❉ 1965 cult classic, originally rejected by British censors, makes its worldwide Blu-ray and VOD debut. Russ J Graham inspects the wares.
“Sal Mineo’s death at only 37 robbed us of seeing him mature as an actor. His juvenile look limited his roles, as did his lithe sexiness, which appealed to both men and women, kept him in ones like this one, making more use of his eye candy appeal than his acting talents.”
This is a fascinating film – perhaps more play than film, but that’s not a criticism. Certainly, putting it on at the National Theatre in 2019 would be a good idea. It’s a product of its time in many ways, but that’s also not a bad thing. It brings us something new from an era that is often thought of as being all dancing at parties on the top of Post Office Tower.
The late Juliet Prowse, playing stalked nightclub DJ Nora Dain, is her usual calm and restrained self, with a naturalistic style in acting that has come and gone into and out of fashion over the years, but hasn’t dated.
“The best role is taken by Elaine Stritch as nightclub manager and, it is suggested, lesbian, Edie Sherman. In the hands of another actress, this third-lead job would probably be overplayed. Stritch, famous for her broad comedy, vastly underplays here and steals the entire film.”
Sal Mineo’s death – from stab wounds inflicted by mugger Lionel Ray Williams – at only 37 robbed us of seeing him mature as an actor. Having looked like a teenager throughout his 20s, he was only just starting to look like someone in his 20s when he died. That limited his roles, as did his lithe sexiness, which appealed to both men and women, kept him in ones like this one, making more use of his eye candy appeal than his acting talents.
Director Joseph Cates appears to have identified as straight, but he has a clear appreciation of Sal Mineo’s body. His cameras take several excuses to linger on the actor’s torso and crotch, putting him in tight Y-fronts at the front of the movie and tighter-still speedos at the end.
The best role is taken by Elaine Stritch as nightclub manager and, it is suggested, lesbian, Edie Sherman. In the hands of another actress, this third-lead job would probably be overplayed. Stritch, famous for her broad comedy, vastly underplays here and steals the entire film.
The child in the movie, Diane Moore playing the daughter of the police lieutenant, is suitably atrocious and couldn’t act her way out of a soap bubble. Her only other appearance in front of the cameras was in the tawdry sex comedy Guess What We Learned in School Today? in 1970 and it’s probably for the best for everyone that her career stopped before it even started.
Margot Bennett plays Sal Mineo’s sister, a good choice as she really does look like him. This was her first of two appearances on film, the second being the odd 1973 fantasy comedy O Lucky Man!, starring her boyfriend and later husband Malcolm McDowell.
There’s an interesting mix of film stylings. Joseph Cates, the director, is more used to television – quiz shows and variety in the main – which seems to have taught him how to use black and white. Certainly the film wouldn’t work in colour – it needs the stark realness of monochrome rather than the oversaturated colours of the day. Cates makes a lot from some obviously small studio space, but also adds a fascinating tracking shot, filmed from a slowly moving car, as Nora walks through New York on her way to work. The nightclub scenes are overlit for film, but that does allow us to actually see what’s going on – scenes in dark rooms are never great in colour or black and white.
Cates also does an almost-convincing day-for-night shoot in New York’s sex district, showing us Sal Mineo examining the wares, intercut with actual night footage of Mineo further uptown in relative safety, and film of the sex district at night with Mineo noticeably absent.
The close of the movie still has the power to shock. Even as we’ve watched one character stalk and perv over Norah, and then assault and murder another, seeing him – pretty graphically for 1965 – sexually assault someone brought me up cold. It actually manages to feel like a break with his character. For all that he was obviously a pervert, the actor in question manages to make the pervert sympathetic. To have him exposed for what he is – a scummy rapist – becomes shocking. It’s an amazing trick to for the film to be able to pull.
The movie is rather like a very long play from ABC Armchair Theatre. That’s not an insult – quite the reverse, ABC Weekend TV made some of the best television the world has seen in their long-running drama anthology series – but whether this is enough to make people turn out at cinemas to watch is debatable. But to stay home and watch this Network Distributing blu-ray? Yes. Very much worth it.
The 35mm transfer is very good, looking stunning on a good hi-def television. There are a few running scratches and a reappearing blob in the bottom left, but nothing more than you expect of film of this age. The sound is very good, with a nice depth to it, keeping speaking voices clear.
The SDH subtitles are comprehensive, not falling into the habit of saying [music], but are generated from someone listening to the movie rather from the script, so there’s the occasional mistranscription – “Quiet tonight” being rendered as “Whyatt’s tonight?” and the like.
A word of warning for those with photosensitivity. The last couple of minutes of the film use, as a special effect, short but repeated flashing images.
Network Distributing always do a fine job of supplying cheap extras to fill the rest of a disc, and this one is no exception. There’s a photo gallery of posters for the film, press release sent out to the trades and publicity stills, as well as the original – sensationalist – theatrical trailer.
There’s also an episode of the 1966 ATV/ITC series Court Martial, which was also shown on the American ABC network. It’s the 12th episode (of a typical ITC 26), ‘The House Where He Lived’, which guest stars Sal Mineo, explaining the otherwise odd placement of one of these World War II-set military/courtroom dramas on this disc.
Finally there’s a public information film, narrated by Mineo, spending 12 minutes warning us how awful teenagers are and how likely they are to drop acid. The film quality of this one is terrible – the blue has washed out of the print, leaving just green and magenta… lots and lots of magenta. But that actually adds to the campness. It’s worth a watch, not least for knowing that Sal Mineo himself wasn’t exactly clean when it came to drugs.
❉ Network presents the worldwide Blu-ray debut of Who Killed Teddy Bear on 17th September, RRP £14.99, and Digital on 15th October.
❉ Pre-order Blu-ray on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2vyCrF4
❉ Historian Russ J Graham is Editor-in-Chief of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System.