A cult film cannot be uniformly bad across the five general pillars of cinema – directing, acting, writing, editing, and lighting. Most often, two or three pillars quickly cave under the superstructure. But the remaining scaffolds stagger bravely with the newfound weight – and therein lies the odd, I-can’t-look-away curiosity we have in watching if the whole mess can reach ‘The End’. Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) manages to survive on two pillars…barely.
The story – in essence – is about a Peeping Tom (Sal Mineo) with a telephone: it’s wobbly but, because of its very ineptitude, is never totally predictable. The dialogue is amateurish, but holds your attention due to that exact fact. Remember, if success has its own rewards, failure does too.
The acting – with the exception of comedian Jan Murray, bizarrely miscast as a hardened police detective – is solid. Sal Mineo delivers the performance of his career. Juliet Prowse is capable as the beleaguered heroine, yet her performance becomes increasingly uneven, suggesting the film was shot out of sequence and no one told her where they were in the book. Elaine Stritch turns in an interesting interpretation as a hardened night club owner – though the lesbian overtones add nothing to furthering the plot.
Directing? Oh boy. Here we have trouble. Perhaps director Joseph Cates had recently discovered an instruction manual on the Art of Cinema and tried to bung in as many visual techniques as the budget permitted. Also, as so much of the film is obvious filler – stock shots of a cityscapes and crowds – it’s likely the director was just running the clock to meet feature film time requirements. Often the direction gets in the way of what could have been an average noir.
Same for the editing. Too frequently the cuts are jarring, suggesting someone ran out of film in the middle of a scene and they just moved on. (I joke – but it really does seem like that).
However…the lighting is outstanding. Almost everything is cast in Godfather-style, low-level shadows, perfect for a story that lives by night. And the black and white film is ideal: color itself is a character, and can get in the way.
Who Killed Teddy Bear?, with its dopey claim on bargain-basement Freud, is not even close to good, but like all durable cult films, somehow manages to walk up a hill backwards.