The Screaming Mimi (1958)

Cottonwood Films restored version of the Anita Ekberg vehicle

I’m not sure why I never got around to seeing this until now — I blame No Context Noir for posting screenshots. I have had the Frederic Brown novel in a glorious paperback that I paid too much for to Hal the Bookie (RIP) because he could be so persuasive and because it was supposed to be the basis of Dario Argento’s first film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) though without credit.

The very edition I have with this lurid pulp illo

The restoration is lovely in the technical sense: crisp. What’s wrong with this film can’t be helped by restoration unless some spare footage was found. I don’t think the careers of Gene Havlick and Jerome Thoms suggest they would have been responsible for the ham-fisted, head-scratching cut of the movie. Maybe director Gerd Oswald was having a tough time. There’s such a disconnect between actors within scenes, with the timing, with matching cuts: it has such a disjointed feel. Admittedly, the narrative is a bit disjointed: a lot of things going on behind the apparent events that are pretty transparent for a modern audience but in 1958 might have seemed more mysterious. I will have to finally crack open that delicate paperback and see how much comes from the novel. You will be unsurprised to learn that there is very little recognisable in its giallo cousin (except maybe fractured story telling).

Anita Ekberg, whom I mostly knew as a punchline for sexist jokes, is actually quite sympathetic in the role of the tortured dancer. She’s traumatised by an attack at the start of the film by a ‘maniac’ (helpfully wearing a branded sanitarium boiler suit so we know that) who kills her dog and is bent on stabbing her when her step-brother shoots him. But it’s too much for her and she ends up in the same institution. There’s a hint of earlier trauma being uncovered, but that’s all it ever is.

The interesting part where it begins to get really noir is that her shrink is immediately smitten and pursues all the hell no, exploitive, inappropriate dinners-in-your-bungalow with vulnerable patient moments. So he decides to spirit her away, disguise their names, erase her memory (because that won’t come back in some awful way for this traumatised woman) and put her to work in ‘Gypsy’ Rose Lee’s club, Le Madhouse. No, really.

As the images above demonstrate, the club is a weird mix of noirish jazz provided by the real Red Norvo and his marimba, with a performance of a key noir classic choon by Lee, and um…surreal burlesque for a rapt audience of women. Ekberg’s manacles and silhouette and odd choreography make you wonder if this is supposed to be therapeutic somehow — but for whom?

Of course there’s a (would-be) serial killer, a suspicious newspaper dude who also falls for Ekberg, who gets suspicious about her ‘manager’ — and plenty of shadowy dark streets and glaring streetlights to provide noir ambience that just doesn’t quit. It’s an interesting watch — don’t let me sound too much like I’m slagging it off. But maybe I will finally read that novel to see if it has a more coherent narrative.