Sunday, August 26, 2012

Who Killed Teddy Bear?

This film is truly a work of art of the highest magnitude and no, i am not kidding. Shot in glorious, high-contrast black-and-white, it reeks of exploitation from the note of the cheesy theme song all the way through the strobe-cut ending and every horn-blaring, high-heeling, hip-grinding moment in between. Who Killed Teddy Bear? is sleaze cinema with a Freudian twist and a healthy shot of vintage NYC atmosphere.
Sal Mineo plays a busboy obsessed with aspiring actress/club DJ Juliet Prowse (and former Sinatra fiancee Prowse is at her foxiest in this one, with her pencil skirts, kitten heels and cat eyes), coming off like a perverted puppy dog. The lady is being stalked by an obscene caller and the phone call bits--all heavy breathing, bulging tightywhiteys and sweat--will make you want to leave the theatre and take a shower.... Well, okay, you're not going anywhere until this is over. Shower later.
But who amongst Prowse's many admirers is it? Mineo seems likely. But there's also bulldyke club owner Elaine Stritch, who is eager to listen to Prowse's problems, let her stay overnight, fondle her fur (so to speak). Or the mute, staring, Munster-like doorman. Or perhaps one of the many fans of her DJ gig -- back when being a DJ meant spinning vinyl in an evening gown...
Of course, the Joe Friday-like cop who is called upon to investigate Prowse's stalker has issues of his own --  obsessively playing audio tapes of various twisted criminals'confessions as his daughter listens wide-eyed from the other side of the door. The motif of the locked-away child -- or child-like -- female is also present in Mineo's retarded kid sister, who hides in a closet, playing with the eponymous teddy bear.
Odd sexual tension and vaguely inappropriate relationships abound -- cop & victim, boss & employee, brother & sister, coworkers -- and the mix of titillating sleaze and psychological complexity is what sets Who Killed Teddy Bear? apart from other black-and-white 60's exploitation flicks. There's also the strong cast, evocative cinematography and intriguing plotline. Listen, i love me some Bad Girls Go to Hell or Olga's Girls, but Who Killed Teddy Bear? is in a whole different class.
Sal Mineo is quite the slab of beefcake in this film --  dig the homoerotic protracted sequence of Sal working out at the gym, swimming in the pool and roaming the Deuce in a pair of tight, white hustler jeans. The puppy eyes and vulnerability that made Plato so endearing are still here, but Mineo also brings sexy and creepy. And how about the "twist lesson" that brings the film to it's climax (no pun intended)?
Another asset of this great piece of cinema are its New York City location shots, especially when Mineo goes walking the city at night, window shopping for porn, cruising and being cruised in scenes that must've influenced Taxi Driver -- actually, Michael Chapman, the assistant camera on Who Killed Teddy Bear? went on to become the cinematographer of Taxi Driver.
(As long as we're in the odd connections quadrant, may i also point out that Who Killed Teddy Bear director Joseph Cates was the father of actress Phoebe Cates, who was fetishistically filmed poolside in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and whose godmother was none other than Jacqueline Susann of Valley of the Dolls fame.) Also appreciate the William S. Burroughs titles mixed in with the pulps and the porn in the window of the "dirty bookshop."
I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. Who Killed Teddy Bear? remains hard to find for legal reasons i remain uncertain of, although there is a chunked, grainy dub on Youtube. So, should you run across a copy or a screening, be there!

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