Rescued from the annals of forgotten American cinema via Blu-ray, a sordid black and white movie made during the mid-1960s shows just how strong the connection between cinematic sleaze of the past and present has remained. Mark Fraser delves into a work where social dysfunction and sin reign supreme.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
While it may be convenient – due primarily to its New York locale and subject matter – to compare the late Joseph Cates’ 1965 psychodrama Who Killed Teddy Bear (WKTB) with Martin Scorsese’ Taxi Driver (1976), it’s arguable the film has more in common with those of another acknowledged New Hollywood director who also started his career in the late 1960s, that being Brian De Palma.
Aside from the fact there are certainly some stylistic similarities between Cates’ visual narrative and those employed by De Palma in his earlier works, both directors, it seems, share an interest in a number of thematic concerns – namely voyeurism, obsession, sexual frustration, misogyny, mental illness and, to a lesser degree, murder.
Each man also, at times, embraces the spirit of guerrilla film making, where the aesthetic of cinema verite (and in particular using a hand-held camera on location while relying on natural light) is incorporated into the on-screen story.
Given Cates’ reputation doesn’t enjoy the same far-reaching auteur status as De Palma’s, it’s difficult to ascertain whether his wallowing in the above-mentioned dysfunctional themes was a result of his own metaphysical disposition or if their exploration (and exploitation) completely originated from DC Comics’ stalwart Arnold Drake, who came up with the original idea for the movie before co-writing the screenplay with Leon Tokatyan.
Whatever the case, he made a pretty good go of it, creating what is an undeniably tacky, but quite interesting and unusually confronting, low budget psychological thriller which pushes a number of social boundaries within some clumsily constructed black and white melodrama.
As with two of De Palma’s earliest works – Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom (1970), both of which star Taxi Driver’s Robert De Niro – WKTB spends a good deal of its screen time dealing with voyeurism, albeit sans a direct nod to the mechanics of film making. The voyeur in this instance is discotheque busboy Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo), who spies on his female neighbour and work colleague Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) from his small Manhattan apartment. He also makes obscene phone calls to the poor woman – a practice which attracts the attention of vice squad detective Dave Madden (Jan Murray), a widower and single father who also doesn’t seem to mind prying into the secret lives of others as he investigates sex-related crimes, sometimes reviewing the audio evidence at home within earshot of his young daughter Pam (Dianne Moore).
Dain’s world becomes a little more De Palma-esque when her boss, discotheque manager Marian Freeman (Elaine Stritch), hits on her at home during an awkward moment seemingly born of genuine concern. After being promptly being kicked out of her employee’s apartment, Freeman is then murdered (read strangled) by Sherman in an alley way. To add a bit more sordid spice to the story, the young man – who lifts weights in his spare time – cares for his mentally unbalanced adult sister Edie (Margot Bennett) with whom he seems to have a borderline incestuous relationship. Aside from occasionally browbeating his traumatised sibling, he also abandons her while going out on his evening prowls through the smut district of Times Square.
It’s during these moments, as Sherman trawls the porno book shops and theatres along West 42nd Street (between 6th and 8th avenues), that WKTB arguably resembles Taxi Driver the most, although – unlike Travis Bickle (De Niro) in the Scorsese film – he doesn’t try to take anyone on a skin flick date.
Nevertheless, his fascination with pornography is a habit which no doubt adds to his ongoing isolation and sense of alienation – a state of mind that eventually leads him to rape Dain after she teaches him some lively (and very 1960s) dance moves.
As with many of the works in the De Palma oeuvre, WKTB is littered with flawed characters living in a generally unpleasant world.
Prowse’s Dain, while being quite strongly resolute in the face of adversity, doesn’t seem to take the threat put before her too seriously despite several warnings from Madden, whose own wife, it turns out, was raped and mutilated some years before. As a result, she too eventually becomes a victim.
Interestingly, the other female lead – Stritch’s Freeman – is just as independent and set in her convictions; that she is Sherman’s boss could also be a contributor to the man’s self-imposed sexual emasculation (and his brutal strangling of her with a stocking).
Meanwhile, Murray’s Madden is, in all honesty, a bit of a creep. Aside from exposing his young daughter to some of the underbelly of adult life when doing his homework, he initially suggests to Dain that he could be her obscene caller, his interrogation manner coming across as someone making a sour joke in bad taste.
The fact he too starts showing an interest in the disc jockey/aspiring actress after secretly watching (and taping) her is also a bit disconcerting.
Then there’s Lawrence, the cutely handsome, but whacked-out, busboy who ends up being the one who kills teddy. Given the title of the movie has no question mark at its end, one can only wonder if its message is rhetorical. After all, Cates makes it clear early enough in the story (via a noirish freeze-frame) that Lawrence is the culprit, resulting in WKTB being more of a why-he-did-it crime thriller than a traditional who-did-it one.
And what about poor Edie, who ends up being the metaphorical teddy bear? Having been brain damaged herself after, as a child, seeing her brother in coitus with an older woman (which may or may not be their mother) and falling down some stairs, she spends her life locked up and being verbally berated when she (inadvertently or not) gets a little flirtatious. If anyone in the story elicits audience sympathy, it’s this pitiful 19 year-old who, by the film’s closing moment, has been well and truly abandoned. Interestingly, had she had Madden as a father – and been made more aware of the sins of the world – she might have been able to mentally process Lawrence’s carnal instincts and avoid the accident.
Although it’s a long way from masterpiece territory, WKTB in all its seedy glory is intriguing enough to endure at least a single viewing – something which applies to many a De Palma movie.
Indeed, had the New Hollywood auteur made something as dark and sleazy as this in the late 1960s, it wouldn’t have looked out of place in his filmography.
Putting thematic issues aside, some of Joseph Brun’s lighting – and his use of softening filters – is quite effective, while the scenes in Times Square look like they could have easily appeared in a more sordid version of Jim McBride’s landmark 1968 black and white mockumentary David Holzman’s Diary.
Meanwhile the presence of Mineo (who sometimes resembles Robert Blake in Richard Brook’s 1967 masterpiece In Cold Blood) adds yet another interesting dimension to the picture. Youthful, lean and obviously in shape, his portrayal of a walking time bomb is dripping with a sweaty mixture of pent-up anger, self-denial, self-loathing and sexual frustration – an intensity that is not totally dissimilar to De Niro’s ambiguous protagonist in Taxi Driver.
And, at the end of the day, it’s a performance which wouldn’t look out of place in quite a few of De Palma’s films.
Who Killer Teddy Bear was released on Blu-ray by Network on September 17, 2018.
Words by Mark Fraser
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