Sunday, December 14, 2008

Who Killed Teddy Bear

A little belatedly, let me tell you about the strange little film, Who Killed Teddy Bear, I went to see on Wednesday in a screening theatre in Soho (publicity for the Region 2 DVD that slated for release in January). At the time of its release, in 1965, the British Board of Film Censors refused to certify it, which meant that it couldn’t be shown in British cinemas. One of the people who was working for the BBFC at the time was at the screening and told me before the film started that I would see exactly why it couldn't be cut for release - and he was right.

The story is pretty simple. Lawrence (Sal Mineo), a loner who looks after his brain-damaged sister and works as a bus-boy in a night club, has a crush on dolly-bird DJ Norah (Juliet Prowse). Norah is being spied on by a neighbour who pesters her with increasingly obscene phone calls, confides her troubles to her sympathetic boss (Elaine Strich), who urges her to report it to the police, and the case attracts the attention of Detective Dave Madden (Jan Murray), who is obsessed with the perversions and psychology of stalkers.

It's not so much images and scenes or dialog that would have appalled back then, although there is plenty of risky business - the flourish of a switchblade by a dissatisfied customer at the night club, the various scenes of Sal Mineo and Juliet Prowse in their undies and closeups of Mineo working out in the gym in an attempt to get rid of his troubling lust (this was, by the way, a doomed attempt to persuade viewers that Mineo was a red-blooded American heterosexual), the lesbian pass made by Elaine Stritch, slow pans across literature on sexual perversions on Madden’s desk and scenes on 8th Avenue showing the wares in a dirty bookshop window and the posters of a grindhouse, and so on - but beyond all that the entire film is saturated with suppressed sexuality. There's the Tennesee Williams style relationship between Lawrence and his sister, who was brain-damaged after falling down the stairs when she glimpsed Lawrence having sex with an older woman; Madden’s obsession with sexual deviants (as one of his colleagues put it, after Madden calls sex perverts animals: 'We're all animals Dave. But there's a line, and you've crossed it.'), which spills over into his private life in disturbing ways: the banter between him and Norah is uncomfortable in all kinds of ways, and a nicely-judged cut between a shot of Madden listening to tapes of women describing their experiences of being stalked to a shot of his daughter hearing it through her bedroom door (was James Ellroy riffing on this on Blood On The Moon?). As for the story, it’s split between Lawrence, Norah, and Madden, but only one the narrative lines reaches any kind of climax. But in a way, story doesn't matter here. Subtext and theme are dominant; story just gets us from point to point. And the main reason why the film couldn't be rated is not just all the cheescake and deviancy - it's that it attempts to condemn the deviancy while subjecting it to loving, lingering closeups. Nevertheless, it’s a highly interesting film, not only as a document of its time, but also as a prime example of American primitive cinema in the great tradition of New York independent film-making. It was directed by Joseph Cates, who helped create the $64000 Question quiz show, went on to produce a slew of TV specials, including most of those starring Johnny Cash, and was father of Pheobe Cates, who featured in a famous WKTB-style voyeur scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Small coincidence: I recently reviewed another New York independent film, Blast of Silence, also themed around repression. I’ll post that here after it has been published.


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