Who Killed Teddy Bear Review
New York City, the mid 1960s. Norah (Juliet Prowse) has come to the city looking to break into showbusiness. In the meantime, she works as a DJ in a discotheque owned by Marian (Elaine Stritch). Then a series of obscene phone calls start...
Back in 1960, what was the most contentious part of Psycho with the American censors of the day? Not the murder scenes, not the flashes of nudity in the shower...but the use of the word “transvestite”. Who Killed Teddy Bear was made four years later. You wonder what those censors would have made of the shopping list of perversions Lieutenant Dave Madden (Jan Murray) reels off in an early scene. This was an independent production which does not bear the MPAA seal of approval, so no doubt it was released outside the system, as it were. Meanwhile, over in the UK, the BBFC rejected the film outright. This DVD marks its first British commercial release.
The mid-60s was a time when boundaries of acceptability were being pushed. In the spirit of choosing one's battles, this film pushes at some but – with four and a half decades of hindsight – seems oddly circumspect in others. This far, no further. While we see Prowse in her underwear more than once (and Sal Mineo with his shirt off), Who Killed Teddy Bear steers clear of showing actual nudity (in the year when Hollywood broke that taboo with The Pawnbroker). Nor are any notable profanities uttered. On the other hand, there's plenty of sleaze in the subject matter, and director Joseph Cates and screenwriter Arnold Drake are far less interested in Juliet Prowse's hapless would-be actress (she virtually disappears from the film in the last quarter hour) than in the characters round her. There's Norah's lesbian boss Marian, who makes a pass at our heroine. There's driven detective Dave, who listens to audio recordings of victim testimonies while his young daughter listens behind the closed door of her bedroom nearby. Not for nothing does Cates track across his book collection, with psychological textbooks alternating with titles like Slash Nudes. Then there's deeply conflicted busboy Lawrence (Sal Mineo), who obsessively, sweatily works out, pays visits to adult bookshops (check out the copies of Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch on display – those were the days), and looks after a sister, Edie (Marion Bennett), who is mentally impaired due to...what? I'll leave you to find that out.
Despite attempts at red herrings, it's not difficult to work out who the phone caller is, and despite Cates's sometimes arty direction (vaselined flashbacks, quick cutting) the film does become a little dull towards the end. That said, it's interesting as an example of the low-rent end of the American film industry back in the mid-Sixties, and as an illustration of how far you could go for the censors of the day.
There were quite a few films in the 60s and 70s which fell foul of the BBFC and which were heavily cut if not banned outright at the time. And in the latter cases, many of them stay banned because no-one has resubmitted them – almost all of them would have no problems in being passed today. And that makes your chances of seeing them at all (in the UK at least) remote, as television regulations do not allow BBFC-rejected works to be shown. (The Film Four TV channel have submitted uncut versions of films to the BBFC so that they can show them, on six occasions.) Now, several of these films sound interesting and others are no doubt junk, but it would be good to have a chance to judge for ourselves. That's one reason to applaud the releases of Who Killed Teddy Bear, West End Jungle and others, and let's hope there's more to come.
Who Killed Teddy Bear is released on a dual-layered disc by Network. Unusually for one of their DVDs, it's an all-regions disc. The IMDB gives the film's running time as 94 minutes, leading some to speculate that this is not an uncut version. (The BBFC have not cut it for a 15 certificate, but that doesn't necessarily mean that what was submitted to them was complete.) However, Maltin's Film Guide gives the runtime as 91 minutes, which is more or less what this DVD runs to (86:47), given PAL speed-up. In addition, the film's press kit (see below) gives the 91-minute time.
The DVD transfer appears to have been derived from a master which has been assembled from more than one source. The majority of it is in a ratio of 1.26:1 (measured), that is full-frame 4:3 with “windowboxing”, that is, black bars at the sides. That certainly isn't a cinematic aspect ratio – 1.20:1 (or 1.19:1) was used for early talkies, but not 35mm dramatic features made in the 1960s. This is very obviously open-matte (leaving aside its being cropped at the sides) with an intended ratio of 1.85:1. I'd recommend owners of widescreen TVs to zoom the picture to 16:9. This material is a sharp transfer, with the blacks, whites and greys appropriately contrasted. There's definite print damage in the form of fine lines, but it's not distracting – and probably inevitable given the age and obscurity of the film.
However some scenes have been inserted from a different print, which is much softer and grainier – and not cropped at the sides. An example of this occurs twenty-two minutes in, during Dave Madden's list of aberrant personality types referred to above. Perhaps the majority of this copy is a censored TV print, with the cut material put back in.
The mono soundtrack is fine, a little lacking in dynamic range, but pretty much what you would expect from a Sixties B-movie. There are no subtitles provided, which is always regrettable.
As with many DVDs released by Network, they have delved into their extensive library of television material for extras. The two items here are linked by Sal Mineo's presence. He's the guest star in an episode, first broadcast in 1965, of the UK/USA TV series Court Martial, “The House Where He Lived” (48:04), directed by Peter Maxwell. Bradford Dillman and Peter Graves were the regulars in this series, and Anthony Quayle also guests in this episode, also known as “Burden of Guilt”. Presented in 4:3 (as it should be), the print is damaged with tramlines galore down the left hand side.
The other item is “LSD: Insight or Insanity?”, a short documentary (18:07) from 1967. “I'm Sal Mineo,” he says, as the narrator, “and these are teenagers.” Actually, they're all actors, though some real-life physicians turn up as themselves to warn about the dangers of taking the drug in the title. This is exploitation fare without a doubt, as it goes into rhapsodies about how boys and girls do their hair – and (gasp!) you can't always tell them apart! And (double gasp!) they take drugs! Footage of a “chicken run” inevitably recalls Mineo's most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause. To say the condition of this extra is appalling would be an inderstatement: also presnted in 4:3, it's pretty much faded throughout to pink-tinted monochrome, with green tramlines down the screen virtually throughout.
The final extras are the theatrical trailer for Who Killed Teddy Bear (2:10), and a self-navigating (4:08) stills gallery for the film and for the episode of Court Martial. Oddly, given that the episode is black and white, many of the stills for it are in colour. Also on the disc, in PDF format, are some publicity materials: advertisement blocks and poster designs, a synopsis and press cuttings. All of these render the film's title with the question mark which it doesn't actually have on screen.
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