Considering the subject matter, it’s amazing that the low budget, Who Killed Teddy Bear was released in 1965. The film is a smorgasbord of Production Code taboos broken one after another: incest, masturbation, homosexuality and more. It all set in the seedy lurid world of 1960’s slime filled Times Square. It’s an oddity for sure, and a definite bump up above the typical sexploitation movies that decorated the deuce and Times Square back in the day, if for no other reason than the cast includes Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse, Jan Murray and Elaine Stritch. One other reason to watch is due to the gritty, noirish cinematography provided by Joseph C. Brun (Odds Against Tomorrow, Edge of the City). One word of warning. Though over fifty years old and not as graphic as films today, Who Killed Teddy Bear may still be unsettling for some.
By 1965, Sal Mineo’s glory days were behind him. He could still be seen, once in a while, in a few prestigious films, though in small roles (The Greatest Story Ever Told, Cheyenne Autumn). Much more so, Mineo was visible on TV in series like Run for Your Life, Burke’s Law, The Patty Duke Show and Dr. Kildare. In 1966, Mineo would reunite with his Teddy Bear co-star, Ms. Prowse, in her one season only series Mona McClusky. Prowse also had the occasional film role, Dingaka, and the Italian comedy, Run for Your Wife. However, she also was more active, like Mineo, on TV. Along with her failed TV series, she appeared on Burke’s Law, The Danny Thomas Hour and The Name of the Game. Jan Murray was a comedian and game show host, most noted for the 1950’s game show, Treasure Hunt. Later on, he began appearing as a guest star on many shows including Burke’s Law, Zane Grey Theater, The Joey Bishop Show and Car 54, Where Are You? In the latter two, he played himself. Who Killed Teddy Bear was the comedian’s big screen debut. Elaine Stritch had a long career in theater and film, including a recurring role in 30 Rock as Colleen Donaghy, Jack Donaghy’s testy mother.
Sal Mineo plays Lawrence Sherman, a troubled young man to say the least. He can be easily regarded as a prototype for Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, ten years before Bickle was on the Times Square scene. One has to wonder if, either or both, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader saw this film, and had it in mind when making Taxi Driver. Yes or no, director by Joseph Cates, the father of actress Phoebe Cates, and screenwriters Arnold Drake and Leon Tokatyan were the first to dare to show the dark, seedy, vulgar side of Times Square in all its grimy glory.
Lawrence Sherman is a busboy at a local discotheque. He’s obsessed with the club’s D.J., and wanna-be actress, Norah Dain, a sexy Juliet Prowse. Norah starts receiving obscene phone calls and is also being stalked. The film makes no secret who the caller is right from the beginning. Comic/Game Show Host, Jan Murray plays Lt. Dave Madden, a vice cop with hang-ups of his own, and a personal interest in the case. Four years earlier, his wife was raped and murdered. Ever since, Madden has become obsessed with listening to tape recordings of sex offenders and victims during his off hours; many times even when his young daughter is clearly in hearing distance right in the next room. His obsession with cleaning up the streets makes his “interest” in this case, and Norah, come across as disturbing at times. Norah, at one point, even becomes suspicious of Madden’s intentions.
Norah befriends the disturbed Lawrence whose background includes sexual abuse and making obscene phone calls, while he sits on his bed stroking himself. He has a compulsion for roaming Times Square’s seedier bookstores filled with porn magazines and underground books. Also, haunting is the relationship between Lawrence and his kid sister, Edie (Margot Bennett). In flashback, the viewer learns that a few years earlier, Edie caught Lawrence in bed with a prostitute. Frighten, confused, and upset, Edie runs out of the room, trips and falls down a flight of stairs causing severe and permanent brain injuries. Lawrence now takes “care” of his mentally challenged sister. One of his techniques is locking her in a closet when he is not home. Elaine Stritch plays, Marian, the hard-boiled lesbian manager of the discotheque who befriends Norah. Upset about the obscene phone calls and nervous about being alone in her apartment, Elaine volunteers to stay with Norah. It works out fine until Elaine becomes a little too friendly and Norah tells her to get out. Unfortunately, for Marian, she is seen exiting Norah’s apartment and is mistaken for her by stalker Lawrence who proceeds to follow the older woman, eventually cornering Marian in an alley where he strangles her with a silk stocking. At the end of the film, after an erotically charged dance (Watusi) at the club between Norah and Lawrence; our troubled loser has become so sexually excited, he confesses his “love” to Norah, and attacks her. Eventually, Lt. Madden trolling over his tapes figures out, Lawrence is the stalker.
Director Cates and cinematographer Brun capture 1960’s Times Square in all its sleazed filled glory: porn theaters, sexy lingerie shops, book/magazine stores filled with slimy paperbacks, magazines and blow up dolls. The film is anchored by a creepy, disturbing performance from Sal Mineo, as well as from the leggy Juliet Prowse whose character, an independent woman, finds herself in such a precarious situation.
Who Killed Teddy Bear, with its low-budget roots clearly visible, is a flawed film. From our current day perspective, the film is most likely not as shocking as it was in 1965. Still, it remains a hypnotic, lurid, psychosexual oddity; photographed with a stylish noir like feel, and surprising uncompromising.