Friday, April 16, 2010


Pulp writer Fredric Brown was at his best when working in the medium of the “short-short story”. Often running no more than a couple of pages, Brown had a knack for crafting well-rounded little tales that delivered a mighty smack at the end, usually a twist, that changed the entire precedings and cold-cocking the viewer right in the mind’s eye. He also enjoyed the irony of how the rest of the world perceives the one person who glimpses an underlying “something sinister” that no one else can or has. Take, for instance, a story in which a little kid stops Satan from destroying a congregation during mass with a squirt-gun filled with Holy Water, only to be whipped for it by his father for the sacrilege.  Or the notion of a science fiction writer nearly starving to death after incredibly-annoying Martians invade Earth, turning his readers off of otherworldly stories and forcing him to seek a living writing westerns. His straight-forward fiction utilized touches of the supernatural early on as elements to be deftly discredited by the rational hero. This latter skill has been bastardized by lazier writers who turn these twists into “Scooby-Doo” moments but Brown never let it feel like a cheat. Even in his genre stories the supernatural or extraterrestrial was never the point, it was the human reaction, which is, of course, a pillar of great speculative fiction.

In his 1948 novel, Screaming Mimi, an alcoholic newspaper man named Sweeney becomes fixated on a stripper who seems to be the target of a serial killer the media has dubbed “The Ripper”. She survives one attack thanks to the interjection of her enormous dog, but the threat remains. The closer Sweeney gets to uncovering the truth, however, the more frightened he becomes—not only of the truth but in his own understanding of it. The dancer is an important element of his life and he, ultimately, does not want to solve the crimes, particularly when the facts are staring him right in the face.

It’s a twisty psychological thriller masquerading as a pot-boiler set in a dark and skuzzy world—not so much the “underworld” as the slime floating just on top—involving murder, deviance, psychology and hypnotism—the latter two are the misdirection, of course. So it’s a bit of a calamity to see Brown’s well-crafted book transformed into a clumsy and confused B-Movie. On the other hand, it’s not like this has never happened before (or since), so it’s less a tragedy than it is just a little sad.
Directed by German expatriate Gerd Oswald, Screaming Mimi has a terrific setting, but its dark shadows and deep focus (courtesy of the great Burnett Guffey) only serve to throw a sharper focus on the stiff, sleepwalking actors looking so beautiful on the screen. One Life to Live’s Philip Carey looks like a young George Peppard and plays Sweeney with an unctuous smarminess. Anita Ekberg, still a few years away from Fellini’s La Dolce Vida, plays dancer Yolanda Lang as a somnambulant, even when she’s not supposed to be. When we first meet the young dancer, she’s a happy Californian teenager named Virginia who is attacked in an outside beach shower by a knife-wielding asylum escapee who kills her dog before he himself is shot and killed by her brother. Traumatized by the event, Virginia is institutionalized in the very same asylum, where her psychiatrist (Harry Townes) falls in love with her. Faking her death, the two skip town together. Now Yolanda stars at the El Madhouse, owned by the gregarious “Gypsy Mapes” (played by real life burlesque superstar Gypsy Rose Lee), performing oddly lurid interpretive dance numbers in a jungle girl outfit and a set of chains. Entranced by her “erotic dance” (as any good Republican would be), Sweeney falls for her hard.

But when another dancer across town who resembles Yolanda and possesses an eerily-similar name is found murdered with an odd little statuette of a woman screaming found at the scene (the “Mimi” of the title), Sweeney becomes convinced that Yolanda is next on the hit list. He discovers a similar statuette in her dressing room just hours before she herself is attacked and wounded in much the same way as the dead woman. Only her enormous Great Dane, Devil, who could easily eat his own weight in Philip Careys, saves her from murder. When Sweeney asks her about the little statue, she denies any knowledge of it, so now he’s convinced that her “Dr. Green” has some sort of sway over her. In the meantime, Gypsy sings “Put the Blame on Mame”—sadly failing to instill fear or envy in Rita Hayworth—and long conversations are held in which no information is conveyed.

Because of the clumsy screenplay by Robert Blees (best-known for the giant-atomic-mutant-bug movie The Black Scorpion), all of the stories twists are laid out for the audience in a big obvious buffet, so if you’ve seen a movie before, you’ll see the twist of hardly-Shyamalanian proportions long before Sweeney does. Where Brown’s story gave the reader a bit of credit, everything in Blees’ script is spelled out phonetically and linearly, obviously mistaking the audience for flock of lemmings (or of even lesser intelligence, like weeds or bricks). Neither Ekberg nor Carey do much to keep things moving either. Ekberg was obviously aware that she was cast for her measurements and not her talent, so she didn’t expend any energy in getting anyone’s eyes off her chest. Carey doesn’t bump into the furniture and that’s the best that can be said for his delivery, all toothy smile/grimace like he has tacks in his shoes the entire time. Some of the supporting actors come off much better, particularly Townes who could have easily gone the oily-cartoon route with his character but instead plays Dr. Green with a worried desperation that works better in the context of things.

The movie’s two scene stealers are Gypsy Rose Lee and Guffey’s photography. Lee has energy to spare and you wonder if she wouldn’t have been better than Barbara Stanwyck in Lady of Burlesque, a pot-boiler adapted from Lee’s own daffy mystery novel, The G-String Murders. She gets the best one-liners, including a couple that Mae West would have killed for, and manages to goose the electricity up a little. But it’s the dark shadows and unusual angles that give Screaming Mimi its distinctive look and helps the poor bored viewer along when Carey and Ekberg make goo-goo eyes at each other. The sequence where Yolanda recounts her attack on the dark deserted streets is a visual stunner that belongs in an entirely different movie, but then one more bizarrely beautiful shot comes along to top it. In fact, one key sequence is lit only by a neon sign outside her apartment and while she and Sweeney gab, the scenes goes from too bright to pitch black at infrequent intervals, adding weight where the dialogue just drifts away.

Oswald does what he can under the confines of both Hollywood censorship and the limitations of the script. Yolanda’s fetishistic erotic bondage dance is as close to steamy as he’s allowed to get and Ekberg ups the temperature as best she can. A brief scene set in “Gypsy”’s apartment reveals that she shares space with a sullen little beatnik girl and their relationship is alluded to surprisingly blatantly. Lesbianism, fetishism and eroticism were all set in big type on the Hays Code no-no list, of course, but Oswald manages to get the points across.

It’s not even that Screaming Mimi is a bad movie, just that it’s out of its time. Had it been made ten years earlier, it would have been considered a shocking and violent thriller ahead of its time. Five years later and it would have been seen as an effective pre-cursor to Psycho (and, indeed, at least one has told me that he considers the shower attack scene a possible inspiration to Hitchcock, though it’s difficult to see how). Twenty years later and it would have garnered not only some knowing cred as evocative of the post-war attitudes of the ‘40s but would have fit nicely amidst the influx of German mysteries and Italian giallos. But in 1958, it was neither shocking nor visionary. Just another discardable B picture.

Oswald went on to be a television staple, directing episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Outer Limits and Brown’s source novel would continue to inspire and thrill the up-and-coming directors in the later years. It was particularly influential on a young director named Dario Argento eager to make his own giallo debut with a movie he called Bird with the Crystal Plumage, who took the ideas of subverted identity and post-hypnotic suggestion to a slightly more ambitious level.

None of which is to say that Screaming Mimi is a waste of time, of course. It is, however, as you’re wont to find in this column, difficult to find. Unavailable on VHS or DVD, your best bet is to keep an eye on TCM or FMC for late-night re-runs. It’s worth watching just for those dark and elaborate sequences of exciting dread.
And, of course, the book should be purchased too. Because, dammit, it’s just good writing.

(On an unrelated note, Brown came up with titles like no other, some of my personal favorite being Thirty Corpses Every Thursday, The Wench is Dead, and Nightmares and Geezenstacks.)

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