Monday, May 1, 2017

Who Killed Teddy Bear

WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR                     B                   
USA  (94 mi)  1965  d:  Joseph Cates

Why with everybody else?  Why with every slob…and not with me?
—Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo)

A sleazy B-movie cult favorite and fetishistic voyeur’s delight from director Joseph Cates, father of actress Phoebe Cates, where you might expect to see flashers in raincoats in attendance, written by Arnold Drake who also wrote and produced THE FLESH EATERS (1964), yet it’s also an absurd cautionary tale dedicated to exposing a rising threat of pornography and all things sexually prurient, literally showcasing the Times Square porn shops, peep shows, and smut magazines in their heyday, where despite some excellent performances from cult stars Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse, and Elaine Stritch, the exploitive tone veers so off the rails that the film was banned in the UK for being too luridly explicit, sending mixed messages about recognizing the warning signs, suggesting rock ‘n’ roll music is the devil’s work that may send you into a tailspin where you’ll burn in Hell.  What’s mystifyingly different about this film is just how hysterically exaggerated it becomes in misjudging reality, playing it completely straight, without the outrageous wit and sarcastic humor of Luis Buñuel in films like VIRIDIANA (1961) and Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto) (1965), both of which poked fun at religious hypocrisy and conventional society’s overreaction to Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll, and the wildly theatrical dance contortions on display in garish discotheques, suggesting one whiff of that and you’ll be drowning in sin.  Throughout this film it’s hard to tell just where most characters are coming from, as they all seem to suffer from some sort of character disorder.  At the center is Nora Dain (Juliet Prowse, never better, where it’s a shame she didn’t make more films), a confident, independent woman living on her own in Manhattan, who’s got the smarts to match her dazzling beauty, yet here she’s down-on-her-luck, working as a DJ playing dance records at a seedy midtown discotheque while in pursuit of a career as an actress.  The nightclub is owned by Marian, tough as nails Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, a lesbian with a special overprotective fondness for her girls, where one of the busboys waiting tables and serving drinks is Sal Mineo as Lawrence, a decade older than his Oscar nominated role as Plato in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), where at 27 his career was on what would be a decade-long, downward spiral, despite winning two Oscar nominations by the time he was 21, now typecast as a sex pervert, where it would be four years before he’d work again in the movies, instead working exclusively in theater and television.  Hollywood never knew what to do with Sal Mineo, as he didn’t look the part they envisioned for handsome, leading men in the 50’s and 60’s, and instead was always typecast as a psychologically troubled or disturbed youth, playing demented criminal lowlifes, like “the Switchblade Kid,” or some off-color, outcast character, a Mexican boy, a Sioux Indian, a radical Zionist, and even a chimpanzee, where it’s fair to say his typecasting all but ruined his career. 

An acknowledged bisexual during his lifetime, posthumously Sal Mineo has become something of a gay icon, a poster boy for gay beauty, with his exotic Sicilian looks, but in his lifetime, an era when Rock Hudson had to hide his homosexuality until his death bed, his openness about being gay curtailed his career, resulting in roles like this one, a deranged criminal, where he plays a disturbed psychopathic sexual predator, a stalker who anonymously calls Nora on the phone, with a lurid book entitled When She Was Bad sitting on the mantle, crawling into bed, wearing only his tighty-whities (a first in American cinema, as actors were previously required to wear boxer shorts), and masturbates suggestively while whispering sleazy trash to her, like “I just want to touch you…I’ll make you feel like a real woman…You and I will be on fire!”  At first she thinks he’s just a drunk who’s got the wrong number, but as calls persist, and she finds a decapitated teddy bear in her apartment, she enlists the aid of police Lieutenant Dave Madden, Jan Murray, an otherwise likable TV game show host who got his start as a Borscht Belt comedian, but here he’s a cynical, hard-nosed vice cop who’s seen it all, becoming an expert on “the sadomasochists, the voyeur masochists, the exhibitionists, the necrophiliacs,” where his mind is so immersed in gutter crime that at one point Nora believes he’s the perpetrator.  In fact, part of the strangeness of the film is that Nora feels personally insulted and threatened by the overly personalized acts of both Lt. Madden and Marian, who comforts her a bit too closely, apparently not wanting to let go, which just gives her the creeps, but she’s not the least bit threatened by Lawrence, and never reads the signs until it’s too late. In her haste to make a quick exit, Marian inadvertently leaves Nora’s apartment wearing her fur coat, quickly noticing she’s being tailed.  While earlier in the day we watched Nora walk through the crowded city streets outside her apartment, where the city was a bustle of activity, yet Marian, in a bizarre parallel, bolts for the nearest alleyway, where she finds herself cornered, only to be strangled by Lawrence in a case of mistaken identity, suffering a similar demise as Sal Mineo in real life, who at age 37 was fatally stabbed in an alley behind his Sunset Strip, West Hollywood apartment.  According to Elaine Stritch, Son of the 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen - Google Books Result, “I was a lesbian owner of a disco who fell in love with Juliet Prowse and got strangled on Ninety-third Street and East End Avenue with a silk stocking by Sal Mineo.  Now who’s not going to play that part?”

All kinds of shenanigans are going on in this film, where Lawrence has an incestually suggestive, overly chummy relationship with his brain-damaged, younger sister Edie, (Margot Bennett), seen falling down the stairs in an opening flashback sequence that rather cryptically leads to the title, startled and then terror-stricken at seeing him naked in bed having sex with an older woman, where in her fright to run away she trips down the stairs, causing permanent brain damage, also decapitating the head of her teddy bear.  Lawrence has felt guilty ever since, unable to have healthy relationships with women, instead spending his time on 42nd Street paging through titillating porn magazines with lurid titles such as Shame Mates and Dance-Hall Dykes, raunchy books featuring salacious material, including Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, and visiting XXX movie theaters in Times Square, becoming obsessed with Nora, seemingly the perfect woman that Edie will never become, where he can see into Nora’s apartment with binoculars and constantly spies on her.  Lt. Madden is overprotective towards his own young daughter named Pam (Diane Moore), hiring a housekeeper to look after her while he’s at work, as his wife was murdered by a sexual psycho who chopped up the body afterwards, yet when he comes home, he plays back tape-recordings of other women who were stalked by predators, studying them for clues, completely oblivious to the fact that his daughter’s in the next room and can hear every word, not to mention he leaves smutty magazines around the house.  Shot by cinematographer Joseph C. Brun, who also shot the brilliant Robert Wise film noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), with assistant cinematographer Michael Chapman, by the way, who ten years later would help direct Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), resembling the stylistic virtuosity of the John Cassavetes classic Shadows (1959), especially the black and white, cinéma vérité look of the street scenes, offering a time capsule look of New York City.  After showing scenes of Lawrence shirtlessly working out in the gym, juxtaposed with Nora in skimpy swimming attire at the pool, WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR (1965) Sal Mineo works out & swims in ... YouTube (4:24), the film does have a serious erotic obsession with the human anatomy, especially Sal Mineo and Juliet Prowse, though no explicit nudity.  While part of the camp style is watching the disco dancers do their thing, blacks and whites mixed together on the dance floor, gyrating to very cheesy music (they couldn’t afford real music, so they used fake rock ‘n’ roll songs composed by former Four Seasons backup singer Charlie Calello), the scene of the film takes place after hours, with Lawrence alone with Nora, who couldn’t be friendlier, showing him how to dance after he expresses a certain reservation, where the go-go dancing style at the time was representative of Shindig! (1964-66) or Hullabaloo (1965-66), where Nora is an absolute delight doing the Watusi, Who Killed Teddy Bear Dance Scene HQ - YouTube (2:21), so caught up in feeling good for a change that she doesn’t notice the sudden change in mood that comes over Lawrence, creating a lurid climax scene, where the psychological disorientation is vividly expressed in a room full of mirrors that recalls Orson Welles in THE LADY OF SHANGHAI (1947).  While it’s not just trashy fun, there are some poignant as well as bewildering moments, with plenty of documentary style realism in the street locations, along with a theme song sung over the opening and closing credits by Rita Dyson that captures the smoky eroticism of the film, WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR (1965) Title song / opening ... - YouTube (2:34).

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