Sal Mineo was twice nominated for an Academy Award. He enjoyed success as a stage director and a recording artist, but he is mostly remembered for his performance in a single film and for the brutal murder that ended his life just as he was on the verge of reinventing himself and his career.
I have a soft spot for Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), one of the most demented films I have ever watched. In it, Mineo plays the love interest of both Juliet Prowse and Elaine Stritch! It’s weird and grimy, but if you can find it, you simply must indulge in the film’s strangeness.
The basic plot revolves around a young, beautiful DJ and aspiring actor, Norah (Prowse), who soon becomes the focal point of a stalker. He starts off as a hot and heavy breathing obscene phone caller, making comments like ”I know what you look like right now.” and ”I can make you feel like a real woman”. She’s annoyed a little at first but gets progressively more rattled as the number of calls grow and violence starts grow around her.
Instead of building up the identity of Norah’s mystery caller to the very end, we find out who he is midway through the film. It turns out to be the boyishly busboy, Lawrence (Mineo), who works with her at the discotheque. He first is seen as all muscle, shiny with sweat and clad in tight white briefs. The shock of seeing former teen idol as the sexually damaged obscene phone caller with homicidal tendencies is something I have never forgotten.
He brings some serious depth and layers to Lawrence, creating a character who is alternately sad and frightening, mostly due to his childhood rooted dysfunction. Whether he is taking his mentally challenged sister to the zoo or working out with an intensity that precedes either the hottest sex act or the worst murder, Mineo is insanely good here. His performance is ranks up there with Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
The film is shot in beautifully moody B&W, showing the grimy underbelly of society. Who Killed Teddy Bear? is first posed as a musical question crooned melodramatically over the film’s tantalizingly lurid title sequence featuring a blurry undulation of bodies as a little girl watches, clutching her cherished teddy bear. She turns away, only to fall down the stairs, with her face now suddenly blank, as if she is dead.
Without a breath of relief, the first scene starts in a cramped, shadowy bedroom, complete with a nightstand littered with dirty magazines. A mirror reflects the image of a man caressing his bare chest while looking at photos of Norah, right before calling her on the telephone.
The elements of sleaze continue as Norah encounters police detective (Jan Murray), a single father whose fascination with all manners of sexual deviancy infects his home life. Norah’s boss, the glamorous ball buster Marian (Stritch), is an uneasy mixture of the maternal and unbridled lesbian lust, who has the best line:
“I never wore a bra until I was 28. And then for a fast ten minutes. Some quack convinced me it helped firm the muscles. I don’t like being fenced in. It’s a hang-up of mine.”
There is some now-historic footage of seamy New York City, with Detective Lawrence’s taking a trip to an adult bookstore, a peek into the pre-gentrification and Disneyfication of Times Square.
Sadly, Who Killed Teddy Bear? didn’t really do a thing for anyone’s career. What I’d once thought of as disturbing looked hopelessly camp, overwrought, and overemphatic, the film has somehow retained its edge for me. It was banned in the UK until recently. After all these years Who Killed Teddy Bear? remains one of the strangest films to come out of the swinging 1960s. And that’s saying something. You can watch it on YouTube.