5 Stinky Thoughts on Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) - For The Love of Film Blogathon

I offer the following "5 Stinky Thoughts on Who Killed Teddy Bear?" as my contribution to:
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Thought #1: What is Who Killed Teddy Bear?!?
Who Killed Teddy Bear? is an enthralling, often incoherent mix of cinematic high-style (a glop of Sirk, a little bit of Hitchcock, a whole lotta noir) telling a smut-tastic tale and riven with tough-on-crime, pop-Freudian riffs on all the latest perversions circa 1965. To contemporary eyes it looks a lot like an erotic thriller avant la lettre (with just enough Law and Order: SVU to make it really weird). And it's a film I've been intending to sit down with for a good while, ever since a dubiously pedigreed dvd copy came into my possession several years ago. Of course, I've long been intrigued by the film's startling cast/ing: Sal Mineo in one of his first (and most) "mature" roles playing a sweet waiter who happens to also be a sexually-confused stalker; Juliet Prowse in a rare dramatic role as a hot-to-trot deejay; and Elaine Stritch playing a glamorous, predatory lesbian. That's plenty, right? But I was also interested in the independent film's date -- 1965 -- and its being tagged an "exploitation" picture. I suspected (rightly) that Joseph Cates's Who Killed Teddy Bear? might be one of those films that happens to land right at some key boundaries -- of taste, of genre, of style, of its own historical moment -- the kind of little-ish movie that gets lost in the cracks as all those cultural boundaries shift right across it. As I watched the film, I kept thinking how this film is like a "nudist magazine" or a "sleaze novel" (print genres of adult entertainment briefly popular in the mid60s just before things got really explicit). Who Killed Teddy Bear? delivers a sexual frankness that's also curiously coy; like a nudist magazine, Teddy Bear lets it all hang out without really ever showing anything. And just as "sleaze fiction" is the filthier, raunchier but not much more explicit older cousin to "pulp," Teddy Bear is also palpably lurid while somehow avoiding anything that might cross the line into obscenity. It's the kind of film that would have been nearly unthinkable in 1960, but hopelessly old-fashioned by 1970. Yet its also a clear (and clearly American) bridge between -- oh -- Psycho and Taxi Driver. No wonder it nearly got "lost" in the cultural tumult of the cinematic sixties.

Thought #2: Pretty pretty, Sally boy, pretty pretty.
Joseph Cates's camera just loves Sal Mineo. And its clear that Sal doesn't mind being loved by Joe's camera. From the opening credits, and throughout the film, one of the more startling aspects of Who Killed Teddy Bear? emerges from the voyeuristic paradox that the film establishes. The narrative impetus of the film -- that Norah Dain (Prowse) is being stalked by a peeping tom/obscene caller-- is immediately complicated by the camera's chiaroscuro fixation on the refined musculature of the stalker's own body. In these intimately private scenes, the stalker's muscular manhood is softened by the camera's almost dewy gaze, through repeated and abstracted glimpses of this body in glorious, rich black and white. Yes, it's the body of the movie's creepy peeper, but we're the creepy peepers sitting in the movies staring at him as he touches himself in all kinds of pretty pretty ways.
As the actor in these scenes, Mineo actually does a really nice job of investing his many self-touching scenes with -- if you can believe it -- deft characterization. Mineo inhabits the scene's eroticism, but in ways that are not entirely simple, and -- as the twisted narrative unfurls -- it becomes clear that Mineo's Lawrence touches himself as he was once touched, with each self-touch reminding him of his defining trauma. It's subtle, smart, sophisticated work on Mineo's part -- if you feel inclined to look past the utter prettiness of the spectacle itself. And, boy howdy, is it pretty.

Thought #3: How 'bout that sister?
Even without the glorious spectacle of Sal weaving throughout the picture, Margo Bennett's performance as little Edie (didja catch that?) might be reason enough to rediscover this picture. The role's your standard issue "disabled relative" role. You know the one. That secondary character who's there as a device to (a) develop dimensions of the main character's humanity while (b) also anchoring the backstory of his monstrosity. In this one, Bennett's Edie is the brain-injured younger sister of Mineo's Lawrence. He's her only connection to the world, and she's his constant reminder of how damaging illicit sexuality can be. It's not much of a spoiler (see video link above) to note that the opening credits show the child Edie witnessing an adult sexual encounter and then falling down the stairs as a plaintive vocal sings "Who Killed Teddy Bear?" As best as I can figure it, the film's "moral alibi" can be discerned in this hand-wringing about the ways that increasingly overt and perverted sexuality distorts and destroys "today's" youth. Thus, little Edie's chance encounter with adult sexuality while still a child leaves her, literally, brain-damaged -- the Freudian psyche made manifest. Bennett's Edie is also frozen as a child even as her body changes to that of a young woman, a fact which agitates her devoted but ashamed older brother all the more. For her part, Bennett delivers a deliciously feral performance as this brain-injured little girl. Every moment is vivid with urgent, plausible emotion.
And the scene in which she "dresses up as a lady"? Hilarious, grotesque, heartbreaking. There's a tiny moment in which Bennett's Edie stumbles in her high heels that's shocking. Bennett's body seizes for a moment, like the character's been smacked by some unseen hand, before she recovers with a jittery pride. As little Edie, Bennett delivers a thrilling, strange performance -- one steeped in the midcentury American Method, yet rooted in an urgent emotional honesty -- and, in so doing, evinces the movie's bizarre and twisted little heart.

Thought #4: As You've Never Seen Them.
Were it not for its queer cult stars -- Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse, Elaine Stritch -- I suspect this movie would have really been lost down the rabbit hole of cultural memory. But, thankfully, the best fans are quite skilled at following the footnotes to unearth the lost gems in their beloved icon's crown. And it is fun to see each of these legends strut their stuff and stretch their range. In those moments when Cates pauses his camera to frame Prowse carefully, her oddly insect-like features develop a stunning beauty. (Unfortunately, Cates's camera is much less interested in Prowse than it is in Mineo and most of her scenes become flat with tv-drama blandness.) Mineo, on the other hand, doesn't wait for the camera to find him before he fills it with his particular bizarre intensity, always pensive and impassioned simultaneously.
Like Prowse, Mineo's distinctive features are capable of shifting almost imperceptibly from the beautiful to the bizarre yet Mineo somehow marshals this in service of the character, shifting from tenderness to terror with a simple shift of his jaw. He's an amazing actor to watch -- not always "good" but always interesting. And then there's Stritch.
In the role of the Lady Lesbian Marian, Stritch delivers perfect Stritch. A hard-working, hard-drinking dame who takes good care of her hunky deaf/dumb bodyguard. All acid tongue and tart timing barely concealing a devastating vulnerability. It's a compassionate, humane performance in a role that could have become easily noxious. (Of course, the fact that Stritch's Marian receives the film's most brutal treatment does legitimately lodge it appropriately on those lists of "smear the queer" films from this era.) Stritch's performance is really quite interesting for its intelligent and even empathetic handling of the character, one which she's talked about recently. Her choices are clean, clear and elevating -- once again demonstrating the woman's chops as an actor (even in the unforgiving close-up of low-budget film).

Thought #5: Who Cares Who Killed Teddy Bear?
I remain entranced by Teddy Bear as a "queer" film. Not only in the sense that it is a film that deals frankly with sexually outré situations and characters, but also as a film that doesn't fit simply within easy categories of genre, period or style. As a document, the film holds historical interest. The captures of 1960s NYC are thrilling (both Prowse and Mineo hold the center of separately exhilarating extended sequences in which the camera follows them verité style as they each do "their thing" -- auditioning and horndogging, respectively -- in Times Square). The film also provides an incredible document of Sal Mineo's curious but haunting screen charisma. But even more than its status as a cultural document, I find the film remarkable on formal and thematic levels as well. Cates's neo-documentary depiction of Mineo's forays into the city's underbelly seems to anticipate (if not inform) similar sequences in subsequent works by Mike Nichols (1968's The Graduate & 1971's Carnal Knowledge), Francis Ford Coppola (1966's You're a Big Boy Now) and Martin Scorsese (1975's Taxi Driver). Likewise, the nearly incoherent blend of noir, Freudianism and Sirkian mise-en-scene in a semi-explicit erotic thriller seems to also anticipate the entire ouevre of Brian DePalma. I'm not saying it's as "good" as any of those other films but seeing this film helped me to understand those other, more established films in a richer, deeper way. Finally, I have to say that -- though I don't have any proof for this -- amidst the film's mix of the highbrow and lowbrow, the swirl of camp pleasures alongside tentatively erotic ones, I'm left wondering if this film was made "for" -- or at least with an alertness to -- a gay urban audience at a moment when "coded" depictions of cinematic queerness were beginning to give way to more overt depictions. That might be part of the reason this flick is routinely classified as "exploitation" but I can't shake the feeling that there's something important in the fact this film seems to have been built to be seen by queer eyes.

And that, lovely reader, is why I offer this post as my contribution to the "For the Love of Film" Film Preservation Blogathon. Our diverse cinematic heritage is so very valuable for so many reasons. Please consider donating a few ducats through the link below. And IF you email me proof of your $20+ donation, along with your US mailing address, you just MIGHT find yourself in possession of a dubiously pedigreed dvd of Who Killed Teddy Bear? But at the very least, click over to the blogathon headquarters and see all the cinematic treasures celebrated there.
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Marilyn said...

I love films like this -original, resonant - that linger in the mind. Thanks for this terrific contribution and for your generous offer!

Joe Thompson said...

That was a thought-provoking post. So much subtext in one movie. Whether movies were good or bad, you can't take your eyes off of Sal Mineo.

Justin Lockwood said...

Having just seen this film myself, I find your piece absolutely spot on. What a fascinating, odd, and "queer" in some sense or another film. And Mineo certainly did have an unforgettable screen presence...

Zeppo1 said...

I think this film is more influential than some may realize. The way New York is shot as a grimey freak infested hole is much like Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver". Sal Mineo's character is much like Travis Bickle from that same movie. The workout scene from Scorsese's "Cape Fear" reminds me of Mineo's workout scene. And, Quentin Tarantino's dance scene from "Pulp Fiction" is reminiscent of Mineo and Prowse tearing it up.

funkygrooves said...

Thank you very much for your comments. However, I should say that I am surprised that you never mentioned the superb performance of Borscht-Belt comedian Jan Murray, in a dramatic role.
I feel that his contributions to the film as are valuable as any other.

Mark said...

I just finished watching this on my ridiculously bad DVD copy (I actually have two!). After seeing this literally LOTS of times, it never fails to intrigue me. No matter what or how one wishes to classify it---camp, noir, pulp, exploitation, sexploitation, what have you---it's great fun, and featuring some great performances and casting. It's interesting, however, that in comparison to 60's era films such as Peeping Tom or Psycho, I consider Teddy Bear to be so much more subversive and daring in the way it handled its subject matter. And frankly, I think it handled it quite well.

And lastly, I thoroughly admire and enjoyed your five insights on this film, so thank you!