“I don’t think you’re very amusing, Lieutenant…Whatever-Your-Problem-Is.”
Who Killed Teddy Bear is so far one of the more interesting films I’ve seen this year, which is odd because it’s more than 50 years old. A surprisingly good story and movie, everything about it shines despite its bleak subject matter and an obviously low budget.
The film opens with a little girl who seems to be getting away from something unsettling she just observed. She falls down a set of stairs in the dark. It’s a curious opening, but she ties into the story later.
Cut to mid-sixties Manhattan: Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) is an aspiring actress who works as a “disc jockey” at a nightclub. She lives alone in a cute three flat. It’s bad enough that she’s getting obscene phone calls from an unknown weirdo, but what’s worse is that he implies he’s watching her.
Enter detective Lt. Dave Madden (Jan Murray) to investigate Norah’s case. His wife was raped and murdered on the streets of New York City. He comes off as part father and part priest, and he takes a special interest in Norah that verges on disturbing. Indeed, he drops in all the time, he secretly records their conversations, and he keeps telling her that he could be the caller. At home, he’s obsessed with “studying” pornography and perverts, which has a distorting effect on his 10-year-old daughter (Diane Moore).
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
We soon learn that Lt. Madden actually isn’t the caller; Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo), who works as a busboy with Norah, is. Lawrence has a lot of issues. Awkward and aloof, he lives in a sad, dank apartment with his younger sister, Edie (Margot Bennett). Edie has brain damage and hasn’t developed beyond a child. Their parents died, leaving Lawrence to take care of her. And he does, but he harbors resentment.
On top of all this, Lawrence is incapable of a normal romantic relationship because of his guilt over his sister. He deals with his sexual frustration at adult bookstores and movie theaters in Times Square, and it apparently works until Norah comes along. His obsession with her takes him down a road of murder and ruin.
Directed by Joseph Cates, Who Killed Teddy Bear has a high creepy-icky factor, and it’s absolutely wonderful. Mineo is brooding and sexy, and Lawrence is compelling in the same fucked up way as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Norah and Lawrence don’t have all that many scenes together, but she’s nice to him when they do. This makes their scenes percolate with tension, particularly one at a pool in a gym. We know the whole thing is not going to end well, and Cates slowly but steadily gets us to a nasty climax. To add to the perversion, screenwriters Arnold Drake and Leon Tokatyan drop in little bombshells like incest and lesbian passes. Joseph Brun’s camerawork is lovely, especially in the night scenes; shooting on location in New York City, he cloaks the actors in shadows and neon light in a way that nicely underscores their solitude.
Interesting trivia: a young Dan Travanty, who plays a small part as a nightclub employee, went on to star in Hill Street Blues.
This film has been cut and recut many times over the years, at least once for British television. I’m pretty sure the screening I attended was the original uncut version.
With Elaine Stritch, Tom Aldredge, Frank Campanella, Rex Everhart, Bruce Glover, Casey Townsend
Production: Phillips Productions
Distribution: Magna Corporation, BijouFlix Releasing
(The Auditorium at Northeastern Illinois University) A
Chicago Film Society