When we talk about old movies, the classics always come up -- Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music. They're great and all, but what about all the films that never won an Oscar, that didn't make AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies list or flood our television sets? As movie fans, we always gripe about the films that never get nominated, the excellence that no one sees. But those complaints don't only apply to today. There are countless films that exist outside of the realm of mainstream appreciation, so we bring you Off the Dial Oldies, an occasional column that celebrates films made before 1980 that never get their due. The ones that never won any Oscars, but are as worthy, and sometimes better, than the films we all know, remember, and love.
After the break we give you: Bunny Lake is Missing
The Players: Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey), Noel Coward (Easy Virtue playwright, Oscar nominee for In Which We Serve)
The Plot: A single American mother, Ann (Lynley), has moved to London with her daughter to live with her brother (Dullea). She drops young Bunny off at school for her first day, but when Ann returns to fetch Bunny from school, she's not there. In fact, no one saw her or has a record of her. A police investigator (Olivier) quickly begins to wonder if Bunny ever existed at all.
Why You Should See It: Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing was "maligned by critics at the time," sending the film into relative obscurity rather than success. Though the film managed to eventually gain a following, it's never been big enough to break the shackles into mainstream memory, only coming close with Joe Carnahan's failed attempt at a remake.
I don't know what turned the critics off all those years ago. It might have had something to do with Preminger's feet being planted in two worlds. On the one hand, the film is classic noir, mystery bathed in black and white. On the other, from start to finish its fueled by the sixties. The old world meets new as The Zombies perform on a bar's television (one has to wonder if "She's Not There" inspired Preminger), and a wide array of characters grace the screen, offering up classic roles like the unstoppably smart police inspector juxtaposed with daring characterizations like Noel Coward's sexually suggestive, possibly bisexual, landlord.
And it's the questions that make Bunny Lake is Missing worth an immediate viewing. A slow-building story that unveils itself piece by piece without ever tipping its hand, the film is an exercise in inquiry, only the most basic being whether Bunny Lake exists. Preminger elicits the viewer to question absolutely everything from beginning to end, from the honesty of each character, to the genre of the film (do those masks come into play?), even to our own memories about the proof, or lack thereof, of what we've seen. Rather than offering one, two, or even three possibilities for the viewer to guess between, the options are endless as Preminger reveals each detail step by step.
Yet he not only unveils the story, but also the sordid details of life. Many themes and questionable elements come with the twists, and Preminger manages to keep the viewer engaged without commenting or judging the characters he films. He toys with controversial ideas without focusing on them enough to invoke an uproar. The film is one of the few cinematic examples where questioning fuels the storyline rather than ruins it; Preminger understood the line between saying too much, and saying too little. He tells a story while also allowing the viewer to tell their own.
But there's also an eerie case of whimsy and dark humor that adds chills and quivers without obvious jumps or visual horror. I mean, there's got to be when The Zombies offer up a promo like the one below.
Watch it now on Netflix streaming.
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