Anthology Film Archives revives Who Killed Teddy Bear this weekend, with screenings tonight through Sunday.
A slight but stylish and oddly watchable stew of urban deviance from the grindhouse alleys of yesteryear, Joseph Cates’s Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) may never acquire the cult it still seems to beg for—and maybe the perception of begging is the problem. Juliet Prowse is a self-reliant ingenue lost in New York, waitressing at a discotheque, auditioning, and being obscene-phone-called and stalked by developmentally arrested man-boy Sal Mineo, who is often shot through a 70s-Penthouse-style soft-focus halo. The disco scenes are overdressed go-go malarkey—however surprisingly Dion-esque the songs are, the dancing is just a gas, man—but that seems appropriate, too, for the gutter oeuvre of cheapo auteur and Phoebe’s dad Cates, who also helmed the Phyllis Diller comedy The Fat Spy.
But what makes Teddy Bear interesting is its spot on the continuum between A Streetcar Named Desire and Taxi Driver, dramas of degenerated masculine frustration, building from ordinary misogony to slaughter. The muscly, t-shirted Mineo often comes off like a high schooler doing Brando doing Stanley Kowalski, while Prowse, with her soft blondness, flustered South African accent and sexual vulnerability, reeks of Blanche-ness. (She’d taste real jungle hate decades later, getting mauled twice by a leopard for a 1987 Circus of the Stars episode.) The Bickle interfaces crop up throughout: the lonely obsession with porn, the moral rage, the hatred of sex, the mad exercising, the awkward pursuit of a Cybill Shepherdesque blonde. For good measure, Teddy Bear throws in a brain-damaged sister, incest, a twisted cop who reads Teenage Nudist magazine (game-show host Jan Murray) and Elaine Stritch as a snapdragon dyke who gives no quarter to psychos or cops. As in Scorsese, the city’s the culprit, although downtown stores that sell Naked Lunch and zipped underwear pass in 1965 as proof of Gomorrah.