AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 79 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Virginia Wilson is saved from being murdered by an escapee from the local sanitarium by her stepbrother Charlie, but is severely traumatised by the event. She’s committed to the sanitarium where Dr Greenwood falls for her and takes over her life. When she wants to return to her old job as a dancer at the El Madhouse night club, Greenwood changes his name to Bill Green, her name to Yolanda Lange, and becomes her manager. Then one night she’s stabbed, even though her vicious great Dane wards off the attacker. Columnist Bill Sweeney grows intrigued, and stumbles onto the fact that both Yolanda and an earlier victim of ‘The Ripper’ possessed strange statuettes called Screaming Mimis – while becoming increasingly fond of the mysterious blonde…..
I like to seek out old and obscure films that spark my interest, and my reason for obtaining this one [it’s in the public domain so it’s ridiculously cheap though there is an official DVD out there – but only as part of a box set] film out was that it was an adaptation of the same novel that inspired much of Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage [and one character in his Four Flies On Grey Velvet], and is supposedly much closer to Fredric Brown’s 1949 book The Screaming Mimi. But did it turn out to be any good? Well, it’s certainly interesting, a kind of missing link between American film noir and the Italian giallo. It’s also an astonishingly sleazy effort to come from a major studio at the time, Paramount, with pretty obvious lesbianism, stated fetishism, and very twisted character relationships. As a thriller it’s only so so, with few moments of excitement and not a lot of suspense either, but the psychological elements really make the proceedings quite compelling, at least until some dime store ‘explanatory’ stuff at the end which I doubt will make sense to anybody watching the film. And I sadly have to say that star Anita Ekberg [whom I think I’ve only otherwise seen in Le Dolce Vita], despite truly being a great beauty, is really is not much of an actress and doesn’t do her fascinating role much justice.
I didn’t expect to find much background info on this one, but it was obvious within under a minute that, while following the novel much more closely, screenwriter Robert Blees had made one major alteration that both hampers and benefits the film. He decided to tell Brown’s story chronologically and devote the first section to events that were originally shrouded in mystery and only revealed at the end. This means that there’s far less mystery for our hero to uncover, and that the conclusion has less punch than it might have had because much of the disclosed information has already been revealed. But it also means that the very dark relationship which is at the centre of the story is more foregrounded and Virginia is much more sympathetic. And we really do get a belter of a beginning, after an interesting title sequence in which the Screaming Mimi statue is superimposed over water. Virginia, staying at her stepbrother Charlie’s beachfront house, comes out of the sea with her pet dog to take an outside shower. We see part of a dark figure looming, but Virginia only sees the maniac when he seems to come out of the ground in quite a frightening moment. He stabs her dog off screen and almost does the same to her before Charlie saves the day. However, Virginia is badly affected, and Charlie’s calm attitude and acceptance of what follows is a little odd – though I did wonder if the character was supposed to be homosexual going by the coded portrayals of the day. Knowing this film, I wouldn’t be surprised. Then we are scarily shown how someone can totally take over somebody else’s life and make them totally dependent. Greenwood quickly becomes infatuated with Virginia [I suppose I can’t blame him] and uses her vulnerability, amnesia and trance-like state to get her under his control. The key line is spoken by Virginia: “Please don’t leave me”. Harry Townes, an actor who seems to have mostly done TV work and therefore not one I’m familiar with, is nicely shaded and even subtle in most of his scenes with Ekberg.
Virginia becomes Yolanda Lange and we’re treated to the first of two lengthy dance sequences with Ekberg writhing around in chains while it looks like two same sex couples [one definitely looks like two lesbians] are among the audience members. That’s not a big deal by today’s standards, but certainly would have been in 1958. And how on earth did the scene where co-dancer Joann “Gypsy” Masters is interrupted dancing in her room with the club’s female food seller Ketti by Bill who quickly leaves with the comment “I didn’t realise it was just tea for two” get past the censors? I reckon they must have been asleep. Anyway, Virginia is soon attacked again, though in one of several staging mistakes we only see the aftermath. One can only imagine the excitement of a scene in which a woman is wounded by a knife-wielding murderer and is saved from further injury by her trusted Great Dane. Reporter Bill, who seems to spend most of his time hanging around disreputable dives, becomes interested in this sensational dancer and the case. Especially curious to him is that statue that she seems to keep – and later forgets that she even has. It also seems that the previous ‘Ripper’ murder victim was found with another replica of the same statue. Curiouser and curiouser – or maybe not if you were paying attention really early on and noticed that somebody was a sculptor. The police – whose operations Bill seem extremely privy to – think that the killer will return to the club to finish the job. But are killers that predictable?
Even if you appreciate that it’s not intended to be a thrill-a-minute affair, there aren’t really enough scenes of tension in this movie. There’s a spooky night [well, day for night] walk that doesn’t end in the way that you expect, and you just know that when you see Bill calm down Virginia’s dog fairly early on he’s going to have to do it later. But the two climactic suspense bits are a bit rushed, though then again all the way through the script has shown more emphasis on the romantic – if it can be called that – aspects. The real climax is the very well written final scene between Virginia and Dr Greenwood, and the way it ends you realise how much Greenwood does love Virginia. He may have abused his position and taken advantage of an extremely vulnerable woman, but it’s still love and still very deep – perhaps too deep. As for Bill and Virginia – well, they very clearly spend a night together [and yet the MPAA were apparently concerned about the idea that there may have been a “sex affair” between Scottie and Madelaine in the same year’s Vertigo even though I think it’s obvious to anyone watching that film that nothing of the kind happened at all]. Virginia does seem to respond emotionally to Bill at times, but does the part of her that’s drawn to him actually love him or at least have feelings for him? A good actress could have really pulled this part off, but unfortunately Ekberg is just not up to the task. Even during her dance sequences it looks like she’s trying to remember her moves, something which mutes the potential eroticism of the scenes – though the low point of the ‘performance’ bits has to be when Gypsy Rose Lee [a famed stripper in real life] as Joann does a shoddy cover of Put The Blame Om Mame, the song which Rita Hayworth immortalised in Gilda. Philip Carey isn’t too good as Bill either. He’s not terrible, but doesn’t really convey to us that his character has heavily fallen for Yolanda.
Director Gerd Oswald mostly handles the proceedings rather blandly and certainly doesn’t make the best of moments that ought to be highlights, but there are some moments of inspiration. The outside flashing hotel light that illuminates Bill and Virginia’s tryst as well as giving us long intervals of pitch blackness is a nice stylish device, and come to think of it their first kiss is all done by shadow. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is quite low key as the noir style goes. There’s some playing with dark and shadows, with Greenwood particularly subject to having some black on him unsurprisingly, but not that much. I’ve waited until now to mention the music. The score is credited to Mischa Balaleinikoff, and there are a few original compositions in there – but for much of the time, including the opening credits, we’re listening to Leonard Bernstein’s music from On The Waterfront! I’ve reviewed some Hong Kong martial arts movies where they pilfered music from American and British films, but I can’t believe that an American film got away with doing this. Maybe there was some sort of deal and Bernstein got a load of money, but this was a pretty low budget effort so that seems unlikely. The cool lounge dance music scenes is provided by the Red Norvo Trio who were apparently well regarded for a while – and I can see and hear why.
I failed to guess the killer [okay I haven’t read the book] though seeing as I’m usually the worst movie detective ever that might not be a big deal. On the other hand the load of waffle about fetishising of a statue will probably cause any first time viewer today to chuckle or at least sigh. But despite a certain tawdriness and uncertainty about the best way to tell its story, there’s still something rather compelling about Screaming Mimi. At its heart, it’s about the effect of trauma and the dangerous effect of love which are strong themes that almost always involve on some emotional level. And the more I think about it, maybe Ekberg’s vagueness does suit her character after all [one can change one’s mind in the course of a review I think]. I think I’ll be revisiting this little cheapie quite often. Despite really being very flawed, there’s quite a lot going on in it.