Once Upon A Time In Hell

By 1965, the colors of the Sixties--candy apple red Ford Mustangs, burnt orange Fender guitars, shocking pink Yardley lipstick, mellow yellow go-go boots, and paisley print shirts--were in full psychedelic bloom. Television shows like The FBI and The Rat Patrol proudly announced that they were “In Color” right under their titles. The world was awash in Day-Glo and glitter. Even Roger Corman had gone to color pictures. But the year 1965 was also an interesting year for grim little black and white urban dramas, nasty stories at the bottom of a deep black pit that the sunshine never seemed to reach. There were black and white stories about fear and paranoia, like Arthur Penn’s Mickey One. There were black and white films about de-personalization and alienation, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. There were black and white tales about alcohol and amnesia, like Delbert Mann’s Mister Buddwing (aka Woman Without a Face). And there were black and white stories about denial and suppression, like Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. It harkened back to the films noir of the 1940s and 1950s, except that the heroic private eyes were all gone, and the really bad dames and really evil hoods had taken over the whole planet. Things were rotten everywhere down there. Among the things crawling and scraping along the damp floor of the inky black pit that year was a little film called Who Killed Teddy Bear?

The film had all the unpleasantness and pervasive paranoia that one could want in a pit viper story. There was a masturbating voyeur, a predatory lesbian, an incestuous past, a vengeful cop, a violent rape, a demented little sister, and a meat rack discotheque. Its sickness comes in layers like an onion gone bad. As you peel the thing, the smell gets worse and worse. You know the heart of the thing is black and putrid before you even get down to it.

Norah Dane (Juliet Prowse) is a na├»ve dance teacher from Rochester who works as a DJ in a grimy New York City nightclub, while she auditions for parts on Broadway. When she starts getting obscene telephone calls from a sexual psychopath, she thinks it’s a joke and tells him to “go sober up.” Norah’s concerned boss, Marion Freeman (Elaine Stritch), is a burned out lesbian with a foul attitude about men; she is not surprised that a phone pervert is calling, because all men are slime. Marion offers to keep Norah company and tells her, “I dig soft things.” The only men this jaded wreck seems to trust are the club’s bouncer and a waiter. The bouncer, played by Daniel J. Travanti (credited as “Travanty” in this early role), is a loyal mute named Carlo, who takes his lumps for the club and Marion, as if the club were his only home and the man-hating boss his only mother. The waiter’s name is Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo), a lonesome, porn-addicted lad who tries to make friends with the girl DJ. Lawrence’s demented sister, Edie (Margot Bennett), the victim of a past horror involving her brother and her mother, seems to be preoccupied with the missing stuffed animal of the title. Norah wonders who she can trust in this zone of filth and deception. A vice detective, Lt. Dave Madden (comedian Jan Murray), takes over the case and injects himself into Norah’s life, much to her discomfort. Madden’s obsession with pornography and sexual deviance occupies most of his waking hours, both at work and at home. His desk is a library of pornography and psychiatry books about necrophilia, fetishes, S&M, and the like. A widower, the detective listens to tape recordings of interviews with perverts while his 10-year-old daughter Pam (played by Murray’s real daughter Diane Moore) tries to sleep in the next room. He tells Norah that his wife was “raped and mutilated,” in an effort to explain why he has been shadowing her. Lt. Madden’s supervisor (Frank Campanella) is also disturbed by the detective’s obsessive attention to the Norah Dane case, telling him, “Dave, you’ve gone over the line. You’ve joined them.” As the nightclub’s seedy customers prance to The Twist, The Swim, and The Mashed Potato, Lawrence prowls 42nd Street peep shows, Marion waits to put the moves on Norah, Detective Madden rounds up sickos from the raincoat crowd, and Norah continues undressing in front of open windows and open doors. We’re left with the bottom feeders of humanity. Norah has to learn the hard way that everybody is sick and twisted. No one is to be trusted, not anyone, not ever.

Joseph Cates (father of 2-year-old Phoebe) directed this thoroughly twisted tale, in which everyone’s motives come into question, none of them very healthy. Cates’ other credits include Girl of the Night(1960) and The Fat Spy (1965), but he was better known for writing, directing, and producing game shows, musical variety programs, magic act specials, and awards shows. Twenty-six-year old Sal Mineo flexes his buff and hairless body, chain-smoking and rubbing himself in his BVDs. The camera lingers a bit too long on Mineo’s muscular body, just as it does on the Times Square grind house posters and smut shop displays. It is said that Who Killed Teddy Bear? was Mineo’s favorite movie, which may have more to do with its documentation of his pumped physique than any story quality. The psychologically scarred Edie Sherman is played by Margot Bennett (then wife of actor Keir Dullea), who went on to appear in O Lucky Man! (1973) and later married her co-star, Malcolm McDowell. South African-bred Juliet Prowse was a 28-year-old dancer who had starred with and romanced both Elvis (G.I. Blues, 1960) and Frank Sinatra (Can-Can, 1960), and was engaged to Sinatra briefly in 1962. Her movie roles vanished after one more picture (Dingaka, 1965), but she continued performing on television for many years. The sweaty scene in which Prowse teaches Mineo how to dance is both sleazy and crudely suggestive, but demonstrates that both actors already know how to do The Twist, The Pony, The Watusi, and The Shake. Between recurring discotheque pop tunes like Any Place I Go is Home and It Could’ve Been Me, one can hear the strains of rumbling urban jazz and the Who Killed Teddy Bear? theme, recorded by Leslie Uggams. It’s a quirky little tune, that song of the pit, 1965.

You can get a watchable copy of Who Killed Teddy Bear? on DVD
from Sinister Cinema.

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