Série noire (7)

By: Alix Lambert
October 14, 2016

One in a series of posts, by Alix Lambert, filmmaker and author of Crime: A Series of Extraordinary Interviews Exposing the World of Crime — Real and Imagined (2008), about eight crime movies that blew her mind as a young adult.

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THE BAD SEED (1956), directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Early film depictions of little girls tended to adhere to the questionable wisdom of a nursery rythme, representing them as creatures created from sugar and spice and everything nice. In Depression-era America, Shirley Temple, with her golden ringlets of hair, was the most famous little girl on the big screen.

In 1956, The Bad Seed offered filmgoing audiences a depiction of a little girl murderer. Patty McCormick played the part of Rhoda, an 8-year-old girl who is also blonde and wears pressed, spotless dresses, but who quickly comes across as sinister. Her name is short for Rhododendron, a plant that is sometimes poisonous.

Rhoda is angry that her classmate, Claude Daigle, has won the penmanship medal. When Claude drowns at a school picnic, Rhoda’s mother, Christine, talks to Rhoda about the drowning, worried that her daughter might have been traumatized by the experience. Rhoda responds, “I thought it was exciting. Can I have a peanut-butter sandwich?”

Daigle’s mother, Hortence (Eileen Heckart), comes to talk to Christine. Heckert is wonderful playing drunk grief: “It’s a pleasure to stay drunk when your little boy’s been killed.” She is all raw emotion and unbalanced movement.

Christine finds it increasingly difficult to believe that her daughter is made of everything nice.

The film, adapted from a play of the same title, revolves around the nature/nurture question. Do we inherit traits genetically or are we products of our environment? Christine has always suspected that she might have been adopted. When she learns this to be true, and further that her biological mother was a serial killer, she fears that Rhoda is genetically predisposed to be a killer.

“I’m afraid for her. Afraid of what she might have inherited from me.”

LeRoy the caretaker also has his suspicions about Rhoda. He was never taken in by her perfect little girl routine. When he finds evidence that [SPOILER ALERT] she did, in fact, murder Claude Daigle, Rhoda sets Leroy on fire while he sleeps, killing him as well. Christine can no longer pretend.

This is where the film version parts ways from the play. The Motion Picture Production Code, a morality check list of what could and couldn’t be depicted on film, was still being enforced. The code instructed, “that special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:” Number 11 on the list: “sympathy for criminals”

Of course, deciding who the arbiters of “good taste” ought to be is just as problematic as implying the genetic inheritance of killer instincts. Those bigger issues aside, it also meant the ending had to be changed. In the play, Christine kills herself and Rhoda lives on — to presumably kill again. In the film version, Christine lives, and Rhoda — in a deus ex machina plot device — is struck by lightning.

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SÉRIE NOIRE SERIES: The Chalk Garden (1964) | I Confess (1952) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) | Wanda (1970) | Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) | The Bad Seed (1956) | Joe (1970).

MORE ALIX LAMBERT at HILOBROW: SÉRIE NOIRE series | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: The Skies Belong To Us | HERMENAUTIC TAROT: The Eye Floater | MORE: including HILO HERO items on Patty Wagstaff, Nelson George, William Kentridge, Angela Davis, and Vito Acconci.

MOVIES at HILOBROW: Joanne McNeil’s ALL MY STARS series | James Parker’s BOURNE VARIATIONS series | Alix Lambert’s SÉRIE NOIRE series | Jacob Mikanowski’s SCREEN TIME series | Josh Glenn’s SHOCKING BLOCKING series | MORE: including dozens of HILO HERO items on movie directors and actors.

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Movies, Read-outs