Otto Preminger’s Stark Little Masterpiece: Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

September 19, 2016 | By

BunnyLakeIsMissing_poster2Otto Preminger is part of a rare group of filmmakers who managed to brand themselves when the studio contract system was live and well during the 40s and 50s. The key, it seems, was to be your own boss as well, producing your work and building relationships with studios who could rely on your name and work even though you had no desire to be a company man.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Preminger has his own identity, and certainly during the 50s and 60s, the ex-film noir savant tackled hot novels, controversial plays, social taboos, and then drifted to epics which, I’ll still contend, proved to be part of his downfall. Screenwriter and Twilight Time’s other resident film historian Lem Dobbs feels Preminger’s knack for staying contemporary ran out when he tried too hard; being a classical stylist, it made no sense to go hip and trippy.

BunnyLakeIsMissing_posterWhereas Hitchcock became complacent and chose to make thrillers that adhered to brand elements that made up his ‘touch,’ settling for the Universal back lot, Preminger’s epic forays during the 60s seemed to drain him of the small character pieces upon which he built his career.

As an actor in Austria, and later theatre director, Preminger knew how to tell a good story, knew what made a good performance, and had a good sense of structure and plot. The lore behind him ultimately directing and producing Laura (1944) is legendary, but I don’t think it’s his best film; it’s a great film and great noir, but it’s also of its time, and as later works like Where the Sidewalk Ends (1951)  demonstrate, Preminger seemed most comfortable when he was on location, doing gritty scenes with either the potent or pressurized rage, mania, or madness of his characters (and maybe his own).

BunnyLakeIsMissing_Sp_posterI’ve said before that he was the 50s and 60s version of Oliver Stone – a consummate technician with a flair for publicity and self-branding – but he was also regarded as a bully and a tyrant; tales of purple clouds rushing across his naked pate hinted at the rage that was seconds away from smothering cast & crew, but he was a at his best when the story was linear, the characters up front and central to the story, and the script was rock solid.

Like a theatre director, everything had to be worked out and ready to go, and perhaps his autocratic style ensured he could focus on motion within the frame, be it 1.33:1 or wide 2.35:1.

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) may not be an immediate revelation, but give it time and patience, and its layers will impress. Perfect cast (yeah, even Keir Dullea), perfect score, perfect London locations, and one of the most beautiful B&W ‘scope films ever.

Where Hitchcock branded his portly figure into a recognizable caricature for film posters, trailers, a line of mystery books and magazines, plus a TV show, Preminger seemed to stick with his name (“An Otto Preminger Film”) and relied on Saul Bass to create a perfect union between the filmmaker, the art, a film’s titillating commercial elements, and the title design that encapsulated all of the aforementioned (except the sexy bits).




Bass branded Preminger – the two were inseparable collaborators for decades – and what’s perhaps most remarkable today is how Bass’s original posters didn’t rely on Big Actor Heads. Titles could contain human appendages, an edifice, a flower, or iconic objects. In the case of Bunny Lake, the logo is two-fold: the letters in “Missing” becoming faint; and a childish cutout of a little girl at the poster’s edge who’s clearly being pulled away to the margins by an unseen stranger.

I’ve pasted traditional / exploitive posters by the margins, so contrast them with Bass’s design, and see how clean it is; its message is stark, whereas the other posters are cluttered, fighting for your attention, and fogging one’s ability to recognize the core story. It’s not a movie about Laurence Olivier, Keir Dullea and Carol Lynley, but a missing child, and the hook that materializes into the first act is whether the child is real, or whether Ann Lake is delusional.

It’s no surprise that decades later Oliver Stone would hire Bass to design the art for Talk Radio (1988), and Hitchcock himself used Bass for the main titles of Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), and create the poster for the former. These examples support the trust that existed between filmmakers and Bass, and the studios that used to have trust in their work but are compelled to simplify a film not by story or core elements, but the most important mugs on a poster.

Even when Preminger’s career was ebbing to the low that is Rosebud (1975), he maintained trust in applying simple iconography in the poster (although the title logo was retained for subsequent ‘classical’ designs) and the film’s Main Titles which, if memory serves correct, was a simple fade-up and fade-out of Bass’s logo.

Both Hitchcock and Preminger were very self-aware of their public personas, but unlike colleagues (Fritz Land) and peers like Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim, the pair also knew poking a little fun at themselves made them endearing. Hitchcock filmed dry, droll intros and outros for his TV series, often using goofy props and hamming it up for the camera, and Preminger clearly had fun playing a Nazi commandant in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 13 (1953) and Mr. Freeze in the original Batman series.

Besides the aforementioned ‘purple head of rage’ anecdote, my favourite is a joke repeated by Lem Dobbs in Twilight Time’s Bunny Lake commentary track. When a tour bus glides past Preminger’s homestead, an onlooker quips ‘Is that Otto Preminger’s house, or A House by Otto Preminger”?

Coming next: Twilight Time’s Frank Sinatra double-bill of Tony Rome (1967) + Lady in Cement (1968) on Blu.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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