Saturday, June 25, 2011

#110: The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956)

What will you give me for a basket of kisses?
Why, I'll give you a basket of hugs.

Just try getting that dialogue out of your head after watching The Bad Seed. The question is spoken in a child's cloying faux-sincere sing-song by blond, pig-tailed Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack), an eight-year-old girl. One of her parents, usually her father, provides the answer. Rhoda does everything right. She gets good grades, is well behaved, knows just what to say to win over most adults. But she's a little too perfect, too calculating. And when she doesn't get her way, she kills without remorse. She has no conscience. She's a sugary, pigtailed, blackhearted little ball of pure evil. And her mother is starting to realize it.

This campy yet emotionally affecting 1956 gem skillfully blends dark comedy, horror, and melodrama and, rare for its time, provides multiple complex roles for its mostly female cast. Not a "woman's picture," in the parlance of the times, but a movie about several women and their interactions with each other. Besides evil little Rhoda, the movie introduces us to her warm-hearted, loving mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), coming to the realization that her precious little girl is a horrible monster, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden), their landlord and doting family friend who is obsessed with true crime and psychoanalysis, Hortense Daigle (Eileen Heckart), the mother of one of Rhoda's victims who has turned to booze in the absence of her son, and Claudia Fern (Joan Croydon), Rhoda's teacher, who is harboring some dark suspicions of Rhoda herself while suppressing those same suspicions. The men in the cast are minor supporting players, used to further the plot or supply brief bits of character actor color, with the exception of Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup, an oddball handyman who has an adversarial relationship with Rhoda. Jones is a good actor, but he struggles with a terrible Southern accent here, though his body language and facial expressions sometimes make up for it.

The Bad Seed started life as a novel by William March, which was quickly adapted into a successful Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson. The film followed with that same Broadway cast, after initial plans to feature Rosalind Russell as the mother fell through. The film has a sedentary, stagy quality common in films adapted from plays, and the film's action is largely confined to the Penmarks' apartment in long scenes of dialogue. Despite this stage-bound quality, the film succeeds as a film, for a number of reasons. The 1950s was a great decade for beautiful black and white cinematography, and this film is gorgeously lit and shot by Harold Rosson, whose resume includes Docks of New York, The Wizard of Oz, and Singin' in the Rain. Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy's direction is subtle but visually distinct. He knows when to pull in for a close-up and when to pull back to see everyone in the room at once for maximum emotional impact. He moves the camera rarely, but when he does, it packs a punch. The cast, so comfortable in the roles already, do amazing things with body language, facial expression, and movement. Just seeing what they do with their hands and feet is an acting lesson. These people are living these characters. I don't know what they were like on stage, but they clearly perform for the screen here. Nobody overperforms for the back row. Everything is natural and tightly controlled.

The Bad Seed
begins with Christine's husband preparing to leave for Washington, D.C. He's a colonel and has to advise some important people, but that's not important. He needs to be gone for the plot, so he leaves. Christine gets lots of alone time with Rhoda, though Monica drops in often to spoil the girl. Rhoda is her smiling, insincere self until Monica mentions the penmanship contest in which Rhoda came in second to that Daigle boy. Rhoda flips the fuck out into white-hot rage and says that medal is hers. A few days later, at the school picnic, the Daigle boy mysteriously drowns and his penmanship medal goes missing. When Christine finds the medal among Rhoda's things, she begins to realize that her daughter is not just a spoiled liar, she's also a cold-hearted snake. (Look into her eyes.) She begins to wonder about a suspicious death at the last apartment they lived in, and things get pretty damn dramatic after that.

If you're the kind of horror fan who wants to see the shit go down, you may be disappointed. All scenes of physical violence occur offscreen. The horror in this film is of the emotional and psychological variety. Words, suggestions, facial expressions. That's where the horror happens here. Patty McCormack as little Rhoda is perfect in this movie. She really makes you believe she's the embodiment of evil. It's a hilarious, genius performance. How could a kid be that good? With every twirl of her pigtail, every scowl, every smile, every movement of her hands, she's a composed little devil. I love it. Eileen Heckart is also particularly good as the drunken mother of the dead Daigle boy. Despite some dated debate about heredity vs. environment (apparently, it had to be all one way or all the other way), the film holds up nicely. The black comedy and horror elements are pitched in the right tone, and though the film threatens to explode into hysterical melodrama near the climax, it manages to keep everything together.

Oh yeah. The ending. The Broadway play ended on a much darker note, which I won't reveal. Unfortunately, the Motion Picture Production Code, the arbiter of inconsistent and contradictory movie morality at the time, had a confusingly worded rule: "Crime shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and order." The studio forced a new ending on the film, which would have dulled the impact of the preceding two hours if they hadn't come up with the hilariously apocalyptic fuck you happy ending that makes a mockery of forced happy endings. You want it to end like this, they ask. Well, get ready for it to end like this times a billion, followed by a goofy joke. Evil is punished in spectacularly silly fashion. I recommend this movie.

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