Otto Preminger's black-and-white suspense classic Bunny Lake Is Missing may be best known for its final sequence, a protracted, harrowing descent into madness that echoes Psycho's climax, drawn out to a hundred times the length. But even the film's most pedestrian scenes are just as focused on insanity. By building a world where nearly every character flaunts a dark or disturbing side, Preminger turns a relatively simple mystery into an unsettling funhouse ride where nothing can be assumed or assured.
Shortly after arriving in London, a temperamental, high-strung American (Carol Lynley) claims her 4-year-old daughter has disappeared from the school where she was dropped off earlier in the day. While methodically investigating, an initially sympathetic police superintendent (Laurence Olivier) discovers that the child was never enrolled at the school, her possessions have disappeared, and no one seems to have seen her since her arrival in England. Lynley's equally high-strung brother (Keir Dullea) aggressively pushes the case, but Olivier begins to suspect that the child never actually existed.
Preminger doles out his spare revelations gradually, stacking the deck first one way, then the other, so that it's frequently unclear whether Lynley is an object of sympathy, horror, contempt, or all three. Typically, Preminger places his camera at a focal point in a shot, then has his actors moving rhythmically toward and away from it in long takes, highlighting the unease of a movie where nothing seems entirely solid, fixed, or stationary, particularly the truth. Paul Glass' similarly disjointed score sets Hitchcockian horror to Disneyland music: Aside from a few sudden musical stings and a superfluous mid-film appearance by The Zombies, it's eerily upbeat orchestral future-music suitable for a "World Of Tomorrow"-style theme-park ride.
The bizarre supporting cast completes the theme: The minor characters include a dotty retired schoolmistress who sits in an attic burbling gleefully over recordings of children recounting their nightmares, and a handicapped doll repairman who casts his shop as a hospital, his toys as patients, and his storage room as a recovery ward. Playwright Noel Coward is particularly creepy as a salacious landlord who attempts to seduce Lynley with African masks and rapturous self-praise, then touts the pleasures of masochism to a pair of police who seem not terribly interested in his prize whip collection. Every one of these crackpots is overly friendly and even benign, but their skewed realities press in on Lynley until she seems like the protagonist of Roman Polanski's Repulsion (like Bunny Lake, released in 1965), overcome with eye-rolling horror at the prospect of an assaultive world where nothing makes sense. Compared to true Preminger classics like Anatomy Of A Murder and The Man With The Golden Arm, Bunny Lake Is Missing comes across as a minor and slightly gimmicky stylistic experiment at best. But it walks a fascinating line between morbid humor and outright horror, and it consistently defies expectations by resetting them at every possible step.