Friday, November 4, 2011

Movie vs. Book: The Screaming Mimi


I think I’m going to create a new category for movies: the Don’t Care level. Currently there’s good and bad, with the two occasionally drifting back and forth between the two. But, especially after starting this column, I think the Don’t Care category falls somewhere both between good and bad and far separate from either. If I do create that, SCREAMING MIMI (1958) will fit in there.

We open with Anita Ekberg lying in a bed inside a mental hospital. Her Virginia Wilson is there after witnessing a horrific crime. Within five minutes her psychiatrist has fallen in love and become controlling and obsessive. Yet he gives her permission to a-return to stripping and b-get a dog. While performing her act (as Yolanda Lange. No surprise there, as many strippers change their name for performances) a reporter by the name of Bill Sweeney also falls in love with her. Soon, people connected to Virginia/Yolanda turn up dead, all somehow connected to sculptures of a Screaming Mimi. Is it Yolanda/Virginia, her shrink, or someone else? Honestly, even by the time we get to the big reveal at the end, I didn’t care.

The big fault lies with Ekberg’s performance. She mixed up playing insane with not playing anything period. There really wasn’t a performance to critique—she sleepwalked through the entire movie. Even during her stripping performances, Ekberg looked like she was about to fall asleep. The director didn’t seem to care, as he filled up as much screen time as he could with her, and more often than not, in her underwear. I guess if I was attracted to her that would make things more interesting for me, but as a heterosexual female, watching her lumber around in lingerie just made me want to fall asleep.

There were some fine performances. Philip Carrey as Sweeney appeared genuine in both his curiosity about the mysterious stripper and concern for her safety. Harry Townes was interesting to watch as the psychotic psychiatrist. Gypsy Rose Lee played the owner of the strip club, and she was both witty and fun to watch. However, her role was incidental to the movie and totally unnecessary. Hell, Virginia/Yolanda’s dog was more of a pleasure to view. But because so much of the movie rests on Ekberg’s shoulders, her lackluster performance did nothing to raise the excitement level of the flick.

The end reveal is obvious from the first scene. It was so obvious that I thought it had to be a red herring, and the resolutions my mind came up with were the most entertaining part of the movie. Alas, no, none of them came to fruition. The director, Gerd Oswald, who had previously brought us great noir movies like A KISS BEFORE DYING, seemed more interested in Ekberg and her skivvies than he was in crafting a suspenseful, interesting movie. And that’s a damn shame, because the basic story seemed like it could have made for a fun flick. Instead, all we’re left for is the cinematic equivalent of a wall poster of Anita Ekberg. That’s fine if you want little more than to stare at her for near two hours. For the rest of us, though, we’re better off forgetting the movie was ever made and just reading the damned book.


BOOK: THE SCREAMING MIMI by Fredric Brown (1949)

When Fredric Brown was at his best, his writing was musical. He could capture the cadence of a natural storyteller's voice as well as anyone and his word choices would range from poetic to common with an ease that would prevent a reader from being jarred from the story. He could conjure believable characters that generated and maintained interest. He could play in dark territories as believably as anyone in the mystery field, despite earning most of his initial fame as a science fiction and fantasy author who would also write weird... i.e., horror... fiction.
The Screaming Mimi is Brown at his best. It follows the trail of a reporter who, after seeing a beautiful stabbing victim, dedicates the few days of vacation he has left to identify her attacker. Along the way we are treated to glimpses of Chicago's underbelly. The mystery is character driven, and because of this Brown spends time ensuring that all of his characters are believable, their motives reasonable and their actions rational.

The book isn't only interesting, it's also fun. An example can be found on the first page, from the omniscient narrator: "(I)t isn't a nice story. It's got murder in it, and women and liquor and gambling and even prevarication. There's murder before the story proper starts, and murder after it ends; the actual story begins with a naked woman and ends with one, which is a good opening and a good ending, but everything between isn't nice." It sets the tone of the book and the statement is completely accurate, but there's also a playfulness evident which serves to highlight the fundamental decency of the protagonist against the darkness of his situation. Unlike many novelists Brown wasn't content to create a sharply crafted story or an entertaining narrative. He demanded both, and he succeeded here.
I enthusiastically recommend this book.

Five stars out of five.