The new Network release of Who Killed Teddy Bear conjures up one question aside from the film’s title–why isn’t this movie better known? About Norah (Juliet Prowse), a woman in New York City who is receiving obscene phone calls from a man who gradually twists into an active stalker, the film isn’t necessarily a horror or suspense film, but more a slightly sleazy drama about broken people who can’t relate to each other.
*Just as a warning–spoilers shall ensue.*
Who Killed Teddy Bear was released in 1965, in the middle of a transitional decade in American cinema. The first toilet flush on American screens to ever pass censors did not appear until Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho of 1960. By 1969, graphic drug use and sex was pervading the screen with the likes of Easy Rider. Teddy Bear, a film about such dicey topics as rape, incest, and perversion, is endearingly wonderful because it unravels these issues in a contradictory lurid and modest way. The film and its makers can’t decide whether to go hardcore or puritanically stuffy, creating a nuanced picture that shows us some things, while also leaving much up to the imagination. More people need to see Who Killed Teddy Bear.
Shortly before the mid-point of the film the audience finds out the identity of Norah’s aggressor–Lawrence (Sal Mineo), a sensitive young man who waits tables at the same nightclub in which Norah works. Previous to the moment we see the Lawrence’s face in a brief freeze frame as he strikes a match and lights a cigarette, revealing he is the antagonist, he is shown in the film making calls, only with his head always framed out of the shot, which prefers to focus on his body, naked and glistening–a vaseline-gobbed lens to boot–wearing only underwear. According to the insightful booklet by Laura Mayne included with the Network release of Teddy Bear, this is another first for American cinema–a man wearing only jockey shorts. This is another thing that sets the film apart from films about obscene phone callers and stalkers throughout film history–instead of sexualizing the woman being accosted, it is the nubile male aggressor who is the object of the gaze. This adds a whole new level of oddity and confusion to the tone of the film. Not only does it treat sexual transgressions in an ambivalent manner, it encourages the audience to feel an attraction to the antagonist.
Sal Mineo has got to be one of the most unlikely casting choices for the part of a creepy sexual predator. Known best for his role as Plato, James Dean’s awkward, sexually ambiguous friend in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Mineo is often remembered as a downtrodden, effeminate boy who suffers from major anxiety. The fact that he was relatively open about his bisexuality only added to this beta male image. But perhaps that is one reason why Who Killed Teddy Bear is great–it shows us that psychos can come in all shapes and sizes.
Another thread of ambiguity indicating the grey area between good and evil is the weird preoccupation that Dave Madden (Jan Murray), the cop covering the case of Norah’s obscene calls, has with perversion and vice. His home is filled with academic books, magazines, and reel to reel recordings covering different kinds of divergent sexuality. If seen out of context, the shots of his collection are quite similar to scenes in Lawrence’s home and the sex shop he frequents. This shows how two people with similar interests can turn out in completely different ways. One is a sex offender, the other an upholder of the law. Of course, cops can be sex offenders, but that is a story for a different film. At one point Norah’s boss, the seen-it-all type, Marian (Elaine Stritch) says of the caller, “I think there’s a little bit of this jerk in every guy, including the cops. Maybe they’ve all got a guilty conscience.”
There is a scene before the reveal of Lawrence as the phone stalker when Dave does little in the way of respecting Norah’s privacy as she changes clothes. As he nears closer, she lashes out and screams that he’s like an animal. He reacts aggressively, but is able to eventually control himself. When he explains that his wife had been raped, murdered, and mutilated years before, it is apparent that the seed of violence exists in all of us, which could be set off for any number of reasons. There’s a thread running throughout the film likening humans and animals. This even goes as far as all the main characters happening to meet at the zoo.
Lawrence and Dave are mirrored even further in the way they are seen interacting with dependent female family members. Lawrence’s younger sister Edie (Margot Bennett) has developmental issues, and although an adult, still acts in a childlike manner. This can be traced back to an accident when she fell down the stairs (along with her teddy bear) after witnessing her brother having sex with an older woman (possibly his mother?). Edie and her experiences are clearly at the core of what this film means. Dave on the other hand has a daughter of about age ten, Pam (Diane Moore). She lies awake at night overhearing the recordings of different case studies of sex criminals or victims that her father tactlessly plays at a loud volume in the evening. Both Edie and Pam illustrate how conflicts within family relationships shape how people approach sexuality and life in general. Even if you don’t believe in or agree with Freudian psychoanalysis, there is no doubt that familial tension like this plays such a large factor in how people evolve and conduct relationships. The parallels between Lawrence and Dave show that the filmmakers are not passing judgement on the horrors of the Lawrence’s crimes, or the imperfect way that Dave attempts to understand how to stop such crimes. This desire to make things right and coming to terms with how some things in the past can never be changed is the same preoccupation that, for example, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) operates in (especially the newest episodes of) Twin Peaks.
Who Killed Teddy Bear is a bleak and haunting gem of a picture that has been neglected for too long. It would make a great double feature with that other film about obscene phone callers of New York City, The Telephone Book (1971). Teddy Bear is much darker and different in tone than the lighthearted reveries of The Telephone Book, but perhaps that is why they would be so good together, as an exercise in contrasts. The worldwide blu ray debut of Who Killed Teddy Bear is coming out on September 17, followed by digital availability on October 15th. The disc includes some extras, the most interesting one perhaps being a twenty minute public service documentary called LSD: Insight or Insanity, narrated by Sal Mineo. If this review hasn’t spoiled Teddy Bear enough for you, I also suggest checking out the episode of The Projection Booth podcast dedicated to it, with thoughts and insights from Heather Drain, Terry Frost, and Mike White. That is available here.