Friday, 1 February 2008

Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965)

Who Killed Teddy Bear? is a movie about sexual obsession that in many ways would be considered provocative and daring even today. The fact that the movie was made in the US in 1965 is something that almost defies belief. It’s not just the sexual content that is surprising for 1965, it’s the extraordinary degree of moral ambiguity. Larry (Sal Mineo) works as a waiter in a sleazy night club in New York. He lives with his brain-damaged kid sister. The reason she’s brain-damaged is that as a kid she saw her brother having sex with a woman – confused and frightened, she ran out of the room and fell down the stairs, sustaining serious head injuries. Now her brother looks after her, but he’s so riddled with sexual guilt he’s unable to have a relationship with a woman, so he satisfies his appetites by frequenting adult movie theatres and adult bookstores, and by watching his neighbour Norah through her window. His relationship with his sister is portrayed with sensitivity, and he is clearly devoted to her, but she is now 19 and her own burgeoning sexuality coupled with her excessive closeness to her brother adds another disturbing element to this film. As the movie opens Larry is watching Norah through his binoculars while making an obscene phone call to her, and touching himself in a way that people just did not touch themselves in 1965 American movies. The movie becomes even more unsettling when Norah calls the police and we meet the cop assigned to the case. Lieutenant Dave Madden’s wife was raped and murdered some years earlier, and Madden is now obsessed with sex crimes and sexual deviations. His apartment contains a formidable library on the subject and he has an extensive collection of tape-recorded interviews with female victims of sex crimes. The fact that he shares the apartment with his ten-year-old daughter and that she also gets to hear these tapes adds yet another disturbing layer. Madden is obsessed to the point where he cannot see the effect this may be having on her. Our unease about Madden increases still further when it appears that his motivations in taking a protective interest in Norah may not be as pure as he’d like her to believe. The situation is complicated still further when Norah’s lesbian boss Marian starts to take a protective interest in her as well.

Everybody in this movie is obsessed by thwarted sexual desires, but what makes it particularly interesting is that it avoids simplistic moralising. The motivations of all the characters are understandable, and we can sympathise with them all to a degree. They aren’t monsters, they’re simply driven by urges that they are unable to come to terms with, and unable to confront honestly. They’re all innocents to some extent, and the movie is very much about the death of innocence. Sal Mineo’s performance is simply stunning. You’d really have to go back to Peter Lorre’s extraordinary performance in Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M to find another example of such an oddly sympathetic portrayal of a sex criminal. It’s the sort of performance that in an ideal world would have earned the actor an Oscar. The stark and very noirish black-and-white cinematography gives the movie a remarkably sordid and sleazy feel. Not surprisingly this movie disappeared without a trace back in 1965, although it’s possible to see traces of its influence in later US films such as Klute. I suspect that it was itself influenced by some of Otto Preminger’s social problem movies such as The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder. It’s a low-budget movie and it’s a bit rough around the edges but it still packs quite a punch. It’s an amazing movie that really has to be seen to be believed, and it’s one I highly recommend.

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