Wallowing at the boundaries of what could be discussed — if not actually shown — on screen in 1965, Who Killed Teddy Bear (question mark conspicuous by its absence) must have looked at the time like some sort of paean to perversion.
The story itself is a simple B-movie thriller: a would-be dancer, Norah (Juliet Prowse), working nights as a DJ in a New York City nightclub, is plagued by obscene phone calls. The perpetrator could be any one of a number of her colleagues and acquaintances: the nightclub’s bouncer; her strident, lesbian boss (Elaine Stritch); or the jaded, widowed detective looking into the case (Jan Murray). Or is it the club’s friendly busboy, Lawrence, (Sal Mineo)? To Norah he is the most unlikely: he’s shy, slightly built, sweet-natured and looks after his mentally injured young sister. In private, however, he is not quite what he seems.
The obscene phone call angle is a neat device, years ahead of Klute, Black Christmas and When A Stranger Calls, and in its overriding sense of sleazy menace and focus on a sexually troubled loner, the movie also prefigures the stalk n’ slash shenanigans of The Toolbox Murders, Halloween and He Knows You’re Alone by a good decade. But there’s a lot more subtext in Who Killed Teddy Bear than in most of the above. In its impoverished and somewhat clunky way, it compares with Peeping Tom in presenting the dark undercurrents of sexual maladjustment and obsession, while at the same time anticipating those lonely, unbalanced antiheroes of the seventies. As blogger StinkyLulu astutely points out, Teddy Bear is a “a clear (and clearly American) bridge between … Psycho and Taxi Driver.”
Indeed, Mineo’s Lawrence is a proto Travis Bickle; he’s unable to interact successfully with the people around him, works invisibly in a low-paid night job, and, most daringly for 1965, is obsessed with pornography. The film has some striking, verité scenes of Mineo cruising the sex shops, porno bookstores and grindhouse movie theatres of a decidedly grubby Times Square. And although the film is not explicit in its language or its visuals, Mineo’s performance is somehow close to obscene. In his physicality and his creepy stare he manages to convey a lot more than the film can actually show.
What is particularly unusual (and memorable) is the camera’s homoerotic fascination with Mineo; it lingers on him when he’s in a state of undress (which is fairly frequently). StinkyLulu goes so far as calling Teddy Bear and outright ‘queer’ film; whether this is intentional or not, there is often an aura of charged sexuality and sexual ambiguity when Mineo is on screen.
This also extends to the supporting characters. In standard B thrillers the minor characters tend to be two-dimensional, but here they have backstories and motives that amount to a degree of sexual complexity. Certainly, as Detective Madden, Jan Murray is as debased a policeman as we have seen this side of Clint Eastwood in Tightrope and Harvey Keitel (and Nicolas Cage, for that matter) in Bad Lieutenant. Obsessed with the previous sex murder of his own wife, Murray has taken his research into ‘perversion’ somewhat beyond that of a professional interest (not least, listening to tapes of stalker victims’ experiences while his daughter plays uncomfortably within earshot). Outlining his theories on the mind of the sex fiend to Norah, he says:
“Some are fetishists, some are sadists, some are masochists… Then there’s the simple voyeurs, paedophiliacs…” before expanding on the dreaded ‘combinations’: “the sadomasochists, the voyeur-masochists, the exhibitionists, the necrophiliacs.”
“You seem to know a lot about these things,” she says.
“Someone has to,” he replies.
But Madden seems to know a bit too much for Norah’s liking; pretty soon she’s suspecting him of being the crank caller himself.
There’s also an unerring scene in which Norah’s hard-talking, middle-aged boss Marian (Stritch) offers to spend the night with her to guard against any follow-up from the menacing phone calls. Stripping down to her smalls and then covering herself with a fur lined coat, Marian announces “I dig soft things” and goes on to prove it when she gets a bit physical while comforting her distressed charge. Again, here, Teddy Bear appears to set a precedent, not only in depicting an unambiguous lesbian pass but letting it linger uncomfortably in the air afterwards. And it’s made more powerful by Stritch’s gutsy performance. The upshot, again, is that Norah has a new suspect in mind.
Who Killed Teddy Bear, not surprisingly, rubbed the British censor up the wrong way in 1965 and was refused a BBFC certificate. Consequently, the film was not seen in this country until Network released it on DVD a couple of years ago. That release can still be picked up cheaply and is worth hunting down.