So rarely have I ever been quite beautifully claw hammered by a movie than I was by the 1965 film, Who Killed Teddy Bear? It’s one of those films that can leave you slack jawed over what you have just seen and all the while it just seeps further and further into your consciousness. It’s been days since I last watched it and I still cannot stop thinking about it.
The basic plot revolves around a young, beautiful DJ and aspiring actress, Norah (Juliet Prowse), who soon becomes the focal point of a stalker. He starts off as a creaky voiced, hot and heavy breathing obscene phone caller, making comments like “I know what you look like right now” and “I can make you feel like a real woman.” She’s annoyed at first but gets progressively more rattled as the number of calls grow and violence starts to blossom around her.
Where things get really interesting is that instead of building up the identity of Norah’s mystery obsessive to the very end, we find out who he is midway through the film. The lithe but muscular figure, often shiny with sweat and clad in white briefs, turns out to be the boyishly handsome busboy, Lawrence (Sal Mineo), who works with her at the discotheque. The jolt of seeing former teen idol and Rebel Without a Cause star Mineo as the sexually damaged obscene phone caller with homicidal tendencies is as strong now as it must have been back when it was originally released.
But Mineo’s performance is much more than just a teen dream novelty. He brings some serious depth and layers to Lawrence, creating a character who is alternately sad and frightening, mostly due to his childhood rooted dysfunction. Whether he is taking his mentally challenged sister to the zoo or working out with an intensity that precedes either the hottest sex act or the worst murder, Mineo is a powerhouse here. His Lawrence is right up there with Anthony Perkins in Psycho and John Amplas’s titular role in George Romero’s Martin.
The film itself is a powder keg of beautifully moody B&W cinematography and the grimy underbelly of the human condition. The opening credit sequence alone sets the tone, featuring a blurry undulation of bodies as a little girl watches, clutching her cherished teddy bear. She turns away, only to fall down the stairs, with her face now suddenly blank, as if she is dead or brain damaged. Without a breath of relief, the actual film starts in a cramped, shadowy bedroom, complete with a nightstand littered with lurid publications, featuring titles like French Frills and When She Was Bad. A mirror reflects the image of a man caressing his bare chest while looking at photos of Norah, right before calling her up.
The elements of sleaze continue as Norah encounters police Lieutenant Dave Madden (Jan Murray), a single dad whose fascination with all manners of sexual deviancy infects his home life. (At one point, one of his coworkers mentions how Dave’s young daughter talks like a “vice squad officer.”) Even Norah’s boss, the glamorous ball buster Marian (Elaine Stritch), comes across like an uneasy mixture of maternal and less than pure motive. We even get some now-historic footage of a seamier New York City, with the highlight being Lawrence’s jaunt to an adult bookstore. Seeing shelves lined with girlie mags and books ranging from Fanny Hill, William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch, Hubert Selby Jr.‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn to more purple prose titles like Dance Hall Dyke and My Naughty, Naughty Life is a much beloved peek into the pre-gentrification and Disneyfication of Times Square.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? is a brave film that gives you no easy answers. Sadly, it didn’t really do a thing for anyone that was involved, career-wise. Mineo did continue to do film, TV and theater work, including staging a controversial version of the prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes that featured a young Don Johnson. All of that was cut short in 1976, when he was murdered by a drifter. Elaine Stritch continues to be a monolithic character actress on Broadway, film and TV. Juliet Prowse, Jan Murray and Daniel J. Travanti, who has the small role of Carlo, Marian’s deaf bouncer, all went on to have healthy careers in television. The same could be said for director Joseph Cates, though perhaps that is the biggest shame given that he never was given the chance again to direct anything as nuanced and challenging as Who Killed Teddy Bear?. In an ideal world, this film should have forged a different career direction for Cates and certainly for Mineo, whose wounded eyes and brutal actions are hard to forget.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? is ripe for proper rediscovery. It’s a mystery why this great film is still not available legally on DVD here in the US. (It did get a release in the UK, though that appears to already be out-of-print.) It is viewable on YouTube, for anyone who does not have access to the UK, PAL formatted disc. Hopefully, it will someday get the proper release that it so justly deserves.