James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Actor Sal Mineo baits the censors in this tawdry Freudian thriller from the mid-1960s, midway between a giallo and a slasher
In 1955, at the tender age of 16, fresh-faced Sal Mineo had just been nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as John 'Plato' Crawford in Rebel Without A Cause, and only five years later he would earn himself a second Best Supporting Actor nomination for his part in Exodus (1960).
Such early promise, however, would soon be ground down by the realities of Hollywood. By 1965, Mineo had become typecast as protagonist's juvenile best buddy, and there were also (not entirely unrelated, nor unfounded) rumours circulating that the good-looking sidekick was gay. So while the offer of a leading role in Who Killed Teddy Bear might have seemed the perfect opportunity for the actor at last to take top billing, there seemed little serious chance that his career would be resurrected by a film so fixated on all manner of sexual 'perversions' and closeted behaviours, not to mention on Mineo's bulging, often bared flesh. The homoerotic subtext already implicit in Rebel is here given free rein.
Indeed, the principal theme of Who Killed Teddy Bear, enshrined in its very title, is the corruption of innocence. Young Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) has moved to New York City to become a star of the stage, but has ended up disc-jockeying in a seedy night club where her virginal prettiness has attracted the eyes of everyone, including a creepy stalker who has begun pestering her with heavy-breathing phone calls.
It will not be long before we learn that her tormentor is in fact her softly-spoken colleague Lawrence Sherman (Mineo), a messed-up busboy who divides his free time between caring for his childlike sister Edie (Margot Bennett), building his body in the gym and pursuing furtive pornographic thrills. But if at first Lawrence seems no more suspiciously predatory than the club's leering bouncer Carlo (Dan Travanti), its sapphic manageress Marian (Elaine Stritch), or even the obsessive police lieutenant Dave Madden (Jan Murray), that is only because Who Killed Teddy Bear is concerned with the bestial deviancy of which we are all capable.
Preoccupied with voyeurism, masturbation, fetishism, lesbianism, rape, and all manner of psychosexual aberrations, Joseph Cates' Freudian noir proved altogether too lurid for the BBFC in its year of release, and was banned outright from British screens. Resubmitted for the first time over four decades later, it has now been passed uncut with a relatively tame 15 certificate, reflecting the way in which tastes and values have moved on since the 1960s. What the film may lack in explicitness, however, it more than makes up for in its murky morality.
Here the motives of the 'hero' are repeatedly questioned, the 'villain' is portrayed in a remarkably sympathetic light and our own act of viewing is shown to be every bit as double-edged as everyone else's, until finally the dream-like ending has innocence and depravity treading the same mean streets. Sure it is exploitative, but in a far more uncomfortably nuanced way than might be expected from writer Arnold Drake whose screenplays of the previous two years had been 50,000 BC (Before Clothes) and The Flesheaters.
Not that Who Killed Teddy Bear is without its flaws, even for the most committed fans of 1960s sleaze. The wintry scenes of Times Square and 42nd Street might cut it as fascinating slices of social anthropology, but the multiple scenes in which club patrons dance away to cheap pastiches of contemporary rock and roll are simply interminable.
Still, the film's sexual panic captures perfectly the mood between the repressive 1950s and the liberated 1970s - and for those with an interest in cinema history, Who Killed Teddy Bear represents an important missing link between, on the one hand, Peeping Tom (1960), Psycho (1960), and the nascent Italian giallo genre, and on the other hand, Black Christmas (1974), Taxi Driver (1976) and the American slasher genre. Mineo, too, makes for an eerily compelling (and confounding) antihero, way beyond the comfort zone of the Oscars.
It may have dated somewhat, but this 1960s New York story of violated innocence remains unsettling, with Mineo riveting as a proto-Travis Bickle.
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