The Devil and Sal Mineo

Sexual perversity in New York, 1965

In Who Killed Teddy Bear? Juliet Prowse plays Norah Dain, a fresh young provincial girl come to find her fortune in New York City. She looks and seems a lot like Marlo Thomas in That Girl, but the Manhattan around her is distinctly less cozy and familial than the TV series' version. In fact it's lurid -- a wild potpourri of peeping Toms, porn freaks, filthy-minded vice cops, switch-hitting bosses, and mental defectives huddling in closets.

Director Joseph Cates revels in the squalor but never loses sight of lust's comic dimension. While all of his characters (except the snow-white Norah) are in one way or another sexual irregulars, there is something sprightly about their naughty secrets and obsessions. Desire is life, after all, and "normal" is a shifting social construct that applies to the sex lives of real people only by accident, and temporarily. Teddy Bear (first released in 1965 and adrift since then in cinematic limbo) has more than its share of erotic pathology, but even at its most disturbed the picture pulses with energy.

The black-and-white cinematography has a formal cleanliness at odds with the film's often leering tone. Lack of color is distancing, a constant reminder that this is a movie; it raises a modest barrier to the willing suspension of disbelief. People filmed in black and white seem less like flesh and blood and more like shadows -- players in a dream or a memory. They're less engaging, but in this case they're also more amenable to Cates' unsparing and sometimes ironic examination of what drives them.

It's clear what drives Norah: the urge to succeed. (She makes a living in the meantime by working in a nightclub.) Although she's a beautiful young woman, she's too naive to be voluptuous. She's an innocent wandering the streets of Babylon, so unacquainted with desire that when she starts getting obscene phone calls in the middle of the night, she lectures and pleads with the panting offender rather than telling him (as a real New Yorker would) to go fuck himself.

She reveals the problem to her boss, Marian (Elaine Stritch, with her voice of purring gravel), and together they report the incident to the police. A cheerful but peculiar vice cop, Detective Dave Madden (Jan Murray), takes charge, setting up a bug on Norah's phone and even asking her to stay with him (and his 10-year-old daughter) when the calls become more frequent and intense.

Murray plays Madden with a Joe Friday deadpan, but his interest in human sexual deviancy is more like something from the pages of Krafft-Ebing. Madden sits at home for hours at a time, transcribing tape recordings of racy conversations he's had with women pursued and harassed by sex maniacs. Meanwhile his young daughter listens in avidly through the thin walls of her bedroom.

Little-noticed in the hubbub is young Larry Sherman (a way-buffed Sal Mineo), who works at the nightclub along with Norah. He is shy and unsure of himself; when he isn't working, he's either at the gym or at home looking after his retarded younger sister, Pam (Diane Moore).

Or stalking the city in search of porn. Hetero, homo, omni -- it doesn't matter. Bestiality. Books, magazines, peep shows, theaters: He can't get enough. His personality expresses itself through priapism, and it's one of the film's small amazements that his state of arousal is so often and so plainly visible.

Yet he also has a quiet, adolescent crush on Norah, and in the movie's most touching sequence, she teaches him how to dance. The nightclub is closed, and the dance floor is empty: No one is there to jeer at his halting first efforts or interrupt his eventual submission to his body's rhythms.

If only teaching someone how to make love was as easy. Norah doesn't know what demons she's releasing until it's too late. Larry courts with all the subtlety of a Bob Packwood: After the dance lesson, he pins her to the dance floor while announcing his love for her. He shouts down her screams for help and is on the verge of raping her to prove his devotion when the ever-alert Detective Madden bursts in.

Larry is handsome, sexy, twisted, and vulnerable -- a perfect child of the city. He's learned too early the crude power and easy availability of sex, the siren call of metropolitan life, and he's not learned at all how to leaven desire with affection. He's burning up inside a flaming wheel of lust and release, but he can't escape its mechanical urgency. Every time he scratches the itch, it goes away for a time, only to return again, stronger and more demanding.

And he can't join his erotic self with the rest of him; his sexual yearning is like a badly trained dog pulling its master around by the leash. It isolates him from any prospect of real human contact. All he has is his obsession. He's ashamed of it -- he knows it's a curse -- but that's not enough to make him stop or change. It's simply his fate, his life.

Mineo dominates Who Killed Teddy Bear? despite barely appearing in the movie's first 45 minutes. His is the only character rounded out to human fullness; he's weak and evil, soft and squalid and pitiable in the paradoxical ways most people are. The rest of the cast resemble imports from a TV movie of the week -- characters intended to convey one or two points, like road signs. Prowse is prettily prim but not much else; Stritch, as an over-the-hill dyke, is too busy being maternally sympathetic to exercise her satiric gifts. (Her pass at Norah is the movie's most dreadfully unimaginative scene: They both end up looking ridiculous.)

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