Every once in a while a psychological thriller comes along that is every bit as delusional and confused as its most disturbed character and that is certainly the case with Screaming Mimi (1958). Whether intentional or not, the movie abandons logic and the intricately plotted pleasure of a good whodunit to run amok in a nocturnal fantasy world populated by bohemians, strippers, sexual deviants and psychopaths.
Amid the endless string of red herrings and outlandish suspects is a final denouement that is beyond absurd. But don’t let that deter you from seeing this flamboyantly unhinged B-movie based on the pulp novel by Fredric Brown; it later served as the uncredited inspiration for Dario Argento’s 1970 giallo, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Screaming Mimi is also an unusually baroque entry in the filmography of Germany born director Gerd Oswald whose Hollywood career was relatively undistinguished with the exception of the 1956 thriller A Kiss Before Dying.
From the opening frames of the film in which a bizarre figurine of a shrieking woman is superimposed over the credits, Screaming Mimi establishes itself as a movie for fetishists and voyeurs, an observation that is reinforced by our first sighting of the voluptuous blonde heroine, Virginia Wilson (Anita Ekberg), emerging from the surf after a swim. In a matter of minutes, the idyllic beginning with Virginia and her dog returning to a rustic seaside cottage is shattered by the arrival of a knife-welding psycho, an escapee from a road gang. He butchers her dog and then tries to slice and dice the hysterical Virginia in her outdoor shower until her half-brother Charlie (Romney Brent) comes to the rescue and shoots the assailant dead.
The experience leaves Virginia in a state of traumatic shock and she is sent to the Highland Sanitarium to recover. Once there she falls under the Svengali-like influence of Dr. Greenwood (Harry Townes), whose interest in Virginia extends beyond the purely professional. (We can tell by the way he spies on her in her private cell and his obsessive need to control her: “Do you trust me? Would you do anything I say?”).
After Virginia is released from the sanitarium, she moves to the city where she assumes a new identity as Yolanda Lange, an exotic dancer at the “El Madhouse” nightclub run by “Your Favorite Hostess Joann Masters,” as advertised by the billboard outside the entrance. Accompanied by her guard dog, a Great Dane named Devil, and her new manager, the former Dr. Greenwood, Yolanda quickly becomes the talk of the town with her provocative nightclub act, a suggestive interpretive dance with S&M overtones involving chains and two dangling ropes as props.
Virginia soon takes a turn for the worst when she is attacked and wounded by an unknown assailant who could be the same mad slasher that recently murdered another exotic dancer. To tell you any more would spoil the ensuing insanity which involves a hardboiled newspaper reporter (Philip Carey) smitten by Yolanda, a sculptor of disturbing figurines, and an antique dealer who sells the creepy artifacts which become clues to the killer at large.
Anita Ekberg, of course, is the real showcase in Screaming Mimi and she is at the peak of her beauty, her body impervious to the laws of gravity. She would go on to establish herself as an international sex siren in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) two years later but here she is required to alternate between hysterics and a shock treatment-like daze, muttering dialogue like “You’re not my doctor, you haven’t got a white coat.” In what is probably the most bizarre scene in the movie, we observe her specialty act which is intercut with mute reaction shots of the hipster nightclub patrons (including same-sex couples) and one astonishing close-up of her Great Dane who appears to be licking his chops over her erotic moves.
As Ekberg’s would-be rescuer and seducer, Philip Carey projects just the right amount of sleaziness and cynicism for a newspaperman who gets his best news tips in after-hours bars. He was a regular staple in crime melodramas of the fifties, usually playing morally ambiguous cops or leering mashers, and later became a series regular on the TV soap opera One Life to Live (1988-2007).
[Spoilers ahead!] Harry Townes also lends his sinister presence to the proceedings before being pushed to his death through a glass window by Ekberg’s dog! Townes was a prolific television actor from the ’50s through the ’70s appearing in everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents! to Magnum P.I.. What most people don’t know is that Townes went to seminary school in the ’70s and became an Episcopal priest, though he would still occasionally accept acting gigs up until 1988 when he retired.
The real scene-stealer in Screaming Mimi is famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee as the ball-busting lesbian proprietor of “El Madhouse.” Her performance has a schizophrenic quality that ping-pongs from fake cheer as she harasses her customers – “Drink up Barney, you’re on an expense account. My rent is due!” – to shameless self-promotion – “Popped in to see my new cupcake? I tell you Bill, she is the greatest thing in the history of night club entertainment!” Whether she is striding into the room, slinging her arms, or angrily chomping on a piece of celery, Lee is hard to ignore.
At the time of the film, she was 47 years old and she brings a touch of high class professionalism to her solo number, “Put the Blame on Mame,” in which her twirling furs and shimmy-shake dress look rather old-fashioned compared to Ekberg’s outre dance number. There is also a brief, surprising moment – and possibly an in-joke – in which Lee is seen stroking the bald head of a seated patron who remains unseen, proclaiming to all, “Isn’t that a beautiful specimen? I built a career on heads like that.” From the back the man looks like director Otto Preminger, with whom Lee had an affair that produced a son, Erik. Unlike other B-movie thrillers of its era, Screaming Mimi is a genuine oddity which revels in the kinky detail and seems a much purer reflection of its pulp fiction origins than most low-budget thrillers. One reason for this is the striking chiaroscuro-like cinematography of Burnett Guffey which brings a painter’s eye to the visual clichés of the genre. For example, in one scene, a flashing neon sign outside Yolanda’s bedroom reveals Yolanda and Bill, in almost subliminal flickers, as they embrace on the bed while an outside streetlight illuminates Devil, Yolanda’s guard dog, sleeping on the floor beside them.
Guffey, of course, was not your typical B-movie cinematographer and chalked up four Oscar nominations over the course of his career for From Here to Eternity , Birdman of Alcatraz , King Rat  and Bonnie and Clyde . Screaming Mimi is also not the sort of film that is usually associated with producers Harry Joe Brown and Robert Fellows. Brown is best known for his successful collaboration with Randolph Scott on a series of low-budget Westerns for Columbia Pictures. Screaming Mimi was made between Decision at Sundown  and Buchanan Rides Alone .
Fellows, on the other hand, was a frequent collaborator with John Wayne and together they produced seven movies together including the 1954 box office hit The High and the Mighty and the William Wellman Western, Track of the Cat . Screaming Mimi represented an odd detour for both producers and was barely noticed at all by moviegoers since it was consigned to the bottom of double bills and released on the grindhouse and drive-in circuits.
One final note: The nightclub musical interludes in Screaming Mimi feature the Red Norvo Trio, which provides the appropriately cool cat ambience worthy of “El Madhouse” and also reflects the influence of the West Coast jazz scene that was emerging in San Francisco and Los Angeles at the time. Red Norvo was a xylophone specialist whose music followed in the tradition of Lionel Hampton and Adrian Rollini. During the fifties when this movie was made, he often led a drumless trio, appearing with such jazz legends as Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus.Screaming Mimi was released as a DVD-R in March 2011 by Sony Pictures Choice Collection (a no-frills, manufactured on demand edition) which is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format. The image is clean and crisp and probably your only option for an analog version unless some distributor decides to release a Blu-Ray version.
*This is an updated and revised version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website. Other websites of interest:
Why would anyone bother to write a detailed consideration of this film without reading the Fredric Brown source novel (which clearly was NOT done)? You say yourself that the film is “a much purer reflection of its pulp fiction origins than most low-budget thrillers”, but how can you know that without familiarizing yourself with the novel? – which in any case is very far from pulp, but instead is a quite literary performance.
You’re right. I haven’t read Fredric Brown’s novel and I should have been more specific when I said “a much purer reflection of its pulp fiction origins.” What I meant was the film seemed like a purer reflection of the kind of pulp fiction archetypes that were featured on the paperback novel covers of Brown, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson and others who were once lumped into the pulp fiction category. I think many of these writers today like Brown and the others mentioned are considered influential figures in American literature regardless of the genre.
Although I understand that this is a cinema blog, I do encourage you to read Brown’s novel; it is fascinating, and presents very specific challenges to anyone who would try to adapt it. It channels some pulpy energy, true, but it is not pulp, while someone like Woolrich (even at his best) is always pulp.
I will admit that I am touchy on this topic of adaptations; I had a battle royale with a critic who wrote an examination of Hitchcock’s Sabotage without consulting Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. He insisted that any film is a completely independent work that does not require reference to its source materials. I believe, and told him, that this is daft.
OK, you’ve convinced me to read Brown’s novel. Do you recommend any others by him?
That is a good one to start. He wrote science fiction as well as mysteries, but I have not read the science fiction.
Thanks. I’ll start with that. I’m curious about his science fiction so I might try one of those too.
There is no woman in the world as beautiful as Anita Ekberg