The mission of Cigarette Burns Cinema is to champion the good old fashioned experience of celluloid, and in particular, celluloid oddities and rarities. So it was, from a certain point of view, actually a positive development that a 35mm print of Joseph Cates’ scandalous, noirish proto-exploitation thriller, Who Killed Teddy Bear, could not be located in good enough quality to screen as part of the Barbican Centre’s My Twisted Valentine season this month curatted by Cigarette Burns. Instead CBC was informed by Network Distributing that a better-preserved 16mm print could be made available. And so it was that audiences craving some less saccharine Valentine’s film delights were treated to a 16mm screening of this fascinatingly daring slice of death and deviancy, which was in fact the first ever UK theatrical screening, given the BBFC rejected Cate’s film outright upon release.
Who Killed Teddy Bear tells the story of young, pretty DJ Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse). Or to be more precise, it tells her story and that of the mysterious, dirty-mouthed caller who has been abusing her phone line on a regular basis. For much of the film’s running time, we don’t see the caller’s face even though he/she gets plenty of screentime. But the caller seems to know Norah’s movements and habits, even what she is wearing. That leads both Norah – and us- to start suspecting everyone around her. A tough-minded woman, Norah is used to unsavoury characters, of which the Big Apple is full, but the film offers us so many suspects. It could be the arrogant detective, Lieutenant Dave Madden (Jan Murray) who becomes interested in Norah’s predicament but who’s amateur interest in perverts of all colours has led even his own precint squad mates to start suspecting him. Then there is Norah’s closet lesbian boss Marian (Elaine Stritch); who suddenly puts the moves to her one night when she is vulnerable. And then there is the awkward busboy Larry; a kid with a crush and a twisted family backstory.
Made at a time when displaying shades of sexual “deviancy” could be a cause of societal panic, it is striking just how deviant Who Killed Teddy Bear is, both openly and suggestively. For one thing, a good chunk of the action is shown to us from the mysterious caller’s perspective, with one impressive edit revealing to us that our view of Norah has in fact been that from a pair of binoculars for some time. Despite the voyeuristic opportunities offered to us as audience via the caller’s view, many shots actually fetishize parts of the body of the caller instead of Norah, maybe taking us into the warped vision the caller has of his/her own figure. Many of the characters also are revealed to have subverted conservative norms: Lieutenant Dave Madden’s constant immersion into academic writings on sexual perversions and his huge home archive of audio interviews with sex offenders and their victims (which, bizarrely, he seems happy for his pre-teen daughter to overhear) raises the question of how this has affected his behaviour. Norah’s boss Marian makes a lesbian move on Norah that is implicitly understood and angrily rejected, but with the actual words to describe what has happened seemingly unable to be spoken by either. Perhaps most strikingly, busboy Larry, via flashback, is shown to have been possibly involved in an incestuous relationship with his own mother.
The use of location footage keeps the film rich in the detail of the seedier side of New York by night: with the restless camera taking us into a sex bookstore and a porno theatre. And one last point of interest: Larry the busboy is played by Sal Mineo, who was the nervy played Plato in the James Dean vehicle Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and spent many years fighting typecasting in Hollywood. Appearing in this film was certainly one bold way to attempt that, and he is superb as the repressed, obsessive, and very damaged Larry.
US 1965, Dir Joseph Cates, 86 min