When I graduated 8th grade, my parents unknowingly gave me a portal into the strange new world of sex, a subject that I desperately wanted to know more about. They brought me a small portable black and white TV set, which I kept in my room. They knew that I got up in the middle of the night to watch monster movies, so they probably thought that at least now I wouldn’t disturb them by walking around downstairs at all hours.
Growing up Catholic in the 1960s meant that sex was the one topic that was strictly forbidden to discuss, watch, or read about in my house. But one night when I was 13, I found a film on local late night TV that was more sex-obsessed than I was. It dealt with forbidden topics such as sexual fixation, fantasy, voyeurism, lesbianism, obscene phone calls, fetishes, and pornography. It was a dirty, grimy, creepy, and slimy low budget wonder that in many ways can be thought of as the ultimate exploitation film. It teased, it titillated, and it showed me a world I never knew existed. It was mesmerizing. But it was also depressing and relentlessly grim. I felt so guilty watching it that I actually went to Confession afterwards and told my parish priest about it! (He probably checked it out the next time it was on TV). Watching this film positively twisted my young developing mind. I had no idea that such subjects existed. The film was innocently titled “Who Killed Teddy Bear?”
“Who Killed Teddy Bear?” (1965) was filmed in black and white, entirely in New York City. The film featured Juliet Prowse, a singer/dancer/actress who always appeared as a guest star on network variety shows during the 1960s and 1970s. She was once briefly engaged to Frank Sinatra and also did a series of successful commercials for L’eggs pantyhose in the 1970s. Prowse plays Nora Dain, a mature 20-something New Yorker who still dreams of being a big Broadway star. She goes to auditions during the day and earns her living spinning records every night at a local “Discotech” (wow, an early DJ!) which is managed by Marian Freeman (Elaine Stritch). Unfortunately, Nora’s been targeted by an obscene phone caller who has become obsessed with her and watches her from his nearby apartment. He calls her at all hours of the night luridly telling her how he wants to touch her and what he wants to do to her. She goes to the police and meets Lt. Dave Madden (comedian Jan Murray) who is the local expert on sexual perversion. Years earlier, Dave’s wife was the victim of a sexual predator and now he’s obsessed with locking all of them up. Nora also befriends co-worker Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo). He’s a shy young man who cares for his mentally challenged sister. Despite Dave’s best attempts to protect her, the obsessive caller continues to harass Nora, and each perverted call strains her fragile psyche further. It’s eventually revealed that Mineo is the maniac who now begins to stalk Nora. He mistakenly kills Stritch and later savagely rapes Prowse in the nightclub. Dave shows up too late to save Nora and Lawrence is pursued and killed by police.
What makes “Who Killed Teddy Bear” stand out for me is not only its taboo subject matter (which was highly unusual for 1965), but also its raw icy style. By the mid 1960s, the Hayes Code was crumbling and virtually unenforceable, so filmmakers began to include more adult material in their movies. In 1965, filmmakers might include one or two tawdry moments in a film, but these wouldn’t be the central aspect of the movie. “Who Killed Teddy Bear” is a sleaze fest from its opening credits to its final closing montage.
A big reason for this is the screenplay by Arnold Drake, one of the most influential comic book writers of the 1950s and 60s; he also wrote the screenplay for 1964’s “The Flesh Eaters.” Drake was not afraid to present more adult material in his comic books and he does the same here. He delves into Mineo’s character and traces his obsessive behavior to an earlier incident where a teenage Lawrence is seduced by a neighbor while watching his sister. Leaving the sister alone leads her to fall and suffer a brain injury. Lawrence’s guilt haunts him, and he releases his frustration by making obscene phone calls.
Director Joseph Cates (a TV director and father of 80’s teen icon Phoebe Cates) uses New York City like a large, greasy background canvas. The city looks cold, wet, dirty, and ugly through the camera lens. There’s little sunshine and even less warmth generated by the characters. They seem to reflect the city’s frosty feel. While Prowse is the most sympathetic, Murray and Stritch are bitter and manipulative. Mineo is all nerves, jitters, and quick furtive glances.
One of the most surprising aspects of “Who Killed Teddy Bear” is in its exploitation of the physical attributes of its actors. Rather than linger provocatively over a lingerie-clad Prowse (as most exploitation films would), Cates presents her undressing scenes very clinically. However, his camera positively drools over Mineo’s taut body. In the scenes where he is calling Prowse, Mineo’s shown sitting on his bed in a tight pair of briefs. He’s constantly rubbing his body in an almost masturbatory fashion. When he’s working out in the gym, the camera highlights every sweaty muscle and sinew. Later, when he approaches Prowse at the local YMCA pool, he’s wearing a very tight bathing suit that leaves little to the imagination. “Who Killed Teddy Bear” was probably one of the first movies to exploit the physique of its male star in such an explicit manner.
Another graphic aspect of the film is its presentation of the rape scene. Prowse closes up the nightclub, and Mineo stays to make small talk. When he casually mentions that he can’t dance, Prowse offers to show him how. But her kindness just succeeds in breaking down the mental prison that holds back Mineo’s violent intentions. He begins to dance uninhibitedly, believing that Prowse is interested in him. He professes his love to her and when she rejects him, he savagely assails her. Most films of the day would then cut away, but “Who Killed Teddy Bear” forces the viewer to watch the assault. Mineo grapples with Prowse and pins her to the floor. The camera stays on the actors during the attack and doesn’t flinch. Rape is shown in all its ugliness and horror. The film even has Mineo collapse on top of Prowse after he has obviously climaxed.
Scenes like this would be enough for most films, but “Who Killed Teddy Bear” doesn’t stop there. It also touches on the subjects of lesbianism and fetishes. After Prowse is unnerved by Mineo’s repeated calls, Elaine Stritch offers to stay with her. When the phone rings again, Prowse breaks down in tears and is comforted by Stritch. But as she’s in Stritch’s arms, Prowse realizes that Stritch also has an intense interest in her. She rebuffs Stritch, who then leaves in Prowse’s coat. Stritch is then pursued and killed by Mineo, who mistakes her for Prowse (that’s stretching it just a little). Later, Murray hauls in a group of perverts and questions them about where they were at the time of Stritch’s death. As each one professes his innocence, Murray then goes into the details of their obsessions and how they disgust him.
Finally, like some seedy travelogue, “Who Killed Teddy Bear” takes you on a tour of New York’s infamous Times Square. After Mineo has repeatedly called Prowse, his sexual frustration leads him to the city’s sin center. He walks by all of the adult movie houses and shops, stopping and leering at the sexy photos and exotic lingerie that’s for sale. He even buys a ticket for a porno film and sheepishly goes in.
About the only pleasant aspect of the film are the 1960s style rock and roll songs that Prowse spins in the Discotech. The catchy upbeat tunes were written by Al Kasha and Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons!
To this day it amazes me that I was able to watch this movie on late night TV in the 1960s. “Who Killed Teddy Bear” remains one of the sleaziest film I ever saw, and certainly one of the ones that warped me as a kid.
* * *
“Who Killed Teddy Bear” (1965, Magna Films – B&W [94 min])
Director – Joseph Cates
Producer – Everett Rosenthal
Screenplay – Arnold Drake and Leon Tokatyan
Film Editor – Angelo Ross
Art Direction – Hank Aldrich
Nora Dain – Juliet Prowse
Lawrence Sherman – Sal Mineo
Dave Madden – Jan Murray
Marian Freeman – Elaine Stritch
Eddie Sherman – Margot Bennett
Obnoxious Patron – Rex Everhart
NOTE: “Who Killed Teddy Bear” is available on DVD.
IMDB.com http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059909. Accessed October 28, 2011.
IMDB.com http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0699120/bio. Accessed October 29, 2011.
Weaver, Tom. Eye on Science Fiction. Jefferson, North Carolina. McFarland and Company, Inc. 2003.
Weldon, Michael. The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. New York, New York. Ballantine Books. 1983.