeness.

The title sequence, by the peerless Saul Bass, who often worked with Preminger, clues us in to the menace that lies ahead: A man’s hand rips sections of paper to reveal the names of cast and crew beneath, the tearing sound suggesting an especially aberrant violence. Radically
altering Evelyn Piper’s 1957 novel of the same name, Preminger moved the setting from Manhattan to London and enlisted screenwriter spouses John and Penelope Mortimer to rework the ending. The geographical switch, as Preminger explained in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, heightened the isolation of the central duo, the Americans Ann (Carol Lynley) and Steven (Keir Dullea): “There were
no friends, there were no people they knew from the past, and that made the suspense angle better.”

That the true nature of Ann and Steven’s relationship isn’t revealed until roughly the half-hour mark underscores the movie’s unorthodoxies: Sharing a
surname and an easy affection, these
two blandly attractive, twenty-ish Yanks would appear to be spouses — but are,
in fact, orphaned siblings with a baroque backstory. Steven, a journalist, has
recently settled in the English capital;
Ann and her daughter, Bunny, have joined him there. Where is Bunny’s dad? “I’m not married — I never was,” Ann reveals, later explaining that her child’s father is “just a boy I went to school with; he wasn’t very important to me.” The casual admission
of Bunny’s illegitimacy, then shocking for a Hollywood film, is followed by an even bigger jolt when Ann discloses that her brother offered to arrange for an abortion — perhaps the first time that word was ever heard in a studio movie, uttered
eight years before Roe v. Wade. (Preminger had a history of taking on taboo themes — 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm, to name just one of his scandalous projects, features Frank Sinatra as a smack addict — and helped render the priggish Production Code obsolete.)

And where is Bunny, last seen at
the Little People’s Garden School in Hampstead? The moppet’s disappearance necessitates the arrival of Laurence Olivier’s Superintendent Newhouse.
The eminent thespian serves as a steadying, wry presence among not only his blank U.S. co-stars — the vacant, saucer-eyed Lynley and Dullea could have been models for Margaret Keane — but also the fruity Brit supporting players.
Coward’s Wilson, Ann’s new landlord, is
accessorized with a Chihuahua named Samantha and proudly displays his
collection of s/m accoutrements to
Newhouse’s detectives; as Miss Ford, the spinster co-founder of Bunny’s nursery school who is currently consumed with recording children’s fantasies, Martita Hunt gives a gothic edge to her character’s seemingly amiable dottiness.

In keeping with Bunny Lake‘s idiosyncrasies, though, the film’s hippest U.K. castmates — the Zombies — are shrunk to postage-stamp size: Singing “Just Out of Reach,” the rock quintet is seen only on a TV above the bar in the pub where Newhouse, beginning to doubt whether Bunny even exists, further interrogates Ann. “You and your brother are pretty close, aren’t you?” he asks — a question that doubles as an indictment.

Whereas Preminger’s film
revolves around a vanished child
who may or may not be real, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, starring Jodie Foster, centers on
a thirteen-year-old whose parents are
mysteriously AWOL. Surely not by chance, Kino Lorber has released Nicolas Gessner’s curious, largely forgotten 1976 thriller on Blu-ray three days before Money Monster, Foster’s fourth outing
as director, opens in theaters (and two before its world premiere at Cannes). Last seen in front of the camera in 2013’s Elysium, Foster here appears at the height of her soft-butch, adolescent-
intellectual magnificence, playing Rynn, a completely self-sufficient, caftan-clad autodidact who teaches herself Hebrew and reads Emily Dickinson on the bus that carries her across the small seaside town that’s been her home for the past few months. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was one of five Foster
vehicles released in ’76, including Taxi Driver. No match for Scorsese’s, Gessner’s film may be for Foster completists only. But the intensity of her dead-eyed stare as the final credits scroll across
her face reminds us of her preternatural ability, as a kid and beyond, to transform even the most negligible movie or scene into an event.

Bunny Lake Is Missing

Directed by Otto Preminger

Film Forum

May 14; MoMA, May 31

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Directed by Nicolas Gessner

Available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, May 10

Most Popular