Bill’s Bizarre Bijou Listens to THE SCREAMING MIMI (1958)
Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
By William D. Carl
This Week’s Feature Presentation:
THE SCREAMING MIMI (1958)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!
What do you get when you take a respectable novel by a legendary writer, mix in a beautiful ex-Miss Sweden, and the world’s best known stripper (and musical theater role-of-a-lifetime)? Go ahead and toss in the director of A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956) and numerous OUTER LIMIT episodes and the guy who penned the screenplay for FROGS (1972). You get THE SCREAMING MIMI (1958), a whacked-out, nearly adults-only movie that skirts exploitation while titillating audiences with copious teasing moments.
Statuesque Anita Ekberg (ARTISTS AND MODELS, 1955 and KILLER NUN, 1979) stars as Virginia Wilson, an exotic dancer from New Orleans who is introduced to us taking a shower on the beach. Va-va-voom! Rusty, her dog, keeps barking at the bushes until he is killed by a madman with a huge knife who has escaped from an asylum. As Virginia fights him off while he tries to rape her, her stepbrother shoots him dead with his shotgun! She goes mad and is admitted to the Highland Mental Health Hospital. She believes that she killed her attacker. What an opening! That’s the first four minutes, folks!
Through therapy, she gets better (or does she? Duh-duh-DUHHHH). Even in the mental institution, she’s incredibly beautiful, and her psychiatrist falls in love with her, and the feeling is mutual. “Please don’t leave me,” she begs, claiming she’ll do anything he says.
Meanwhile, her stepbrother, Charlie Weston (Romney Brent – THE VIRGIN QUEEN, 1958 and TO HELL WITH HITLER, 1940) teaches sculpture in New Orleans.
Virginia gets a job at a nightclub, El Madhouse, as Yolanda Lange! The hostess of the club, Joanie, is none other than Gypsy Rose Lee, world famous stripper and the eponymous basis for the musical GYPSY. Faster than you can sing, ‘Let me entertain you,’ we are in the nightclub and the Red Norvo Trio (oddly enough, actually a quartet) play jazz while the bartender yodels bad opera. The waiters dance like the Nicholas Brothers. Playing the hostess, Gypsy Rose—I mean Joanie—tells a customer to “Drink up! My rent is due!” She glad-hands the room before introducing Yolanda, who does an exceptionally erotic dance for the late Fifties, involving two ropes hanging from the ceiling. It’s like Circus of the Stars with more bump and grind. The crowd goes wild, which makes me wonder how strong their drinks were.
Joanie runs across the room to greet a journalist she knows, Bill Sweeney, played by Phillip Carey who was also in I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI (1951) and a longtime regular on (the soap opera) ONE LIFE TO LIVE. He congratulates her on not getting raided yet. Joanie tells him Yolanda is the greatest thing ever in nightclub history (whhaaaat?), and she introduces them. They meet cute in her dressing room where she’s bought a new dog, a huge beast named Devil.
Bill interviews her thusly:
Bill Sweeney: How tall are you, Yolanda?
Virginia WIlson (aka Yolanda Lange): With heels or without?
Bill Sweeney: With anyone. Me, for instance.
Suave, Bill, very suave.
He discovers a twisted sculpture by her dresser, a woman contorted in pain, mouth open wide in terror. She introduces her manager, Mr. Green, her ex-psychiatrist! He’s played by Harry Townes, a veteran TV actor with more than 150 shows under his belt. After the press leaves, he shoves Yolanda/Virginia and tells her she must always do what he says, no matter what, no questions. He yells at her about having the sculpture; he’s told her to destroy it. He wants her to make enough money so they can go to Europe, so no more men stare lewdly at her, so he can be a doctor again. She is completely under his spell.
Cut to later that night—Yolanda is discovered in a state of shock, stabbed in the side and stomach, protected by her fiercely loyal Great Dane (“A great dame with a Great Dane,” one man calls her). Bill gets her to the hospital, but something is bothering him, so he does what anyone would do—he takes a trip to the newspaper morgue. Searching through old copy, he finds a story about another exotic dancer who was murdered a few months ago, and she was found with the exact same sculpture next to her when her body was discovered. Hmmm…
While Mr. Green and Yolanda continue diving deeper into their toxic relationship, Bill tracks down the sculptor who created the Screaming Mimis, and it is none other than Virginia/Yolanda’s stepbrother. He based the art figurines on Virginia when he rescued her, screaming, naked in the beach shower. He insists the sculptures are a kind of therapy for him, but he was always sad that Virginia died in that hospital. It appears Dr. Green and Virginia lied to him to get her out of the asylum and out of the country.
When Bill returns to New Orleans, he is seduced by Yolanda, despite the eternal interference of Dr. Green, who appears more fixated than ever on his former patient. Will Yolanda run off with Bill and leave the obsessed psychiatrist? Who killed the first dancer and attempted to murder Yolanda? What is the connection of the Screaming Mimi statues? It all comes to a head in a twist ending you’ll catch if you’ve watched carefully. Don’t expect me to tell you who did it!
Mention must be made of the exquisite camerawork by the fabulous Burnett Guffey, who shot many great classics, such as FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962), THE INFORMER (1935), and Hitchcock’s brilliant and underrated FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940). The winner of two Oscars, Guffey brings a really brilliant look to THE SCREAMING MIMI. There’s a terrific seduction scene in a hotel with a blinking sign outside the window. The room is lit only by the buzzing neon, and when it goes dark, it goes dark for a daringly long time, tightening the tension. Is someone kissing someone or killing someone? You actually find yourself squinting to see. Also, Anita Ekberg is shot in a sort of halo-like light throughout the film, especially that long golden hair of hers, which could be a character itself. It takes a somewhat pedestrian script and raises it to a whole other level.
The acting is uniformly fine. Ekberg, no great actress, is quite good in this, although she seems to be in shock or catatonic through most of the feature (probably a good move on the director’s part), but it’s Harry Townes as Mr. Green who impresses the most. He oozes sexual frustration and twisted morality. Every line in his face is etched there by this woman he needs to protect, needs to own. Hell, even Gypsy Rose Lee is fine. She seems to be having a grand old time smoking and playing cards and insulting everyone. She does sing an entire song in the movie at one point, and she proves she should stick to dancing and stripping. The song, ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ is dreadful anyway, but with her off key mumbling, she should have been booed off the stage. She does know how to work that fringe dress when she starts dancing, though! Interestingly enough, Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a novel, a thriller called THE G-STRING MURDERS in 1941, which was turned into a movie, LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943) starring Barbara Stanwyck! Life does indeed imitate art.
Plus, if that great musical score sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the classic music from ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) by Leonard Bernstein! Yes, sometimes even the most famous scores were recycled as library music by the studios, and THE SCREAMING MIMItook full advantage.
THE SCREAMING MIMI is a fun mystery that somehow straddles the line between the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s and the Italian giallo of the 1970s. It contains all the femme fatales, the luckless people pulled into bad situations, the shadowy streets and hotel rooms of the film noirs while exploiting the sordid sexuality and twisted psychology of the films of the giallo genre.
I give THE SCREAMING MIMI three beach showers out of four.